Humans have been singing together since their very earliest times. There is some evidence that early peoples identified themselves to others with sung calls when out hunting. Certainly by the flourishing of the Ancient Greek people, there were hymns sung in unison, and in plays, the ensemble of actors was known as a chorus, and sung its part.

The oldest choral music that survives is from Ancient Greece from many hundreds of years before the year we call 0!

Later, in Europe and the Middle East, religious communities chanted their religious worship, simply at first and then in increasingly elaborate ways; Gregorian chant is readily recognizable as Christian music, and Sufi music (some of the earliest Islamic music for which we have evidence) as Arabic in origin, and both these types of group-singing are still flourishing today.

By what we call medieval times, singers were finding ways of singing different lines of music at the same time, to good effect. In Paris, two composers called Léonin and Pérotin wrote music involving two or more singers singing the same melodic shape at different pitch levels, so that the effect was of a tune and a shadow. It was called ‘organum’. This technique developed over several centuries into the style of music that we call Renaissance ‘polyphony’. You can recognise this from the way the lines weave around each other, like a labyrinth or a shoal of fish: one voice begins with a theme, and another takes it up, and so on, until there is a sort of tapestry of sound. This type of singing made its way out of its original religious homes and into courts and popular life in the form of madrigals. Today, groups of singers singing polyphony quite often do so with one singer on each part, and no conductor: these choirs are known as ‘consorts’. Meanwhile, in Russia, the distinctive sound of Russian Orthodox music was evolving, rich in low basses. Across the world, communities of singers were organizing their voices into textures of high and low sounds.

Church choir. Credit: Karin Eklund

When all the parts being sung move together, we call it ‘homophony’. When they move independently so that the music sounds like a tapestry, or like swimming fish, we call it ‘polyphony’.

England made a particular contribution to polyphonic music and hymn-singing, in which the style of music known as the ‘English choral tradition’ has its roots. English cathedrals and churches have a particularly rich heritage of choral music; its sound is widely recognisable and often sounds very ‘pure’.

Traditionally, English cathedral choirs have comprised professional adult male singers, and highly trained boy choristers educated in schools attached to the cathedrals. This tradition is still very much alive, but in recent years girl choristers have been taking their place in it, too. Many smaller churches participate in a similar style of music-making.

English chamber choir Ishirini performing in Poland

In the 18th century, operas and oratorios (sung dramas on religious subjects) often had choruses, and people enjoyed singing together at home and in groups of the relatively small size that we would now call ‘chamber’ choirs, or in churches in the West Gallery style.

In Germany and the Low Countries, services and religious dramas were punctuated by ‘chorales’ – well-known hymn tunes for everyone to sing. However, it was in the 19th century that choral music had its next great flourishing. In Europe, the development of orchestral composition meant that ‘symphony choruses’ were often called-for. In the British Isles, the Industrial Revolution led to the development of many choral societies as people sang together to promote companionship and fun.

Church choir, courtesy of Karin Eklund

Many of these are still around today, as are many community choirs and circle-singing improvisatory groups formed in the same spirit. One interesting and lovely tradition which has its roots in the coal-mining communities of these times is that of Welsh male-voice choirs, who often make an almost heart-breakingly rich sound.

There are, of course, interesting choral traditions all over the world. Scandinavian and Eastern European folk musics in particular often involve a great deal of harmonic singing, and there are many folk choirs around reflecting this.

‘Sacred harp’ music is nothing to do with harps. It’s a type of traditional hymn-singing originating in New England (in America) and it’s very, very loud!

Of particularly wide influence has been the call-and-response style of singing originating in Africa and called into use by African slaves in America to communicate across plantations.

Barbershop choir. Credit: Karin Eklund

This style of choral singing has led to today’s gospel singing in evangelical churches as well as having enormous input into the singing of jazz choirs, rock choirs, show choirs, and close harmony singing by barbershop groups and glee clubs.

Today, there are many hundreds of types of choir around – religious and non-religious, with and without conductors, and with and without instrumental accompaniment (choirs who sing without instrumental accompaniment are described as singing a cappella).

Signing choirs are choirs of and for deaf people, using sign language often accompanied by vocal sections or instrumentalists.

There are school choirs and other children’s choirs; choirs for older people, choirs for gay people, choirs for deaf people, and many, many more besides.

Some people, such as the composer Eric Whitacre, have been experimenting with internet-based choirs, so that people can be involved in choral music without leaving their homes!


British choir Crouch End Festival Chorus performs a choral jazz work. Credit: Paul Robinson

British choir Crouch End Festival Chorus performs a choral jazz work.

Play Music!

Play Music!

Tallis: Spem in alium

Spem in alium (‘Hope in any other’) has an astonishing 40 individual parts, and the singers are arranged into eight five-part choirs. It’s a monumental declaration of faith and trust in God.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.558770

Orff: Carmina Burana: O Fortuna

This is the opening movement of Carmina burana by Carl Orff, which has been used in many television and radio advertisements because it is so powerful! The words tell how a person’s fate is never certain, and how someone can go from being rich to poor and back again in an instant.

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Chorus; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.570033

Holst: Nunc dimittis

This was first sung on Easter Day in 1915, in Westminster Cathedral. Hear how it builds from the quiet beginning to the joyful finish. These words are often set by composers: they come from the New Testament of the Bible, in the second chapter of Luke: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…’

Performers: Vasari Singers; Jeremy Backhouse

Taken from Naxos 8.572504

Bernstein: West Side Story: America

Bernstein and his lyricist Stephen Sondheim based the musical West Side Story on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, updating the story to 1950s New York. This lively chorus pits two groups of friends against each other, one side singing the praises of their home of Puerto Rico, the other preferring life in the US.

Performers: Marianne Cooke; Robert Dean; Mike Eldred; Betsi Morrison; Michael San Giovanni; Nashville Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Schermerhorn

Taken from Naxos 8.559126

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 A choir that works without a conductor is usually called a:

a. Consort
b. Concert
c. Con artist

 One of the best-known types of non-sacred a cappella singing is known as:

a. Greengrocer
b. Hairdresser
c. Barbershop

 The world-famous Welsh male-voice choral tradition evolved in communities which mined for:

a. Limestone
b. Coal
c. Gold

 One of the most popular and enduring types of choral singing in the Western world is:

a. The spring symphony
b. The autumn opera
c. The Christmas carol

 The oldest and most famous American glee club can be found at the university of

a. Harvard
b. Texas
c. Kansas

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Listen to different choirs – small ones, big ones, children’s ones – singing various kinds of music!

Church and Cathedral Music

Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877–1950)
Evening Hymn

Sung in an English translation here, the words are an ancient Latin hymn to be sung at Compline, the last service of the monastic day, asking for protection from the mysteries of the night. But the music isn’t ancient; it’s high Victorian, and dramatic.

Performers: Halifax Choral Society; Darius Battiwalla, organ; John Pryce-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.553876

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Quatre motets pour le temps de penitence (‘Four Motets for the Season of Lent’), FP 97: No. 2. Vinea mea electa (‘You are my chosen vine’)

Poulenc wrote a set of four motets for Lent, the period in the church year between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. The text of this piece imagines Jesus talking to the people who crucified him, asking why they turned against him.

Performers: Elora Festival Singers; Noel Edison

Taken from Naxos 8.572978

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924)
3 Latin Motets, Op. 38: II. Coelos ascendit hodie (‘Today has gone up into heaven’)

The choir is divided into two groups, and at times it sounds like they are fighting each other to sing, with each group starting to sing before the other one has finished the previous phrase – this is called ‘antiphony’.

Performers: Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge; Christopher Robinson

Taken from Naxos 8.555794

Arvo Pärt (b.1935)
Bogoroditse Djevo (‘Mother of God and Virgin’)

This short piece is a hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary. It is sung in old Church Slavonic, which has been used for religious services in Russia for over a thousand years.

Performers: Elora Singers; Noel Edison

Taken from Naxos 8.570239

Victimae paschali laudes (‘Let Christians offer praises’) (sequentia)

This piece of plainchant – in which all unaccompanied voices are singing exactly the same line – comes from the Gregorian chant for Easter Sunday, and includes the story of Mary Magdalene going to the tomb where Jesus was laid and finding that he was no longer there. The music is thought to have been written by Wipo of Burgundy who lived from 990 to 1050.

Performers: Aurora Surgit; Alessio Randon

Taken from Naxos 8.553697

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op. 41: Glory be to the Father

Much Russian Orthodox church music is characterized by the sound of very low bass singers, one of which you can hear at the start of this track. Orthodox services are still and quiet, during which worshippers stand throughout, and Tchaikovsky’s music captures the intense atmosphere of a Russian Orthodox church.

Performers: Pavlo Mezhulin, bass; Kiev Chamber Choir; Mykola Hobdych

Taken from Naxos 8.553854

Consorts and Chamber Choir

Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land, Op. 18 No. 3

Elgar is perhaps better known for his orchestral music and large choral pieces, but also wrote a lot of smaller-scale pieces, such as this part-song. A woman is remembering her lover and the mysterious land far away where he lived; but it was a long time ago, and he is now dead.

Performers: Cambridge University Chamber Choir; Christopher Robinson

Taken from Naxos 8.570541

John Farmer (1570–1601)
Fair Phyllis

Early English madrigals are quite often frivolous and frothy, and this is a prime example; although the story starts off unhappily, with Phyllis waiting alone wondering where her lover Amintas is, the music remains light-hearted throughout, until Amintas finally arrives. Listen to the precision of the singing, and how the parts all slot together neatly.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.553088

Adriano Banchieri (1568–1634)
Festino nella sera del Giovedì Grasso avanti Cena (‘Entertainment for the Eve of Carnival Thursday before Dinner’), Op. 18: XII. Contrappunto bestiale alla mente

This is a section from a bigger work about a feast taking place in Venice during Carnival season. All sorts of entertainers are represented, and this piece is about singers pretending to be animals – or is it animals pretending to be singers?

Performers: Radio Svizzera Choir, Lugano; Diego Fasolis

Taken from Naxos 8.553785

Hayne van Ghizeghem (c.1445–1476/97)
De tous biens plaine est ma maistresse (‘My mistress has every quality’)

This was one of the most famous songs of its time – it was copied all over Europe after it was first published, and many other composers used it as the basis for new compositions, which was a sign of great respect. A man says that his lady is above all others and full of every virtue – his only wish is to serve her always.

Performers: Ensemble Leones; Marc Lewon

Taken from Naxos 8.573325

Robert Pearsall (1795–1856)
Lay a garland

It sounds like this is a song mourning the death of a woman whom the narrator loved, but in fact the words are from a 17th-century play: they are spoken by a woman about herself, heartbroken when the man she loves is forced to marry someone else. We hear ‘Lay a garland on her hearse’ but in the play she says ‘Lay a garland on my hearse’ (a hearse carries a coffin at a funeral). Listen to how the parts (eight of them) overlap each other slowly, building the harmony and intensity of feeling in this beautiful piece.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.553088

Choral-Orchestral Works

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
Chichester Psalms: I. Psalm 108 vs. 2, Psalm 100

Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms sets psalm texts in Hebrew. Full of Bernstein’s typical rhythmic vitality, this first movement begins with Psalm 108: ‘Awake, psaltery and harp! I will arouse the dawn’ and ends with Psalm 100: ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands’. It’s certainly a joyful noise that Bernstein creates with the choir and orchestra, for whom the work is great fun to perform! This is the first movement of three.

Performers: Elizabeth Franklin-Kitchen, soprano; Victoria Nayler, alto; Jeremy Budd, tenor; Paul Cherrier, bass; Bournemouth Symphony Chorus; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559177

Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38: Part II: But Hark! Upon My Sense Comes a Fierce Hubbub (extract)

Gerontius is a man who has died; he is led through the afterlife to heaven by a guardian angel. On the way, he encounters various groups of spirits, including this crazed group of demons who hurl insults at him.

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Chorus; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; David Hill

Taken from Naxos 8.553885-86

Michael Tippett (1905–1988)
A Child of Our Time: Part II. Go down, Moses

This spiritual (religious song) tells the story of God commanding Moses to lead the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt. Tippett included spirituals in his A Child of Our Time, a choral–orchestral work about the Nazi persecution of the Jewish population in a city in Germany, after a young Jewish refugee killed a German diplomat in 1938. The work laments the oppression of people more generally, and has a strong message of peace and understanding.

Performers: John Cheek, bass; City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Michael Tippett

Taken from Naxos 8.557570

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
Die Jahreszeiten (‘The Seasons’): Der Herbst (‘Autumn’): Chorus of Countrymen and Hunters: Hört das laute Getön (‘Hear, hear the clank and the noise’)

Haydn was inspired to write his oratorio The Seasons after he visited London in the 1790s – there was a big tradition of performing Handel’s famous oratorios there, and when Haydn heard these he was keen to compose his own. The texts that the choir sings were compiled for him and based on the work of a Scottish poet, James Thomson (though the oratorio has the words in German not English). Here is an exciting chorus of hunters from the ‘Autumn’ section that shows Haydn’s skill in writing for all the voice parts.

Performers: GewandhausKammerchor; Leipziger Kammerorchester; Morten Schuldt-Jensen

Taken from Naxos 8.557600-01

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem (‘A German Requiem’), Op. 45: II. Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras (‘For all flesh is as grass’)

When Brahms wrote this work, after the death of his mother, he did not use the traditional Latin Requiem text, but chose Bible passages in his own language, German. Here, the choir sings of how all creatures are no more important than a blade of grass, which lives for a short time and then dies.

Performers: Leipzig MDR Radio Choir; Leipzig MDR Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.572996

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
St Matthew Passion, BWV 244: Part III: No. 68. Chorus: Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (‘We sit down in tears’)

This is the last movement of Bach’s monumental St. Matthew Passion, which tells the story of the betrayal and death of Jesus, and which would have been performed on Good Friday. This chorus encourages the listener to join the mourning and weeping.

Performers: Dresden Chamber Choir; Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.557617-19

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
War Requiem: Dies irae (extract)

Britten was another composer who, like Brahms, took a novel approach to writing a Requiem (a Mass for the dead): he did use the traditional Latin text, but also included poems by Wilfred Owen, who was killed as a young man in World War I, for tenor and bass soloists. Britten was a pacifist – deeply opposed to war and violence – and this work was written for the opening of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, rebuilt after having been destroyed by bombing in World War II. This section deals with the way in which the world and everything in it will be destroyed on the day of judgement. The brass fanfares from the beginning set the scene and the atmosphere, before the choir comes in with ‘Dies irae’ (‘Day of Judgement’), hushed and powerful. Things become more thunderous around 2.10.

Performers: Scottish Festival Chorus; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Martyn Brabbins

Taken from Naxos 8.553558-59

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Messiah, HWV 56 (excerpts)

This is the final section of Handel’s famous oratorio, and it uses the full choir and all the instruments of the orchestra to create a vision of heaven. From a homophonic texture at the beginning – slow and majestic, where all the voices move together, singing the same rhythm – it moves to a polyphonic section (track 1, 1.16) – a fugue, started off by the tenors and basses, in which the four parts are more independent as they sing ‘Blessing and honour, glory and power be unto Him’. The work is rounded off by an ‘Amen’ (track 2) that sounds like it will never come to an end. Listen to the superb drum roll when it finally does!

Performers: Oxford New College Choir; Academy of Ancient Music; Edward Higginbottom

Taken from Naxos 8.570131-32

Opera Choruses

Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
La Traviata: Brindisi: ‘Libiamo, libiamo ne'lieti calici’ (‘Let’s drink, let’s drink from the joyful goblets’)

This is one of the most famous drinking songs in all of opera. Alfredo has fallen in love with the courtesan Violetta, but his father opposes the relationship – with disastrous results at the end of the opera. Here, Alfredo and Violetta lead a rousing chorus in praise of drinking and friendship.

Performers: Monika Krause, soprano (Violetta); Yordy Ramiro, tenor (Alfredo); Slovak Philharmonic Chorus; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.553041

Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
Nabucco: Va, pensiero (‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’)

Verdi lived when modern Italy was being created out of many smaller existing states, and the independence movement had to struggle for many years before it achieved its goal. This chorus, sung by Hebrew slaves in Egypt, became a sort of national anthem for the independence movement, as the words are all about yearning for one’s homeland.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Chorus; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Oliver Dohnányi

Taken from Naxos 8.550241

Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
Madama Butterfly: Act II. Humming Chorus

This tune, hummed by the chorus off stage, is sung in the opera Madama Butterfly between Act II and Act III. Butterfly is waiting with her child and with her maid for her husband to come back to her.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Chorus; CSR Symphony Orchestra, Bratislava; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.553152

Richard Wagner (1813–1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (‘The Mastersingers of Nuremberg’): Wach’ auf! (‘Awake!’)

This chorus comes almost at the end of the opera, once the young Walther has won the hand of Eva in a singing competition; in celebration, the whole town bursts into this song praising German art and music and culture.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Chorus; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.550507

Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643)
L’Orfeo: Lasciate i monti (‘Leave the mountains’)

This chorus takes place on the wedding day of Orfeo and Euridice, but comes before any of the tragic events that form the focus of the story. Here, groups of shepherds and shepherdesses are calling the nymphs of nature to join the wedding day, before singing a hymn to Hymen, the god of marriage. L’Orfeo was written about 250 years before Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg featured above so the sound-worlds are quite different: there are fewer instruments and the singing is lighter in style. Orfeo is considered to be the first great opera ever written.

Performers: San Petronio Cappella Musicale Chorus & Orchestra; Sergio Vartolo

Taken from Naxos 8.554094-95

Children's Choirs

Michael Hurd (1928–2006)
Jonah-Man Jazz

Michael Hurd was an expert in writing music for children to enjoy singing. Jonah-Man Jazz was first performed in 1966. It bounces us through the biblical story of Jonah with jazzy rhythms, and has delighted young singers and their audiences for years. As the composer said: ‘There is no point in approaching the work in any other spirit than the determination to have fun.’

Performers: New London Children’s Choir; New London Orchestra; Ronald Corp

Taken from Naxos 8.572505

Yellow Bird

This Jamaican folksong is popular around the world. The voices are enhanced here by a bit of percussion – maracas and triangle – that you can hear very clearly, as well as a piano.

Performers: Hong Kong Children’s Choir; Leon Tong Shiu Wai

Taken from Naxos 8.001

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Friday Afternoons, Op. 7

Benjamin Britten was a master at writing music for children to sing. This is a collection of 12 songs that was written for the pupils at Clive House School, Prestatyn where his brother was headmaster. They’re called ‘Friday Afternoons’ because that’s when the school used to do class singing! Britten chose to use poetry by the British poet Walter de la Mare, and the words give a springboard for these ‘fresh enchanting songs’, as Britten’s partner Peter Pears called them.

Performers: New London Children’s Choir; Alexander Wells, piano; Ronald Corp

Taken from Naxos 8.553183

Leroy Anderson (1908–1975)
Plink Plank Plunk

This fast and rhythmical song keeps the singers on their toes! Can you hear how sometimes the sounds of the consonants they sing are like percussion?

Performers: Hong Kong Children’s Choir; Leon Tong Shiu Wai

Taken from Naxos 8.001

Tansy Davies (b. 1973)
Oven in the underworld

The piano and the voices here both convey something weird from another world. There is no happy rhythm or easy tune, but a snake-like melody from the singers who all sing the same part (called singing in unison). It is a setting of a macabre poem by Jane Taylor, an English poet born in the 18th century who also wrote the words to ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’.

Performers: New London Children’s Choir; Alexander Wells, piano; Ronald Corp

Taken from Naxos 8.572113

Richard Rodney Bennett (1936–2012)
The Insect World

Here is a set of songs about insects! The British composer Richard Rodney Bennett wrote the words as well as the music; the songs are gentle and brilliantly suited to children’s voices. Listen to the lovely sound they make as they go up to a top note in ‘Glow-worms’ (track 3, 1.08).

Performers: New London Children’s Choir; Alexander Wells, piano; Ronald Corp

Taken from Naxos 8.572113

Howard Skempton (b. 1947)
Alice is One

This brief, rhythmic little song was written by Howard Skempton for a little girl’s first birthday. It imagines all the things Alice might do as she grows up!

Performers: New London Children’s Choir; Alexander Wells, piano; Ronald Corp

Taken from Naxos 8.572113

The Lark in the Clear Air

There are many folksongs from all around the world. Here is one from Ireland, sung by the choir on its own in three parts. The words are about a young man’s plan to tell his love how he feels about her.

Performers: Hong Kong Children’s Choir; Leon Tong Shiu Wai

Taken from Naxos 8.001