Choral Singing before the Era of Recording

By Jerold, Beverly | Musical Times, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Choral Singing before the Era of Recording

Jerold, Beverly, Musical Times

WHEN KING GEORGE II was crowned in 1727, the Archbishop of Canterbury noted in the Order of Service next to George Frideric Handel's My heart is inditing, sung by a choir of 47 voices: 'The anthems in confusion: all irregular in the music."

With no metronome to train musicians in rhythmic accuracy, it is likely that much other choral music experienced the same confusion. Many 18th-century accounts from all over Europe indicate that loud time beating in the form of foot-stamping or stick-pounding was often necessary to hold an ensemble together.' Contrary to what we might think from the quality of the music that has survived, early composers rarely had the luxury of hearing their works performed with what we consider to be good musicianship. According to the music historian Charles Burney (1771): Our Church music is not so bad in itself as ill performed. But till we have music schools under the Direction of men of Taste & Genius [...] our singing must be so barbarous as to ruin the best Compositions of our own or of any Country on the Globe.'3 The beauty of today's singing in cathedral and other major choral groups is of relatively recent origin, for many obstacles faced earlier musicians who laboured to improve performance standards.

One such obstacle was the low level of education for most musicians, as John Brown implies in 1763 when discussing the men of cathedral choirs: 'The Performance of our Cathedral Music is defective: We have no grand established Choirs of Priests, as in FRANCE; whose Dignity of Character might in a proper Degree maintain That of the divine Service. This Duty is chiefly left to a Band of Lay-Singers, whose Rank and Education are not of Weight to preserve their Profession from Contempt.'4 And contempt it was, for members of the upper classes usually disdained entering music as a profession, although they pursued the higher callings of composition and scholarship and donated their performing skills in appropriate situations. John Earle's 1628 commentary reveals that musicians' often rowdy behavior did little to alter the general perception that making music for pay was an inferior station:

The Common singing-men in Cathedral Churches are a bad Society, and yet a Company of good Fellowes, that roare deep in the Quire, deeper in the Taverne [...]. Upon Workydayes they behave themselves at Prayers as at their Pots, for they swallow them downe in an instant. Their Gownes are lac'd commonly with streamings of Ale [...] Long liv'd for the most part they are not, especially the base [bass], they over-flow their banke so oft to drowne the organs. Briefly, if they escape arresting, they dye constantly in Gods Service.5 A roaring sufficient to drown out the organ suggests musical values far removed from our own.

Exertion in choral singing

As literacy and publication increased in the latter half of the 18th century, reports about offensively loud choral singing became more frequent, and indicate that most choral directors knew little about using the voice properly.


In 1791 a journalist was taken aback by the leadership of the Berlin choirs. The bungling of the noblest four-part pieces and the terrible aimless screaming and screeching have been carried so far, he says, that one can no longer endure it. Recently at the Döhnhof Platz on one of the coldest, rawest days, Johann Abraham Peter Schulz's brilliant chorus in D major from Athalia, 'Laut durch die Welten', was transposed a fifth higher into A major. Thus the poor discantists shrieked and screeched up to e''' ('unbelievable!' he exclaims), while the tenors and basses roared with dreadful screams of anguish: 'Can one remain indifferent to the fact that the young people's health is being ruined by such enormous exertion and excess?'6

The extent of the vocal straining can be gauged by Dr Friedrich August Weber's criticism in 1800 of training that leads to coughing blood.7 When he doubts the possibility of converting a chorister into a soloist, it implies loud choral volume: 'Usually the choral voice has more fullness and strength than the solo voice, and the latter more delicacy and flexibility than the former. …

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