One Hundred Years of A Cappella Choral Music

What IS a cappella music, anyhow?

The term itself is Italian, and means "in the manner of the church," or "in the manner of the chapel." But Google lists many articles which assert that it means “for voices only,” and this is certainly the definition I learned growing up.  Musicologists assumed, based upon what they saw in musical scores from the Renaissance period, that church choirs sang without instrumental accompaniment.  An implied value judgment accompanied this assumption—pure vocal music, unadorned by the sensual colors and textures of instruments, pleased God more than concerted music did.  The college choral program in which I sang, and others like it, accepted this assumption and made the most of it;  choirs travel more easily and inexpensively if a tour’s success does not depend upon the quality of the keyboards in the venues along the way, and if choirs do not have to bring their own instruments and people to play them.

When I came to the University of Chicago as a graduate student, and began singing in Howard Mayer Brown’s motet choir, I discovered that a cappella probably had little or nothing to do with accompaniment; instruments doubled, or even selectively replaced, vocal lines in church music by such great a cappella composers as Josquin, Lasso, Palestrina, and Victoria.  Howard’s early music performance program included viols, recorders, and other, earlier instruments -- even an early organ.  And the performances he organized through the music department, mostly for the benefit of his graduate students and interested antiquarians in the university community, featured these instruments.  I was fascinated by the contribution they made to the overall sound and impact of the Renaissance polyphony we performed.  This was nothing whatsoever like performances of similar repertoire presented by my college choir.

Howard and other musicologists discovered that the developing, retrospective discipline of musicology in nineteenth century Europe, while fostering a renewed interest in Renaissance polyphony, also fostered ignorance of the manner in which this music had originally been performed.  Nineteenth century composers, such as Mendelssohn, Brahms, Reger, and Bruckner, accepted the prevailing belief, and, inspired by the beauty and appeal of the early repertoire, proceeded to compose their own a cappella choral music with the intent that it be performed without instrumental accompaniment. These composers in turn inspired composers throughout Europe and the United States to write in what was actually a new idiom -- an idiom based upon historical misunderstanding.  By the twentieth century we have a new musical genre:  the a cappella choir, performing a cappella music.  Texts, venues, and audience expectations have in many instances left the realm of “church” music, but the term itself persists, denoting simply “for voices only.”

The subgenre of a cappella music which Chorale will present in its spring concerts—settings of sacred Christian texts, sometimes but not necessarily intended for use in worship -- has inspired composers to scale sublime heights, while challenging singers and conductors to develop an ever more exacting degree of technical precision, vocally and chorally.   The twentieth century could almost be termed “the era of the a cappella choir”—many composers made their reputations almost exclusively through composing relatively short pieces for virtuosic choirs, often presented in concerts which would survey the wealth of unaccompanied choral music available to singers and listeners.   I recall concerts featuring twenty-five to thirty different compositions, and almost as many composers. Audiences would sit through an entire evening, with one intermission, listening knowledgeably and appreciatively.   The composers whose music Chorale will perform demand exquisite control of intonation, of vocal color, of verbal diction, rhythmic articulation, and section-wide homogeneity.  Singers not only have to sing well, they have to listen well, agree closely with one another, and embrace a corporate artistic vision.  The personal latitude allowed an opera singer, for instance, is unthinkable in a good choir; expressivity and vocal idiosyncracy must be uniform across the ensemble.  The composers clearly expect no less. Their music is far too difficult to allow for any “freestyle” singing; and it would make little sense to the listener, were harmonic and rhythmic architecture not clearly delineated, and text clearly projected.

Chorale will present music by composers as generally celebrated as Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, and Poulenc, as well as by composers known only to choral afficionados, such as Distler, Howells, Sandström, and Biebl.  We will make reference to a number of different national styles, as well as to a number of distinct religious traditions.  All of the music, however, shares an important commonality:  it is written by composers of great skill and integrity, who work hard to share the very best they have to offer.  We are challenged to do this glorious music justice.