All Join In: A HyperHistory of American Choral Music



Marian Dolan

In a recent interview on American choral music, conductor Kathy Romey pointed out that "our choral heritage reflects a kaleidoscope of cultural and religious backgrounds, which has given rise to an exciting melting pot of individual and blended musical voices. ‘American’ choral music can be considered from two geographical perspectives—within the United States and within North America, which would include the work of composers from Canada, the United States, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. In either context, ‘distinctly American’ choral music is highly varied, flexible, and ever-changing. It might be a Shaker hymn, Native American chant, Moravian anthem, African American spiritual, Jewish Shabbat service, Appalachian lullaby, Civil War song, Mexican salsa, Gospel mass, Asian art song, Broadway musical, Blues, cowboy ballad, or European folk song. All of this and more is part of our collective culture—a rich and diverse tradition of many peoples, who express themselves in a myriad of musical styles and genres."

Add to this mixture the astounding fact that 1 in 10 American adults sings weekly in a chorus, according to a recent National Endowment for the Arts study. Chorus America, one of our leading guilds, released its own study showing that choral singing is America’s participatory art form of choice. There are some 250,000 American choruses of which 12,000 are professional or community ensembles, 38,000 are school choruses, and 200,000 are church choirs. Survey respondents overwhelmingly reported that "their choral participation inspired them to improve a range of skills useful in their social and professional interactions, including teambuilding, listening and following, creativity, social interaction, and discipline." The report goes on to say that these skills are "not only beneficial to the individual, but to others … and to society as a whole."

With all this activity, there is an enormous amount of opportunities for American composers. There have been many important role models and listening to some of this repertoire is a good place to start for inspiration. Another area to become familiar with are the various sacred texts that are used in Christian and other services, which constitute almost three quarters of choral activity in this country. Once inspired, you might then wish to find out more information about specific choirs through the numerous choral guilds and related organizations. A brief summary of recent choral commissions and current commissioning programs should provide even greater fuel!

To quote an old song, "how can I keep from singing?"

Inner Pages:

  • Choral Ensembles—Types, Voicings, Etc.
  • American Choral Composers
  • Recordings of American Choral Music
  • Approaching Sacred Choral Music
  • Choral and Related Guilds
  • Choral Commissions and Commissioning Programs

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