All Join In: A HyperHistory of American Choral Music

All Join In: A HyperHistory of American Choral Music

You might undoubtedly relate to the story of meeting someone at a reception or party and swapping the typical information-gathering questions: “What do you do? I’m a musician. Oh, that’s interesting. So, what do you play?” Which is actually a hard question for some of us to answer. When asked, I reply, “people.” Which usually elicits a shake of the head by the questioner and grunt of “huh?” But the truth is, a choral conductor’s instrument is just that—people. Ours is a living, breathing instrument whose individual voices make up that collective entity called a choir. This very human instrument comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, with repertoire as varied as the ensembles themselves.


The size of a chorus often determines the repertoire, not unlike the difference between instrumental works written for a string quartet vs. those composed for a symphony orchestra. The largest choral ensembles are symphonic choirs, with between 90 and 200 singers. Their repertoire predominantly consists of larger choral-orchestral works such as symphonies with chorus (Beethoven’s 9th, Mahler’s 2nd and 8th), dramatic oratorios (Mendelssohn‘s Elijah, Handel‘s Saul or Messiah), sacred works on the mass text (Bach’s B Minor Mass, Beethoven’s Mass in C or Missa Solemnis, Haydn or Mozart masses) or the requiem text (Berlioz, Verdi, Brahms, Britten), or secular texted works such as Orff‘s Carmina Burana.

Most “community”choirs or academic “concert choirs”number roughly between 35 and 60 singers. Their repertoire may include works with chamber orchestra, small groups of instruments, piano, or organ. They may also explore unaccompanied choral repertoire, often in divisi or multiple voicings.

The designation “chamber choir” is usually applied to ensembles of between 12 and 30 singers. Theirs is often the equivalent of string quartet literature. Many specialize in a certain style, historical period, genre,or type of repertoire.


The most prevalent type of choir is a mixed voice ensemble consisting of sopranos, altos, tenors,and basses. But other types of choirs with specialized voicings draw upon a composer’s skills in particular ways. Single gender choirs (adult women or men, girl choirs, boy choirs) have longstanding traditional, historic repertoire but have also often been adventurous in commissioning new works. Another special type of chorus is the children’s choir consisting of girls and boys (unchanged) treble voices. The children’s choir movement in the U.S. has grown tremendously over the past decade, performing and commissioning unique and challenging repertoire.

Another large group of choral ensembles are those who sing for religious services, in particular Christian church choirs. Covering a wide array of denominations and traditions—from “high church” Episcopalian with its British-influenced tradition of men and boy choirs, to large Southern Baptist choirs with church orchestras, unaccompanied Mennonite choirs, Methodist or Presbyterian volunteer choirs accompanied by piano or organ, African-American gospel ensembles, and Hispanic folk-influenced groups—these choirs all sing sacred works of a surprising variety of styles.

The past few decades of choral singing in the U.S. has seen a tremendous increase in both men’s and women’s choruses. The men’s glee club tradition, dating back to the 1700’s and New England’s Ivy League academic singing clubs, has evolved and broadened to include a number of smaller high-level ensembles, some of which are fully professional. The growth of women’s choruses in North America has increased dramatically in just the past 10-12 years. Not only has the Canadian ensemble Elektra set the standard for women’s choruses, but all-female ensembles in the U.S. have grown in number and artistry. Many composers are writing specifically for women’s voices, or for various festivals of women’s choirs, or for guild-sponsored women’s honor choirs. (For further information, there is a detailed article by Mary Lycan.)

Among community choral organizations, GALA Choruses, the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses, Inc., is the world’s only association committed to serving the LGBT choral movement. Formed in 1982 by 14 choruses, it has continued to grow, with a current membership of 200-plus choruses and 10,000 singers. GALA Choruses fosters the artistic and organizational development of member choruses through a wide variety of programs and services, producing choral festivals, educational conferences, and publications. In addition, they engage in advocacy; provide grants for the commissioning of new choral works; facilitate networking among members; and serve as a resource center for choruses and individual members.

Children’s choirs have experienced perhaps the most dramatic growth during the past decade. Established ensembles have stretched their creative edges and brought newer ensembles into developing strong artistic reputations toward commissioning and adventuresome programming of original works for children’s chorus.

While many choirs program multicultural music, some choral ensembles specialize in music from a certain geographical or ethnic background. As standard repertoire expands to include works from international and ethnically-based composers, groups which specialize in a given type of music serve as references and resources for both composers and conducting colleagues.

The list below, while certainly not exhaustive, cites a few recognized choirs in each typology of choral ensemble. Most have websites and recordings, which can be of great interest and information to a choral composer.


St. Olaf Choir Anton Armstrong
Concordia College René Clausen
Westminster Choir College Joseph Flummerfelt
Luther College Weston Noble
Florida State André Thomas, Rodney Eichenberger
San Jose State Charlene Archibeque


MN Chorale Kathy Romey
Pacific Chorale John Alexander
San Francisco Symphony Chorus Vance George
Atlanta Symphony Chorus Norman Mackenzie
Cleveland Orchestra Chorus Robert Porco

Professional or Semi-Professional
(fully paid or with a core of paid singers)

Dale Warland Singers Dale Warland
VocalEssence Philip Brunelle
Kansas City Chorale Charles Bruffy
Chanticleer Joseph Jennings
Melodious Accord Alice Parker


Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus Emily Ellsworth
Indianapolis Children’s Choir Henry Leck
Children’s Chorus of Washington Joan Gregoryk
Syracuse Children’s Chorus Barbara Tagg
American Boychoir James Litton
Young People’s Chorus of NYC Francisco Núñez


Peninsula Women’s Chorus Karen Robinson
Wheaton College Women’s Chorale Mary Hopper
San Francisco Girls Chorus Elizabeth Avakian
Manitou Singers of St. Olaf College Sigrid Johnson


Male Ensemble Northwest
Michigan State Men’s Glee Club
Morehouse Glee Club


Denver Women’s Chorus
New Wave Singers of Baltimore
New York City Gay Men’s Chorus
Out Loud Chorus (Ithaca NY)
The Tampa Bay Women’s Chorus
The Turtle Creek Chorale (Dallas TX)
Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus
Windy City Gay Chorus (Chicago IL)

Church / Sacred

St. Charles Borromeo (CA) Paul Salamunovich
Bryn Mawr Presbyterian (PA) Jeffrey Brillhart
Mt. Olive Lutheran (MN) David Cherwien
Cathedral of St. Philip (GA) Bruce Neswick


Sweet Honey(DC) female African-American
Moses Hogan Singers (LA) mixed African-American
Albert McNeal Jubilee Singers (CA) mixed African-American
Coral Cantigas (DC) Hispanic
Savae Vocal Ensemble (TX) Hispanic
HaZamir (NYC) Jewish
Grapevine Mission Choirs (GA) Korean

For a comprehensive list of choirs, see and click on the choir websites link. Approximately 3500 choirs and their websites are listed here. Links to other online choral directories are also given.

From All Join In: A HyperHistory of American Choral Music
By Marian Dolan
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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