All Join In: A HyperHistory of American Choral Music

All Join In: A HyperHistory of American Choral Music

  1. Concert Sacred vs. Worship Service Sacred
  2. Lectionary
  3. Christian Year
  4. Denominational examples – composers/publishers
  5. Christian Texts
  6. Jewish Choral Music
  7. Choral Music in Other Faiths

Sacred choral music spans a breadth from concert masses and oratorios to high liturgical services and gospel revivals. Musical styles run the gamut—spirituals, folk-style hymns, multi-part anthems with brass ensemble, gospel choruses with Hammond organ and piano, to historic works by the great classical masters. In the midst of this extraordinary diversity of style and venue, one important statistic compels our attention and the composer’s ear: four times more singers participate in church choirs every week than sing in professional or voluntary community ensembles. Is it any wonder, then, that the appetite for church choral music encompasses a literal musical smorgasbord? Simply stated, for many, there exists a deep-seated need to join together with others and lift voice in communal songs of worship. Perhaps that’s why 76% of choral singers belong to a church, mosque, or synagogue.


1. Concert Sacred vs. Worship Service Sacred

The composer who ventures into the field of sacred choral composition will want to consider certain performance parameters—is the work to be sung in a liturgical service by a volunteer church choir with limited rehearsal time, or will the work be part of a sacred concert sung either by a church choir during a non-liturgical time or by a community ensemble as part of a public concert series? Some sacred choral works might be sung in both of the abovementioned settings—by an academic, professional, or community choir Saturday night as well as by the choir of a specific church on a given Sunday morning. Other types of sacred choral works, however, are written specifically for the local church choir and its volunteer membership, with an understanding of a specific denominational liturgy, as well as consideration for the time constraints of preparing music for each week’s worship service.

The core of traditional sacred choral repertoire is often considered to reside in the works of the great classical masters. Some of the best-known sacred works from 17th-19th century composers are those larger pieces based on sacred texts or narratives and scored for chorus and orchestra. Some pieces were written specifically for use in a liturgical service (the Fauré Requiem, Bach’s cantatas, Mozart’s masses). Other pieces were originally composed for concert use (Handel’s oratorios, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Verdi’s Requiem, Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem). While still others, like Bach’s monumental B Minor Mass, were written at the internal impetus of the composer.

Today, American composers continue to write for sacred concert performance. Stephen PaulusThree Hermits, commissioned by House of Hope Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, MN, is a one-hour staged church opera for soloists, choir, and chamber orchestra. The anthem “Pilgrims’ Hymn” extracted from the closing section of the opera, which has sold over 30,000 copies, is also suitable for use in a worship liturgy. John Harbison‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flight into Egypt, scored for soloists, choir, and orchestra, is a major American work in oratorio form. Equally compelling are the larger sacred works of Libby Larsen: Missa Gaia / Mass for the Earth (soprano solo, SATB choir, SSA choir (opt.), oboe, strings, 4-hand piano), Canticle of Mary (ssa, four-hand piano) to the Magnificat text, or Canticle of the Sun (treble voices, finger cymbals, synthesizer, and organ) to texts by St. Francis of Assisi. In a completely different style are Duke Ellington‘s Sacred Concerts scored for four soloists, SATB choir, narrator, jazz band, and dancers. These large forms of sacred music, so popular in past centuries, continue to be commissioned and written by American composers today.

For liturgical choirs, that is ensembles which sing during a service of Christian worship, a choir’s repertoire depends upon a myriad of elements some of which are musical, some liturgical. The selection of repertoire is in many ways primarily determined by the parameters of the choral “instrument”—the size of the choir, its vocal experience, the balance of voices in each part, and the experience of the conductor. How does this choir then fit into the worship service? Where? With what music? A given denomination or even a specific church may have its own liturgical-musical traditions: processing while singing the opening hymn, chanting the psalms, singing in Latin/never singing in anything but English, singing a benediction, singing a call to worship but congregationally speaking a benediction, etc. Some denominations value unaccompanied choral music while others consider the chorus/organ combination as the ideal.

The pattern of the worship service itself also influences the music. One liturgy might expect a choral anthem as a separate reflective moment in the service; another liturgy would have an anthem presented during the collection of the offering. Some traditions serve communion every week and therefore need suitable music. Other traditions serve communion only once a month or once a quarter. Seasonal changes in the liturgy also affect music selection. The type of choral music sung during a reflective and stark Maundy Thursday service would be the opposite of what might be sung three days later at the joyous Easter Sunday service of resurrection. Lastly, the shape of the sanctuary space may also strongly influence musical choices, for example, a sanctuary with balconies may lend itself to the use of antiphonal music.

Within the sphere of English-language services, a composer might do well to consider whether he or she would compose for the portions of a service which involve congregation and choir (hymns, psalm responses, prayer responses) or those portions which are for the choir alone (anthems, an introit to open the service or a benediction to close it).

Increasingly, language and cultural idioms are playing an important role in church music, especially with the ever-growing number of ethnic worship services in the U.S., where the predominant language, both spoken and sung, might be Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Swahili, Swedish, Lithuanian, or a Native American dialect. Add language and culture into the mix of abovementioned elements and one can easily see how the corpus of pieces written for the modern day church choir is simply staggering. Thousands of choral anthems—most typically for mixed choir, between 2 and 5 minutes in length, and accompanied by organ or piano—are published each year in the U.S. Composers and choral conductors alike can feel overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of repertoire choices. Even more challenging, if sacred liturgical music is new to you as a composer, where do you even begin?

2. Lectionary

One excellent starting point is the Lectionary, a collection of readings, spanning an entire year. Many Christian denominations use this standard set of weekly scripture readings. Each worship service has four readings from the Bible: 1. Old Testament; 2. a psalm; 3. a reading from one of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John); and 4. another New Testament reading. Most major Christian denominations encourage their pastors and worship planners to use the Lectionary to organize the scripture readings within the format of the worship service. The Lectionary is organized into three yearly cycles of readings, Year A, B, and C. While the entire bible cannot be included in this cycle, major portions of it are. (See the Lectionary sites at Vanderbilt or Text This Week; for background, see RCL or click here.)

The lectionary readings are an excellent source of musical texts for a composer. One can easily see what specific texts will be used not only for a given week but also over the course of the three cycles. For example, Psalm 6 is not used at all but Psalm 138 is used in years A, B and C. A good deal of Isaiah is used but only one reading from Esther or Nehemiah. Creating a choral setting of a Lectionary-based text makes good sense in terms of both artistic and publication viability.

3. Christian Year

In addition to the Lectionary, knowledge of the Y is also an indispensable tool for the church music composer. The Christian “calendar” is a bit different from either the yearly calendar which runs from January to December, or the school calendar which runs from August / September until May / June. The Christian calendar covers the “seasons” of the church year in a specific cycle of feasts, holidays, and rites.

  • Advent/Christmas/Epiphany
  • Lent/Holy Week/Easter/Pentacost
  • Ordinary Time/Trinity/Christ the King

Although a number of print and online resources explaining the Christian Year are available to composers, a brief outline of these important celebrations may begin to stir some creative musical imaginings! Composers might consider writing a fresh setting of a traditional hymn tune mentioned below or composing a new work based on one of the scripture readings or on an image associated with that particular celebration.

Advent: The Christian calendar begins with the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle, which celebrates the coming of Christ. This cycle is rich in melody and imagery. Advent usually begins on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving (late November or early December) and runs for four Sundays. Musical imagery is that of hope and expectation. Advent is a time of waiting for the first advent, but also a time of reflecting on the second coming of Christ at the end of time. Advent reveals the tension of time—the “in-betweenness” of what is and what is to come.

One of the great musical traditions of this time is the festival of Lessons and Carols as exemplified in the King’s College Chapel service from Cambridge, England, but which is very popular in the U.S. during Advent-Christmas. The pattern of the service is a sequence of scripture readings, prayers, and choral/congregational song both

traditional and new. Composers can write fresh arrangements of traditional carols or hymns for this type of service. This “lessons and carols” structure can also be adapted to fit the “O Antiphons,” a set of medieval readings originally used in conjunction with the

singing of the Magnificat, but which are still in common use today.

Christmas: Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ. Many congregations celebrate Christmas with services during the evening of December 24th in addition to Christmas Day.

Epiphany: This feast denoting the arrival of the Three Wise Men was traditionally celebrated on January 6th. Epiphany marks the end of the Advent-Christmas cycle’s celebration of the incarnation. The first Sunday following Epiphany is usually a celebration of the baptism of Jesus and continues for four to nine Sundays ending with the celebration of Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah. Themes of the interim weeks celebrate the life and work of Jesus.

Lent: This season represents the preparation time for those who will be baptized into the church on Easter. Lent beings on Ash Wednesday with a service of penitence and atonement. The reading of Psalm 51 is central to the confession of sin. During the forty days of Lent the community continues to engage in a time of personal reflection and confession. Music for this time includes prayers for mercy (Kyrie eleison, Ps.22, Ps. 51) and guidance. Alleluias are not sung during Lent yet the hymn repertoire in particular is especially rich—from the American folk hymns What Wondrous Love, Beneath the Cross of Jesus and Lord, and Throughout These Forty Days, plus the many Reformation chorale melodies such as Jesu Meines Lebens Leben or Christe du Lamm Gottes.

Palm Sunday: This service celebrates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and the beginning of his passion. Palm Sunday often beings with it a processional including waved palm branches with welcoming and triumphant cries of “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” and the singing of such hymns as Hosanna Loud Hosanna, Ride On! Ride on in Majesty! or All Glory, Laud and Honor.

Since this service also marks the beginning of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, the passion narrative from one of the Gospels is read, therefore the music of the second part of this service is quite different from the opening. Here we sing hymns with images of the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) or which mirror the emotions of fear, betrayal, despair, guilt, and pain.

Holy Week—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday: These are the culminating days of the Christian drama of salvation. The Thursday service is usually done at tenebrae or in the shadows of evening. The Suffering Servant narrative from Isaiah 52-53 is read, a footwashing, symbolic of Jesus servanthood, is done, the altar is stripped of its vessels and linens as a metaphor for Jesus’ humiliation by the soldiers, and candles are extinguished, symbolic of Christ’s betrayal and pending death. Friday brings the crucifixion of Jesus, so the image of the cross in visuals and music predominates. Passion narratives are spoken or sung. Many great settings of the highly dramatic passion narratives have been composed not only by Bach, Schütz, or Victoria but also in contemporary settings by Sofia Gubaidulina, Arvo Pärt, Trond Kverno, Krzysztof Penderecki as well as Americans John Bertalot, Lucien Deiss, and John Ferguson. Another set of passion texts suitable for chorus is the “Seven Last Words” which was set in the 17th century by Schütz, the 18th century by Haydn, and in the 20th century by American Daniel Pinkham.

Easter Sunday: Triumphant alleluias, royal trumpets, and the blazing glory of white and gold adorn this celebration of life over death. Churches often hire brass ensembles and program festive pieces for the choir as well as the congregation sung throughout the service.

The Great Fifty Days/Pentecost: This season marks the 40 days between Christ’s resurrection and his ascension to heaven, and then 10 more days until the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is a time of celebrating appearances by the risen Christ present in the midst of God’s people. Music is filled with praise, joy, and profession of faith. Music for Pentecost is full of Spirit images: Come, Holy Spirit; O Day Full of Grace; Komm Heiliger Geist; or the medieval chant Veni Creator Spiritus. This repertoire has been more recently enriched by the emergence of international music such as that from Taizé or from various African worship traditions.

Trinity—Ordinary Time—Christ the King: Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost, marks the occasion for celebrating the triune God (God, Christ, Spirit). Trinity images abound visually, and music also describes this unique triune mystery. The weeks following Trinity cover some nearly half of the year from mid-June through the end of November. According to the Revised Common Lectionary, great portions of the scriptures are read, studied, or preached during this time. Music, both for choir and for congregation, has a larger breadth of freedom in its design depending upon what scriptures are emphasized in the service. Towards the end of this season, around November 1, a church may celebrate All Saints Day, which commemorates those baptized believers both living and dead. Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the Christian year, celebrates the sovereignty of Christ, and leads back into Advent and the start of the cycle again. Some strongly popular hymns connect to this day but are often used during the year: Rejoice, the Lord is King; Crown Him with Many Crowns; Jesus Shall Reign; or All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.

A working understanding of both the Christian Year and the use of the Lectionary tremendously empowers a choral composer interested in writing for church choir.

The composer has great creative freedom to write works that have clear connection to services and their texts.

4. Denominational examples – composers/publishers

While it would be impossible to give a comprehensive list of church choir composers and their works, it might be helpful for potential composers in this idiom to have a launching point for writing such music. Within the ever-growing circle of Roman Catholic composers, the works of Marty Haugen, David Haas, Richard Proulx, and Michael Joncas (GIA and OCP publishers) are popular. It is also significant to note here that because of the enormous growth of the Hispanic population in the U.S., many of whom are Catholic by tradition, there has also been a large increase in works written specifically for these congregations by Hispanic-American composers. These works often reflect indigenous folk styles, performance practices, and dance-related rhythms of their cultures.

Because of its connection to Anglican traditions from Britain, the music for Episcopal services often reflects English influence. While many Episcopal church choirs in the U.S. are mixed voice ensembles, other choirs reflect the Anglican tradition of men and boy singers such as at the famed St. Thomas Church in New York City led by Dr. Gerre Hancock. (For more information, see the Association of Anglican Musicians.)

Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, UCC, Mennonite, Baptist, or other similar reform tradition composers’ works are the modern-day incarnations of western European musical roots. Hal Hopson, John Ferguson, Alice Parker, and David Cherwien represent but a small portion of thousands of American composers who regularly write and publish anthems for Sunday singing. Representative church music publishers include Augsburg-Fortress, Chorister’s Guild, Concordia, GIA, MorningStar, Paraclete Press, and Selah. Larger choral publishers such as Oxford, Warner, Hinshaw, Alliance, Presser, and Hal Leonard have specific series for church compositions within their broader catalogue.

The growth of independent and non-denominational congregations has spurred the popularity of “contemporary Christian” musical idioms. While much of this music is lead by small groups of musicians called “praise teams” and is more popular in style and instrumentation (electric keyboards, percussion, guitars), there is a significant body of choral arrangements which mirror this contemporary “pop” styling. Many works are scored for mixed choir and orchestra while other “praise” pieces are arranged for MIDI-based instruments and voices. Representative composers can be found at some of the following publishers’ sites: Word, Maranatha, Integrity, and Brentwood-Benson.

Yet another body of sacred choral music encompasses that which is particular to certain African-American worship traditions. While any number of African-American churches may use any of the choral works mentioned above, there are also composers and publishers who represent black gospel traditions such as Byron Smith or Richard Smallwood.

5. Texts

The historic Latin texts, particularly those of the mass, requiem, and psalms, inform choral singing and composition to a large extent. Historically, many of these texts were used for centuries. Latin was the liturgical language. The birth of the reformed traditions and subsequent growth of their musical expressions beginning in the late 16th century, and the switch to vernacular by the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-20th century led to a huge growth in non-Latin sacred texts.

In the traditional Latin mass, the text of some sections remains the same from mass to mass (Ordinary). Other sections change texts depending on the time of year, that day’s feast or celebration, or even the time of day the mass occurs (Proper).

Ordinary: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, Agnus/Dona
Proper: Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Tract, Sequence, Offertory, Communion

The Latin requiem mass has, for centuries, been a mainstay of composers. Many settings were written on commission or for a specific person who has recently died (Mozart). Some settings are very simple and include congregational responses, others are highly elaborate requiring full orchestra, chorus and soloists (Verdi).Yet others depart from the traditional Latin text and use a text in the vernacular (Brahms, Schütz).

While variations on this list do occur, the main parts of the traditional Latin requiem mass are:

Introit: Requiem aeternam/Eternal rest grant them
Kyrie: Kyrie/Lord Have Mercy
Tract: Absolve, Domine/Absolve, O Lord
Sequence: Dies irae/Day of Wrath
Offertory: Domine Jesu Christe/Lord Jesus Christ
Sanctus: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus/Holy, Holy, Holy
Benedictus: Benedictus/Blessed is the One
Agnus Dei: Agnus Dei/Lamb of God
Communion: Lux aeterna/May eternal light shine
Responsory: Libera me, Domine/Deliver me, O Lord
Antiphon: In paradisum/To paradise


Within the choral canon are many settings of shorter liturgical texts in Latin such as the Ave Maria, the Magnificat, verses from the Song of Solomon, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Stabat Mater, Te Deum, Ave verum corpus, Ave maris stella, O Magnum mysterium, and O vos omnes.

Psalms, whether in English or in Latin, remain a mainstay of standard choral literature. Some are easily recognized by their Latin titles (e.g. Cantate Domino = Ps. 95; Dixit dominus = Ps. 109, Jubilate Deo = Ps. 99).

Other texts by historic figures play strongly into many sacred choral works. The mystical writings and chants of Hildegard of Bingen (12th century), St. Francis of Assisi (12th-13th centuries), Julian of Norwich (14th century), St. Teresa of Ávila (16th century), Gerald Manley Hopkins (19th century). So also do the sacred works of contemporary poets such as Emily Dickinson, Shirley Erena Murray, Mary Oliver, May Sarton, Stevie Smith, and Susan Palo Cherwien.

6. Jewish Choral Music

While the majority of sacred choral music in this country is used in services of Christian denominations, choral singing has been an important part of Jewish liturgical services in America as well.

There is an article by Cantor Elihu Feldman summarizing the history of choral music in synagogue services. While another article by Ben Steinberg, provides an excellent hands-on background in how to connect music to specific services and how to start a choir at a synagogue.

For additional resources see the Union of American Hebrew CongregationsResource Page on Synagogue Music as well as their worship music guidelines for small congregations. Transcontinental Music also provides an extensive webliography of Jewish Music Resources.

7. Choral Music in Other Faiths

Of course, music and group singing is important to virtually every other faith practiced in America as well. While a detailed guide to choral music in Islam, Buddhism, and other faiths is beyond the scope of this introductory overview, a good place to begin the exploration is the Theology Library website on non Christian religions, which has resource links on all of the world religions.

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

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.