Choral Music: the “forgotten” Classical Music

An Estonian Choir numbering 30,000 participants performing to an audience of 80,000 at the 25th Estonian Song Festival
An Estonian Choir numbering 30,000 performing to an audience of 80,000 at the 25th Estonian Song Festival

As I was thinking about my “What is Classical Music?” post, I came across this piece from 2010 in the San Francisco Classical Voice which discusses research on Choral Ensembles in the US by Chorus America. In these discussions about Classical Music there tends to be so much singular focus on SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) to the exclusion of smaller ensembles we also forget to include the last large organization, Choirs, in the mix.

Chorus America claims that

42.6 million people in the U.S. sing in more than 270,000 choruses today. That’s an incredibly high number, based on questionable survey methods and it creates such unlikely scenarios as 157.7-member average vocal groups. But the point is clear and obvious: Choral singing is wildly popular.

“Data collected by Chorus America show that an overwhelming number of people regularly sing in more than one chorus at a time,” says Ann Meier Baker, president and CEO of the service organization based in Washington, D.C. “It really becomes a way of life for this staggering number of people. And since most choral singers started singing as children and continue to sing throughout their lives, this way of life truly lasts a lifetime.”

The US population as of the 2010 Census was 308,745,538 which means that (if the numbers are to be believed) nearly 1 in 7 people regularly sing in ensembles which regularly perform Classical Music. Not knowing the distribution of choruses we can still see that with 270,000 choruses that would be an average of 5400 per state.

The League of American Orchestras estimates that there are a little over 1800 Orchestras in the US.  In other words, there are three times as many choruses per state than the total number of Orchestras in the US. If this doesn’t show how absurd it is to focus on one small subset of US Classical Music and call for its death based solely on how that subset is doing, then I don’t know what is.

And there are some wonderful contemporary gems in the repertoire.  I remember in music school that I had a cassette of Dominick Argento’s setting of Wallace Stevens (one of my favorite poets) “Peter Quince at the Clavier” (the B side is Argento’s “Odi et Ami”) and often spent late nights into the early mornings keeping this on the rotating listening list with Bartok and Late Beethoven String Quartets, and several recordings of The Rite of Spring. Here’s number IV: “Beauty is Momentary in the Mind” from the Stevens’ setting.

At some point I would love to perform John Tavener’s ”Svyati” for Cello and Choir.

Are all these vocalists and ensembles singing classical music. Of course not, I imagine there are a number of glee clubs and church choirs doing worship repertoire (which classical instrumentalists often do as well since these are often frequent freelancing opportunites). But, to reiterate, talking about an how an art form is dying by focusing on the health of one small subset of the art form is disingenuous at best, and just downright dishonest and misleading.

As Andy Doe, in his bashing of the recent Slate piece by Mark Vanhoenacker, states

Either his position is “Almost nobody does classical music therefore it is dead” which seems like a straw man, but is actually what he wrote, or “Classical music is in such rapid decline that it will soon disappear” which is not what he wrote, but it’s a stronger argument.

To disprove the first, we just show that the number of people doing it is not insignificant.

To disprove the second, we illustrate that the things in great peril are not classical music, but some of the institutions around it.

And that’s precisely what I’ve done above. Choral music isn’t forgotten so much as it is ignored in that wider debate about Classical Music. With these kinds of numbers, one has to wonder why Crisis folks choose to ignore it.

Of course, it’s still debatable whether that subset of Classical Music, the SOBs, is really in crisis.




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