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.



What is Classical Music?


One thing that I’m struck by in nearly every conversation about the state of Classical Music, whether online or in real life, is how differently folks define what it is.  Usually that definition is implicit and easily understood in the statements made, and other times it seems like some clarification is needed. A recent conversation on my Facebook page really brought out some of these difficulties in navigating how debates devolve into wondering what the hell everyone is talking about when discussing the state of the field.

While most folks won’t give two bits about what Classical Music denotes, those of us concerned about the future (or event present and past) of the field have some vested interest in delineating the discourse. In some cases, it’s a monetary interest.

As I said in my last comment on that Facebook thread:

There are several definitions of what constitutes “Classical Music” and when most folks talk about its death they usually mean a fairly narrow range of organizations and musicians involved in the scene. For example, while many folks wouldn’t include symphonic film and video game scores as “Classical Music” there are others that do. Depending on whether we include those things, that gives us a very different picture of how much the genre is still very much a part of everyday lives. It’s an issue of perspective and we in the field have differing ideas about that and what might be considered a “Crisis” in the field.

Notice that I qualified film and video game music with “Symphonic.” There are, obviously, tons of scores for both (and here we could include TV show or scores incidental music for Theater) that aren’t Symphonic, or that don’t use what we’d typically refer to as Classical Music instrumentation (in chamber ensemble or solo forms) such as the score by the Boston Cello Quartet for the video game Of Orcs and Men. No one, for example, would claim that the score for Pulp Fiction is a Classical Music score, while on the other hand, the arrangement of the score by my group il Troubadore for a Chicago production of Bard Fiction, could (arguably) be considered Classical.

Even with things we’d typically consider Classical Music we have issues with perspectivization.  For example, in most debates about the “Death of Classical Music” talk invariably turns to the SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets)–and even there most of the focus is on Symphony Orchestras.  All connotations referencing HIP (Historically Informed Performance) ensembles and orchestras, New Music ensembles and orchestras, Chamber Music Groups, Vocal and Instrumental Recitalists, Choral Ensembles and the vast number of freelancers who primarily do special events rarely factor into the discussion. Neither do the thousands of school and University Orchestras, Concert Bands, Choirs and Community Orchestras factor into these discussions.

By focusing solely on the SOBs, claims about the direction or relevancy of Classical Music, as well as the solutions for reversing these trends, bear little relation to the field as a whole. Couple that with the fact that most talk about the Popular Music and Entertainment Industries, which relies on our knowledge of Pop Superstars rather than the vast majority of local band musicians that don’t play for stadium sized crowds nor get the same level of media exposure, we have a recipe for using solutions that work for a small subset of one industry to revitalize another. Of course, as most of the readers of this blog knows, most of those techniques and solutions are no longer working (or never worked in the way we thought) for the Pop Music or Entertainment Industries either, so it’s a moot point.

In other words, by selectively defining the field (e.g. Classical Music), it becomes easier to selectively define its problems (e.g. “in Crisis,” “Dying,” “in Decline”) and the solutions (e.g. Popular Entertainment Industry Models) to those problems.  And if those solutions are borrowed from another selectively defined field….

I believe we all understand what most folks mean when we say Classical Music or Pop Music, but in the end what we’re really talking about are issues of categorization and how we as humans tend to conceptualize things without explicitly defining them (hence why I said these things are implicitly in the definition).  In my blog post about what prototype theory has to say about polyphony and counterpoint, I discussed how a specific connotation or subset of meanings become substituted for a whole and that’s what’s happening here.

In essence, the discourse has been delineated in very specific ways by very specific parties for very specific purposes. In response to this, John Chittum posted a call to arms to show the breadth and diversity of the Classical Music field:

Ok, enough of the anger and vinegar. How about a more productive response.

One of the issues that’s happening is the label “classical music.” What does it mean? In some conversations, people make it mean “orchestras classical series concert.” At other times, it’s the entire area of instrumental music.

“People” outside our “clique” don’t seem to know what it is, or so claim certain pundits. So, let’s be progressive and productive!

If you participate in something you consider “classical music,” be it experimental, fusions with lots of different genres, romantic flavoured, anything at all, hop on twitter (or here), put a tag to something you’re a part of, as a performer, composers, improviser, engineer, whatever.

Put up a link and use the hashtag #IAmClassical

Let’s fight all these accusations and silliness by showing the breadth of what this idea encompasses! There are so many wonderful things happening, so many groups large and small doing GREAT! Let’s show the world!


The world of Classical Music is far more vast than what most of us think and if the health of the field is solely determined by the Cherry-Picked SOB stories (I couldn’t resist), then that says as much, if not more, about who is doing the Cherry-Picking.

The Classical Music Crisis Crisis

Like Ragnarok
Like Ragnarök, the Viking Apocalypse that is supposed to happen on February 22 of this year, the Classical Music Crisis is probably a Myth – a useful story to frighten young musicians with images of Doom and Gloom

Yes, there are two Crises there. This is mainly in reference to a comment that Alex Ross made on twitter and that I’m now using as a hashtag #ClassicalMusicCrisisCrisis

Which was one of several (and some hilarious) comments made in response to the tweet in which Ross posted a link to his piece “The ‘orchestra crisis’ in America is at least 110 years old.

So, as I mentioned in a recent tweet, I must write a “Classical Music Crisis Crisis” Opera.

Because sometimes the best way to combat something is with humor (as you can see from Ross’ twitter discussion above). So, with this the #ClassicalMusicCrisisCrisis hashtag, I will collect select quotes to appropriate for the libretto of this as yet unnamed Opera (taking suggestions for this, btw) as I mentioned in the tweet and on my facebook profile.

So, tweet (or facebook) your favorite inane saying regarding the so-called Death of Classical Music or the Classical Music Crisis and don’t forget to use the #ClassicalMusicCrisisCrisis hashtag so I can find it–and appropriate it for a grand tragic comedic opera about this bizarre prophesy which has yet to pass after well over a hundred years.