Monday, May 26, 2014

Choir? Chorale? Ensemble? What’s in a name?

Many of you know that I avoid using the ‘C’ word: choir. But there other similar terms that I find just as bad: chorus, chorale, chamber choir.

First baptist choir

What’s in a name? What does it tell you about the singing group? Does size matter? Can you have a chorus of four people, or does that become an ensemble? Let’s take a look ...

how many people does it take to make a choir?

Following the 2008 BBC TV series Last Choir Standing, there was a Great Choir Debate. One of the questions was “How many people does it take to make a choir?” You can find the responses on the Last Choir Standing website.

Here are some of them:

  • “At least 10, otherwise it’s a vocal ensemble.”
  • “You need more than one person to a part otherwise it’s just a quartet.”
  • “The National Youth Choir has 130 singers. I’d say it’s a chamber choir, but a big one.”
  • “A dozen people singing together can be a choir.”
  • “As long as you make a sound that’s choral rather than being backing singers, it’s a choir.”

massed choirs and what to call groups of singers

There was another discussion on a similar subject on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row back in 2012 which involved Jeremy Summerly and Suzi Digby talking about extremely large choirs.

Here is a summary of part of what they said.

  • A chamber choir has 20 – 36 singers. If it’s any smaller it becomes a small choir or an ensemble.
  • From 60 to 80+ singers is a chorus.
  • On Last choir Standing the number of singers in choirs ranged from 10 to 50.
  • Three singers is a trio, four a quartet, and so on, eight is an octet, but 10 can be a choir or an ensemble. Yet there might only be seven singers in your local church ‘choir’!
  • The repertoire affects the name. What you call your singing group gives some idea of the kind of music you sing. A ‘choral society’ will have a different repertoire to the local ‘community singers’.
  • Massed choirs are a bit of a manufactured concept. Above a certain size it’s hard to be accurate and co-ordinated. Eric Whitacre’s virtual choirs help to avoid the problems.
  • In the Baltics their tradition of massed choirs helps their music and culture survive.
  • You can sing Matthew’s Passion with one voice per part, but is it a ‘choir’?
  • Can we HEAR the difference between 3,000 singers and 5,000 singers?

what’s in a name?

Here are some of the terms that are used for groups of singers:

  • choir
  • ensemble
  • consort
  • singers
  • chorus
  • choral society
  • chorale
  • vocal ensemble
  • glee club
  • quartet
  • voices
  • singing group
Some groups don’t even bother using any of these terms and call themselves things like Take 6, Kitka or Sweet Honey in the Rock. Whilst other groups subvert the common meaning of the terms, e.g. The Spooky Men’s Chorale or the Tittleshall Ladies Male Voice Choir.

What do you call your singing group? Do you think it makes any difference what you’re called? Does it affect people’s perceptions of what you do?

I’d love to hear your stories. Do share them with us!

Chris Rowbury




Chris Rowbury


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