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The church choir can be traced back to the establishment of schola cantorum in Rome, probably in the fourth century. It served to train singers in liturgical chant, and from it sprang the papal choir. In time, similar scholae functioned elsewhere, notably in Paris. Until the Renaissance, most adult singers were clerics, and choirs were found normally only in cathedral churches, monastic institutions, and the chapels of the aristocracy.

Luther promoted the continuance of choral foundations. Such institutions as the Thomasschule in Leipzig, under a succession of distinguished musicians-among whom in the eighteenth century was J.S. Bach*-continued to train choristers, and to establish the fame of the Lutheran choral tradition. Calvin restricted music in worship to unison, congregational singing of metrical psalms. Anglican parish churches adopted this custom, but the English Chapel Royal and the cathedrals retained choirs to chant prose psalms and perform anthems, until abolished during the Commonwealth (1649-60). After the Restoration, volunteer parish choirs also sprang up to aid in singing the metrical psalmody. Such groups increasingly added simple anthems to their musical fare, their example being followed in an increasing number of Nonconformist chapels in the eighteenth century.

In America, a parallel development took place, especially in the wake of the singing school movement. Volunteer choirs in both America and Britain proved a social and recreational attraction while contributing to public worship, and sometimes to church controversy. In larger cities, professional quartets were employed in the nineteenth century, adding an element of entertainment rather than devotion. Some Episcopal churches emulated the English cathedral tradition.

Most of the historic choral traditions are represented in America: that of the Moravians continuously from about 1740, and more recently the distinctive a cappella choralism of the Russian Orthodox Church. Important also is the colorful and improvisatory tradition of the Afro-American churches, which increasingly influences many segments of the current choral practice.

L. Ellinwood, The History of American Church Music (1969); R.T. Daniel, The Anthem in New England before 1800 (1966); E.A. Wienandt and R.H. Young, The Anthem in England and America (1970): this work contains an excellent bibliography; C. Dearnley, English Church Music, 1650-1750 (1970).

See also

  • Music; Musical Instruments