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The Anglican Choral Tradition

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For many people, the quintessential Church of England choral experience is that of standing around in a cold building and mumbling. This is a shame because there is a rich tradition of inspiring, beautiful music which is as old as the Anglican Church itself. It's just that none of it appears to have been designed to require an actual congregation1; a defining feature of the tradition is that it depends on having a small but highly trained bunch of musicians to do most of the singing.

Church services augmented by a choral contingent follow the same format as their unsung counterparts, but with sections of the liturgy strategically set to music2. Sometimes the choir provides harmony, with the melody to be provided by the congregation, but very often only choristers get to sing. Opinion is divided as to the purpose of the choir. Some believe that singing adds a valuable dimension to the spiritual experience of worship. St Augustine is often quoted as saying that anyone 'who sings, prays twice'. Others feel that the choir simply find church services provide a great excuse to sing lots of fabulous music, and that they have a tendency to equate 'service' with 'performance', and 'congregation' with 'audience'.

The Musicians

The Choir

A typical choir can number anywhere from three to 30 people, depending on who manages to get themselves out of bed on any given Sunday morning3, but the ideal size seems to be somewhere from 20 to 25.

Choir members, or choristers, sing in a particular 'voice' according to their natural vocal pitch and range. Choristers are often referred to by their voice and each voice sings a particular 'part' in the music - every voice gets its own notes to sing, eg 'I sing the tenor part'. There are four such voices widely used today in Anglican choral music.

NameRoleRequirementsThe Reality
BassThe lowest part in any choir, usually the harmonic underpinning.Able to sing from the E almost two octaves below middle C to E above middle C. Most 'basses' are actually just baritones who can't sing high enough to be tenors. Typical useful range is the A an octave and a bit below middle C up to middle C.

The higher of the two adult male4 non-falsetto voices. Often gets to 'hold' the plainsong line ('tenor' derives from tenere, Latin for 'to hold'). Tenors also get spare notes in the harmony.

Able to sing from the A an octave and a bit below middle C up to B above middle C. Most tenors are actually just baritones who can't sing low enough to be basses. Typical useful range is an octave below middle C to E above middle C.

Either a falsetto male voice, or the lower of the two female voices (ignoring the odd female tenor).

They usually get nothing but left-over notes in the harmony.

Able to sing from the F below middle C to two octaves higher.

Male altos (aka countertenors) sound really scary if you're not used to it. It takes a certain determination to put up with the comments about the 'funny voice', so most male altos are the ones who got encouraged not to give up, and hence they're usually rather good.

Female altos appear to fall into three categories: the ones that can't sing high enough to be sopranos, the ones that can't sing loud enough to be sopranos, and the ones with a remarkable range and could sing whatever they want, but end up singing alto because you need at least one audible vocalist on that part.

Soprano/TrebleEither the higher of the two female voices (soprano) or a boy's voice (treble). Usually gets to sing the tune.Able to sing from middle C up to two octaves higher.Most start to peter out at round about top G.

Strictly speaking alto is a male voice (usually adult falsetto, as opposed to a relatively low-pitched boy's voice), and the correct name for the equivalent female voice is contralto. However, because male altos are in relatively short supply, the two are nowadays considered more or less interchangeable in many choirs. Most choral music will be marked as SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) but this is not usually interpreted as meaning that the top part must be sung by women (trebles will do) or that the second part must be sung by men (contraltos will do).

So, alto is effectively gender-neutral. The 18th Century term 'countertenor' has been resurrected to mean an unambiguously male alto. However, while most choirs feel as free to put boys on the soprano part as they do to put women on the alto part, the terms soprano and treble, if applied to individual singers, have not lost their respective male and female connotations and there is no handy ambiguous term.

The above is not an exhaustive list of voices used in choral writing. Names for finer distinctions and wider extremes exist, such as baritone, which is between tenor and bass; mezzo soprano, which is between alto and soprano; basso profundo, meaning below bass, and mean which is above soprano. However, these terms have either fallen out of use, or are now only applied to solo parts.

Choirs are typically split into two sections, normally facing each other across the aisle of the church. The two sides are usually referred to as 'dec' and 'can'. This is short for decani, the side on which the Dean sits, and cantoris, the side on which the 'cantor' or 'singer' sits. If you're facing the altar, that's right and left respectively (ie south and north, since the altar is always at the east). Unless you're in Durham Cathedral which, for reasons best known to itself, swaps dec and can around.

This division is sometimes used to support eight part writings which are choral compositions where up to eight notes are sung simultaneously. One side gets to sing four parts, the other gets to sing the other four parts. Usually you have a selection of all four voices on each side. This division is also used to support antiphonal singing which is where one side sings on its own, and then the other sings back at it in a sort of aural tennis match. In some cases the writing is both eight part and antiphonal5. This requires that you have at least two singers of each voice on both sides, and where you end up with just one singer on a single part, he or she can cope.

The Precentor

This title is a mangled version of the Latin for 'first singer'. Many choirs just call this person the 'conductor', but those sticking doggedly to tradition prefer this term. The precentor typically runs the choir, instructs it during rehearsals and conducts during services and performances. Depending on the circumstances of the choir, the precentor may or may not be the same person as the organist.

The Organist

Organists are strange creatures. To control the typical English church organ can require skillful control of three or four 'manuals' (keyboards, with the usual piano layout, but typically shorter), the pedal board (basically a piano keyboard on the floor, only with much bigger keys so you can play it with your feet), a couple of swell pedals (foot-operated volume controls) and an array of 'stops' (switchgear for controlling the nature and volume of the noises the organ makes, either manually or pedal operated) that would put the average jumbo jet flight deck to shame.

The remarkable thing is that they manipulate all of these things concurrently and manage to produce musical noises as a result. Clearly this requires feats of anatomical contortion that would put most people off their dinner, so the organ console in most churches is thoughtfully hidden away in a so-called 'loft'. This way, nobody has to look at the organist. Of course this makes the work of the organist even more arduous as they frequently can't see the conductor from their seat, having to use an arrangement of mirrors just to catch even a vague glimpse of them. Some places are sufficiently flash to have CCTV camera instead of a mirror. This can actually be a worse solution as some cameras work so badly in the low lighting levels found in most English churches that movement comes out as a blur.

Other reasons to respect the organist are:

  • The sound delay between the choir and the organ loft.

  • The fact that on older organs there can be a significant delay between pressing a key and getting any noise out.

  • The expectation that the organist will be able to sight read off a bad photocopy of a full orchestral score which happens to be written in a different key from the one the choir actually want to sing in.

The Services

Choirs can sing in a variety of services, but the two most common ones in the Anglican choral tradition are Evensong and Eucharist. Of these Evensong, which combines the two Roman Catholic offices of Vespers and Compline into one easy to perform service, is perhaps the most strongly associated with choral content. Neither have to be sung; the Eucharist is less often done with the full choral trimmings because this can tend to make the whole affair feel like a show put on by the clergy and the choir. Apparently this puts some people off. The argument with Evensong is that it's a less interactive and more reflective kind of service, so singing led by the choir is appropriate. The reality may be that since nobody actually turns up to Evensong, the choir might as well enjoy itself.

The Music

There are several distinct ways in which music is used throughout a given service. This section describes them in approximately the order in which they appear in Evensong, although some are used at several different stages. It is worth noting that a Eucharist can feature extra musical settings specific to the mass.


The responses are a formal series of exchanges where the 'cantor' (a singer, sometimes the priest) says a particular set phrase and the choir, or occasionally the entire congregation, responds with another set phrase. The responses occur at various points throughout the service (depending on which service you are performing); the start and end being perhaps the favourites.

The Psalm

A striking feature of most Anglican choral services is that of the psalm sung to a chant. A 'psalm' is just a chapter from the Book of Psalms from the Old Testament in the Bible, and many services require that a psalm be recited during the service. They are almost always sung to a 'chant'. This is just a short harmonized melody which is repeated for each 'verse', or sometimes a pair of verses in the psalm. Each verse is typically about as long as a couple of lines of English poetry.

The chants are homophonic6, and are seven bars (or measures) long (or 14 if a single chant is to cover two verses). Each verse is split into two halves, the first three bars of the chant covering the first half, and the remaining four bars covering the second half. The second, fifth and sixth bars have two notes in them, the rest all have one. For those familiar with morse code, this can be expressed more conveniently as 'Dah | dit dit | dah |, dah | dit dit | dit dit | dah', where the '|' denotes a new bar or measure, and the comma represents the middle of the verse.

Since there is no strict metre to the psalms, they are sung to a fairly free rhythm; sometimes there are so few syllables in a verse that they get stretched across multiple notes, while at other times there is so much to cram in to the space available that the choir is obliged to take a break half way through a note in order to draw breath. It is important that the choir reaches a prior agreement as to which syllables they will be changing notes on, a process known as 'pointing'. Ideally the rhythm with which the psalms are sung should fit naturally with the words of each verse, however many choirs inadvertently sing the words to the rhythm of the chant instead. This can lead to a pacing which would sound bizarre if spoken rather than sung, and is characterised by the grinding halt to which the choir comes just before the end of each bar. This is sometimes referred to as pre-measure tension.

Psalm singing to chants is not unique to the Anglican tradition - Roman Catholic services also feature psalms. The main differences are the nature of the antiphony and the style of chant. In Roman Catholic services verses are typically sung alternately by the priest or cantor and the choir or congregation. The normal Anglican approach is for each side to alternate, so one side will sing even numbered verses, and the other will sing odd numbered verses. If the psalm has an odd number of verses, special rules apply for the last verse - the even-numbered side get to sing two in a row, and if a two verse chant is in use, the second half is sung twice in a row. Also, Roman Catholics tend to use Gregorian chants, as opposed to Anglican chants. Gregorian chants are more closely related to early plainsong. Of course, these distinctions are not hard and fast rules - with the Anglican church being as flexible as it is, it's not hard to find a service using Roman Catholic style psalmody.

Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis

Also known as the 'mag and nunc', these canticles, which are the hymn of the Virgin Mary and the song of Simeon, both from St Luke's gospel, are always sung at Evensong. They are usually set musically as a pair. Each is preceded by a Bible reading.

The Anthem

This is the Anglican equivalent to a motet. It is some text, often but not always, of Biblical origin, set to music, lasting about the same time as your average pop song. It occurs towards the end of the service. Long anthems are a good way of making the choir unpopular if Evensong directly precedes dinner as is common in many college chapels.

A Potted History

The roots of the Anglican Choral Tradition predate the formation of the Anglican Church itself. St Sylvester, who was Pope from 314 to 336, founded a school of song in Rome to promote singing technique and learning of the repertoire of plainsong church music. Of course the Anglican Church itself was not founded until the middle of the 16th Century7, but being one of the more discreet reformations, aside from the translation of the liturgy into the vernacular, not a whole lot changed from the point of view of the average chorister. However, the following period of alternating puritanical and romanizing backlashes and then the inadvisability of anything smacking of high church in the years leading up to the Restoration, had a rather more severe effect on music in English churches, almost wiping it out entirely for a while.

This enabled choral music in Anglican worship to develop a flavour all of its own as it recovered from the brink of extinction. The relative scarcity of organs after a particularly overzealous spate of puritanical vandalism made an especially deep impact. This scarcity broke the continuity with Roman Catholic traditions and also forced choirs to compensate for the lack of instrumental accompaniment8. Even today a choir's duties include supporting the congregational singing, and the Anglican psalm chants can stand alone harmonically without accompaniment. This disruption, along with the time it took for organs to be rebuilt (many of those destroyed in the 17th Century were not rebuilt or replaced for a century and a half after the restoration of the episcopacy), is probably the most significant factor in the early development of the tradition - most of the settings have been centred around the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, but this is not substantially different from the original 1549 version, so all the upheaval ultimately had a far greater musical impact than it did liturgical.

Towards the end of the 18th Century, pretty much everywhere that was going to build another organ had already done so, and we saw another step towards choirs of the form we see today. There was a movement to improve decorum and presentation in choirs, and this led to the widespread enforcement of a dress code for each choir. The surplice and cassock is a tradition originating in college choirs, particularly those of Oxford. This appears to have been the last major development to pervade the world of Anglican choral music.

Where To Hear It

The three most obvious kinds of establishments in which to find examples of the Anglican choral tradition are:

  • Cathedrals and other big churches with semi-professional choirs.

  • College chapels - famously, but not exclusively, certain Oxbridge colleges.

  • Amateur church choirs.

The latter category is often on a smaller scale due to the difficulty of finding 16 or more competent singers prepared to devote time to a choir from the typical church congregation in the UK. Indeed some congregations count themselves as lucky to number 16 people, let alone 16 good singers. Quality is variable ranging from the truly excellent to the truly awful. The other two categories tend to be regarded as somewhat more prestigious, and so are often oversubscribed with would-be choristers. Getting to pick and choose singers, rather than be grateful to have any, tends to improve the quality.

The college chapel choir phenomenon is interesting. This is essentially a copy of the cathedral tradition, transplanted to a college chapel choir, but it has actually become better known. Perhaps the most widely recognised example in the UK is the choir of Kings College, Cambridge which is famous for the yearly service of Nine Lessons and Carols, which is now broadcast across the world. This is not an Evensong service - it is a Christmas special; Kings' choir spends most of the year doing proper Evensongs like everyone else. This is actually just one of many choirs to be found in Oxford and Cambridge; most of the colleges have choirs, of variable but generally fairly high quality. Many of the choirs offer scholarships or exhibitions to some or all of their members. This typically involves payment and possibly some college privileges in exchange for devoted service to the choir. Durham and Bristol universities run similar schemes.

There are some features common to most of these choirs. They tend to aspire to professional standards of musicianship, and their choristers are expected to be excellent at sight-singing, to cover a very wide musical repertoire, and often to go on tours to foreign countries, and make recordings and broadcasts.

Another phenomenon related to these choirs is that of the choristers school. Some choirs (eg the choir of Kings College, Cambridge) have schools associated with them. The trebles in the choir all come from this school. These schools are renowned for providing a musical and vocal training of exceptional quality. It's usually fairly easy to spot the alumni of such establishments in choirs; they're the ones who sound fantastic, never sing a wrong note and are on the whole pretty depressing people to have to stand next to in a choir.

Male Voice vs Mixed Choirs

Traditionally, 'proper' Anglican choirs consisted entirely of male voices; men singing the lower three parts and boys taking the top part. More recently many have become mixed. For Oxbridge colleges this happened at the same time as the colleges went mixed during the 1970s and 1980s. These days the only Oxford and Cambridge colleges which bar entry on the basis of gender are the women's colleges. For cathedral choirs, many believe that the watershed event was when Salisbury Cathedral started introducing female choristers. Amateur church choirs tend to need all the singers they can get, so they have mostly had women in them for a very long time now.

Some people get very upset about this. They consider the introduction of women into choirs destroys the purity of the tone. There can be no doubt that it changes the sound, but whether it is for better or for worse is a decision best left to the listener. Inevitably the arguments fly back and forth, the two sides alternately accusing each other of outrageous sexism and politically correct philistinism.

Fortunately neither side seems to have won. There are plenty of mixed choirs. There are fewer male voice choirs, but they still exist. Given that Kings College, traditionally home to some of the most left wing students in Cambridge, managed to emerge from the era in which all the male-only colleges opened their doors to women as a mixed college, but with a male choir, it seems reasonable to assume that it's probably going to stay that way now, along with the handful of other male-only choirs in Oxbridge.

As an aside, it seems that the sound has as much to do with technique and selection as it does with the soprano vs treble distinction. It is not unusual for people to listen to recordings of a few of the mixed voice choirs in Cambridge and not realise that they don't have trebles in them, for example. The key appears to be not to encourage the warbling vibrato inexplicably beloved of operatic soloists - absence of wobble is enough to fool many people into thinking that they are listening to boys.

1Given trends in church attendance in the UK, this seems, with hindsight, to have been inspired prescience.2This tends to bind you to a particular version of the service (musical settings typically being non-portable across different words), which mostly means those found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.3Most of the choirs that take music more seriously than religion have very sensibly adopted Evensong as their preferred service, rather than the more traditional mid-morning Eucharist, enabling them to stay in bed as late as 6pm.4Some women can sing low enough to be tenors, but it's fairly unusual.5Note the minimum number of choristers in a choir singing this is 16.6SATB all sing their own notes to provide, if all goes well, harmony, but are all singing the same words to the same rhythm at the same time.7As the result of a slight difference of opinion between King Henry VIII and the Pope on the matter of annulments.8Although for a while church orchestras were in widespread use as an alternative solution.

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