Body of singers entrusted with the musical parts of the Church service, and organized and instructed for that purpose
Choir, a body of singers entrusted with the musical parts of the Church service, and organized and instructed for that purpose. The Talmud witnesses to the careful organization of the Temple choir, and as the first Christians worshipped with the Jews, we find them from the first using the psalmodic solo with congregational refrain, and from the fourth century, psalmody in alternating chorus, both possibly based on Jewish practice. Thus early, and all through the plain-chant period, the choir seems to have been influenced by the liturgical division of the music into solo and chorus chants. Soon after Constantine’s conversion we hear of lector-schools in which, as boys, many of the clergy had received their training. But perhaps the most famous song-school of history was the Roman schol cantorum of St. Gregory, described by John the Deacon, called also orphanotrophium, as its singing boys came chiefly from orphanages. Many of the popes of the seventh century were connected with or came from it. Following this we have the establishment of many other schools, of which the most famous were those of Metz and St. Gall, in the eighth century. The current system of oral instruction rendered such schools necessary. About the year 1100, after the introduction of the musical staff, they began to decline in importance. So thoroughly was music practiced in the medieval song-schools connected with churches or monasteries, founded for the purpose of setting forth the liturgy with the utmost splendor and beauty, that until the Protestant Reformation, the history of music is practically the history of church music. Yet even about the fourteenth century the gradual substitution of musica mensurata for the cantilena romana, part-music for unisonous, wrought an increasing change in the relation of choir to altar. This change was marked when Pope Gregory XI, in 1377, returned to Rome from Avignon, where the new music had flourished, and amalgamated his choir with the schola cantorum, reorganizing it under the title Collegio dei Capellani Cantori and placing it under a Maestro delta Capella Pontificia. The choir now became more laicised and self-contained. It had grown out of, and been shaped by liturgical needs. Its place was in the sanctuary, its members were ecclesiastics or boys brought up under ecclesiastical direction in a house attached to the cathedral. Now it might occupy a gallery and be ruled by a layman. Yet the school of composition associated with this change was largely built upon plain-chant, and produced such masters of religious music as Palestrina, Vittoria, and Byrd. Later, the introduction of female voices, the toleration of mixed choirs, and the secularization in style of the music sung, brought about a still greater departure from the idea and influence of St. Gregory’s schola cantorum. During the present liturgical revival, however, boys who have been actively employed in church music for so many centuries (we find them mentioned indeed as early as the fourth century) are gradually taking their old place in the constitution and functions of the Christian choir.
WILFRID G. A. SHEBBEARE