Choirs From Baroque to Pop – Choral singing in Germany

From folk music to oratorios, from amateur singing to professional ensembles, from children’s to senior’s choirs—singing in a choir is a passion for millions of people in Germany.

Rundfunkchor Berlin; Rundfunkchor Berlin; | Copyright: Matthias Heyde Choral singing has a long tradition in Germany. Until the second third of the 20th century it was cultivated through varied repertoires in all social ranks and age groups: from the simple song to the great oratorio; from plain, untrained singing to professional art music; from children's choirs to senior's choirs. The choral scene in Germany transformed itself in the 1960s and 1970s; work styles, artistic demands, goals, and institutional collaborations and repertoires changed. In the 19th century, for example, Felix Mendelssohn und Johannes Brahms stylistically affected choir repertoires. Through their compositions they gave everyone the genius of secular and spiritual vocal music.

Today, however, there are countless choirs that supplement the traditional repertoire with gospel, jazz, shanties, and pop. Even 50 years ago one could find a church choir and a singing club (male choirs and/or mixed choirs) in almost every village. In the meantime, the number of choirs and the percentage of the population who sing has gone considerably down. On the other hand, appreciation of and demand for performances rose, which particularly affected newly established ensembles and their members. Today collective singing is not an inevitable part or expression of societal and social life. It requires personal commitment based on an individual decision, which is tied to particular expectations of achievement. The choral scene, which even far into the 20th century hardly knew any professional ensembles (with the exception of opera choirs in large theaters), had differentiated itself, just like cultural life in general. Three groups distinguished themselves, constituting by far the largest groups: professional choirs, semi-professional choirs, and lay choirs.

Professional choirs

Professional choirs fundamentally mean operas and (former) radio choirs. The former, the oldest arrangement of professional choral singers, concentrate as a rule on their theater duties; seldom do they give their own concerts. Radio choirs were, like radio orchestras, created for their respective radio stations. Through the development of the media, their function was pushed to the background. Today their focus lies in public concerts, organized partly by their own administration and partly in cooperation with professional orchestras and festivals. Two kinds of radio choirs distinguish themselves: large radio choirs (Rundfunkchor Berlin, Chöre des BR, WDR, MDR) and chamber choirs (RIAS Kammerchor, NDR Chor, SWR Vokalensemble). Both set the standards for choral singing and interpretation culture. Both make huge profits through contemporary music, many well-known works are performed by them and also, in part, revitalized by them. In addition, the chamber choirs distinguish themselves in the field of historically informed performance practice. The scope of the (former) radio choirs consists of cooperation, festival invitations, and international guest appearances.

The majority of semi-professional choirs work as project choirs, special ensembles (such as for old or new music), or as regular rehearsing and performing chamber choirs. They do not distinguish themselves from professional choirs in their artistic standards and working methods. Because their members are for the most part paid per project and paid considerably less than permanently employed professional singers, they usually pursue other professional careers (often as musicians or music teachers). Given their artistic ambitions, one has to count boys' choirs among the elite and semi-professional ensembles, even though their members do not get paid for their performances. Some of them, such as the Regensburg Cathedral Choir, the St. Thomas Choir of Leipzig, Choir of the Church of the Holy Cross in Dresden, and the Berlin State and Cathedral Choir, belong to the oldest cultural establishment in Germany with a history that goes back six, seven hundred—really one thousand years. Although not all of them are organized as boarding school choirs, they still require particular musical and vocal ability from their singers as well as high scholastic achievements that will allow them to participate in extensive auditions and concert tours without losing out on general education.

Lay choirs in flux

Lay choirs constitute the predominate majority of the singing groups in Germany. According to population they can be divided into male choirs, female choirs, mixed choirs, children's and youth choirs, sponsorship by denomination (church choirs), and secular choirs, which are usually constituted after the right of association. Their shared origins lie in the 18th and early 19th centuries during the Enlightenment and early Romanticism. By far the largest groups are made of mixed choirs. The particularly powerful ensembles have, to some extent, a long tradition, such as choirs in large churches. Since the beginning of the 19th century, oratory choirs have been founded on the model of civic education and concert association of the singing academy. They expect solid musical knowledge and trained voices from their members. The younger ensembles are mostly chamber choirs of highly refined sound, singing sophisticated vocal music from the past and present as well as feature length work. The borders for professional choirs blur easily. Most lay choirs in Germany today are choir associations linked together under an umbrella organization of around 23,000 choirs with circa 1,4 million members.

The lay choir movement, as it gained breadth at the beginning of the 19th century in Germany, primarily served to educate the general public. In the 1920s it gained additional force through state reforms of music culture (the Kestenberg Reform) and through the singing movement. Dedicated not only to the folk song, it looked to "public singing" to expand the foundation of the choirs, but also found an example of vocal music in the Renaissance and Baroque. Thus they were an important pioneers of the historically informed performance. The lay choir movement also comes from an era of active recreational activities. Changes in the work world, the shift of free time activities towards consumption, the possibilities presented by new media, and the degradation of music lessons and singing at the general education schools of the federal republic (the GDR did not implement these reforms) were, next to the inadequate overhaul of Nazi politics in opposition to choirs and choir associations, responsible for the "choir crisis" in the 1960s and 1970s.

The choir scene in Germany today needs once again to deal with a new situation —that of the young generation in the large cities and urban areas. In them is the potential for new choir members—especially young people with immigration backgrounds. These social and cultural shifts represent the most important challenges for the future of the choral singing in Germany.