Entertainment, Enlightenment, and Service: A History and Description of Choral Music in Higher Education

October 1, 1983

Choral music is one of the most enduring programs in music in American higher education. The idea that an educated citizen should have some competence in singing and experience in a choral ensemble predates the Declaration of Independence by at least 140 years. Like our language and many of our traditions, choral music in higher education was born and matured in Europe. The program came in bits and pieces from a number of European sources, and it acquired characteristics from other cultures, notably Africa and Latin America. Over the years, choral programs adapted to the environment of the New World.

A study of the history of choral music in American higher education reveals several themes which have remained constant for the past 350 years or so. The college choir has always been closely associated with the practice of religion, particularly in its repertoire, costume, and performance practice. Singing in a large ensemble has been thought to enhance learning in music and other subjects. Choral music programs have been seen as servants of the academic communities in both entertainment and enlightenment capacities. Choral music programs have long been perceived (rightly or wrongly) as efficient and economical ways to educate a large number of students at a relatively low cost. Persons intimately involved with choral music in higher education (conductors, music administrators, vocal music majors) have been troubled by a perception of the academic inferiority of their work vis-à-vis the work of their colleagues in other academic areas.

The purpose here is to give a historical account and current description of the field, with an eye to ascertaining the proper course of action for those interested in choral music in higher education. Particular attention is given to the student who is not majoring in music. The methods are historical, descriptive, and speculative; we will look at what has happened in the past, what is taking place today, and what the options are for the future. The picture is painted with a rather large brush, not in an attempt to oversimplify and thus obscure the truth, but rather in an attempt to synthesize and impart some sense of the past and present to those who need to plan the future. In a study of this sort, many opportunities are available for battalions of scholars to track down and haggle over details, but that kind of approach quickly turns the eye of the choral director or music administrator to glass.

In attempting to meet the needs of non-music majors in vocal ensembles, colleges and universities have developed a variety of groups. While nearly all of these organizations exhibit a mixture of divergent characteristics, a reading of the literature suggests that three basic models or archetypes exist. Occurrences of these models in their purest form are rare, but students in general—and non-music majors in particular—tend to develop their perceptions of choral ensembles in a single-minded way. Choral directors who are experiencing difficulty attracting non-music majors may benefit from an analysis of their approaches to these students. If the perception of one kind of organization seems to repel students, perhaps the image if not the substance of the organization needs to be changed.

A major barrier to understanding the different kinds of choral ensembles in a study of this type is the variety of labels used to describe the various groups. It would be much simpler if a uniform system of nomenclature were used, such as calling all church groups choirs and all secular organizations choruses. Further modifiers could indicate finer distinctions like large, small, symphonic, a cappella, select, opera, and oratorio to describe literature performed, performance practices preferred, or whatever else the organizers wished potential participants and audiences to know. There will always be problems when state-supported school groups wish to limit themselves to sacred music and church school ensembles perform in the jazz-swing-pop idiom. Another kind of problem emerges when a group does a variety of music—sacred and secular, esoteric and popular, and so on. The appellation "singers" seems to finesse this difficulty.

We propose three models of singing groups which seem to predominate in American colleges and universities. The terms Gleeful Chorus, Chorale Esoterica, and Public Service Choir have been adopted to designate the purposes of the ensembles. These labels are less useful in determining the repertoire or performance practices, but they help define how the groups are perceived by potential members and others in the academic community.

The Gleeful Chorus takes its name from the word glee which first meant merriment, and later came to be associated with a part song for three or more voices. Clubs devoted to the performance of such songs enjoyed their heyday in American higher education in the early 1900s and began to decline in the 1930s. There is some evidence to indicate that a revival of this tradition is imminent. In the context of this study, the Gleeful Chorus describes a group of singers who assemble primarily for their own entertainment and amusement. The term "Chorus" is used because of the frequent preference for the secular idiom—sometimes to a fault. Sacred music can enter the repertoire on occasion, and some groups even devote themselves exclusively to the performance of religious music. However the norm tends to novelty songs, school songs, and the like. Rehearsals are often chaotic affairs where the desire for fun takes precedence over the need to perform with great precision and sensitivity. Directors are recruited—often against their will—from the ranks of the music department, and sometimes the groups are led by students without faculty interference.

Evidence from non-Western societies suggest that the Gleeful Chorus is primordial. The early history of western civilization—mainly written by religious men working for the church—tends to downplay the existence of fun-loving music groups. That vocal music precedes instrumental music is a time-honored assertion, and the Greeks undoubtedly imbibed in mixing mirth and music.1 Their philosophers dwell much too long on the evils of mere musical enjoyment for it not to have existed. Certainly the Romans sponsored such fun-loving groups, given their penchant for wine, women, and song. Students in the Middle Ages who worshiped the mythical Bishop Golias courted damnation with their choruses to the grape, Adam's rib, and the poison pen. Jongleurs and minstrels joined the tribe in the tenth century, and their progeny can be heard on many a campus today.

In early America, the Gleeful Chorus occasionally masqueraded in the guise of the otherwise pious singing school. Certainly the suicidal young man from Yale in 1782 appreciated the pleasures of vocal music at his school when he wrote a friend,

. . . at present I have no Inclination for anything, for I am almost sick of the World & were it not for the Hopes of going to singing-meeting tonight & indulging myself a little in some of the carnal Delights of the Flesh, such as kissing, squeezing, &c. &c. I should willingly leave it now before 10 o'clock & exchange it for the better.2

The inclusion of the Gleeful Chorus in the colleges has always been the subject of debate. Academics as a group seem loathe to grant credit for anything which is enjoyable, and state legislatures and church boards of control take equally dim views of mirth in the hallowed halls. Nevertheless, the Gleeful Chorus spread along the eastern seaboard from 1712 to 1812, made its way via the music club into the lists of sanctioned extra curricular activities of Yale and Harvard in the 1780s, and eventually became a recognized and valid campus organization when the Harvard Glee Club was formed in 1858.3

College choral festivals and contests accelerated the growth of such groups early in the twentieth century, and credit for college glee clubs became commonplace in the 1920s.4 The contest movement which did so much to promote the high school band movement in the 1930s and 1940s waned about the same time in college choral circles, but the debate about college credit for the Gleeful Chorus continues unabated.5

The second kind of vocal ensemble is the Chorale Esoterica. It is highly selective in membership and repertoire. It pursues the exotic, sometimes to bizarre extremes. It emphasizes music reading, and its rehearsals are very serious affairs with much stress and little if any joy. Avant-garde works and foreign language texts are very much in favor along with a large diet of Renaissance music. Great attention is given to precision, especially in matters of diction and tone color. The roots of the Chorale Esoterica lie in the office of Jewish cantor, later modified to the Schola Cantorum of the Catholic Church. Guido d'Arezzo made sight singing de rigueur in the eleventh century, and complex polyphonic style became common in such groups shortly thereafter. In the Renaissance period, composers from Ockeghem to Gesualdo delighted these groups with arcane and enigmatic tunes, and J.S. Bach created several mysteries for them to delight in.

In America the Chorale Esoterica has been received with a mixed response. Academics have generally supported the concept, students are divided in their enthusiasm, and the general public has rather consistently stayed away from their performances in rather large numbers. The group seems to embody the classic American conflict between equality and excellence, between democracy and élitism.

William Billings and other eighteenth-century fuguing-tune composers made an attempt to write for the Chorale Esoterica, but the choral groups in higher education in their day were not in this mold. In the nineteenth century, with the founding of conservatories built on European models, the practice became more widely established. The choirs of Oberlin in 1865, Cincinnati College of Music in 1878, and Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas in 1887 were early manifestations.6

The a cappella movement, which reached a peak between the years of 1928 and 1938, exemplified the Chorale Esoterica.7 The work of Peter C. Lutkin at Northwestern University, F. Melius Christiansen at St. Olaf College, Charles M. Dennis at the College of the Pacific, Hollis Dann with the National High School Chorus, and John Finley Williamson at the Westminster Choir College exemplify the zenith of the Chorale Esoterica in general and the a cappella movement in particular.8

In the 1920s, as credit for participation in college choirs became an issue on campuses across the nation, the Chorale Esoterica presented one possible solution for the problem of academic credibility. The professors from other disciplines tended to support activities which were élitist and difficult to comprehend, and the music faculties were happy to get student credit hour production in any way they could. A common strategy for gaining academic credit for the college choir was to offer it under the course title of "History of Choral Music."9 The victory was not without opposition however. Academics are a contentious lot, and it took very little time for scholars such as Manfred Bukofzer and Percy Grainger to question the authenticity and the credibility of a cappella choirs in particular.10

The third genre of choral group in American institutions of higher education might be called the Public Service Choir. Such groups are loved by administrators and despised by academics, and they meet with mixed reactions from conductors and singers. The Public Service Choir focuses on music with broad popular appeal (this could include not only Top Forty tunes, but Messiah and Elijah as well). It performs at home and abroad at every available opportunity. The name "Choir" reflects the tradition of such groups in small, church-related colleges where public relations, fund raising, and recruiting responsibilities often weigh heavily on performing groups.

The term "Public Service" alludes not only to the responsibilities of groups to serve the immediate and fiscal needs of the institution, but also bespeaks a philosophy which holds the value of music to be measurable in terms of the benefits it brings to the society at large. This extrinsic kind of value system perhaps originated with Plato who asserted the almost therapeutic quality of music in general education. The Romans followed this line of thinking by using music to entertain (rather than enlighten) their citizenry. In medieval times, the church used music—choral music in particular—to enhance the rituals and ceremonies of the religious community.

Martin Luther was a staunch advocate of the Public Service Choir and perhaps was the father of the church-related college choir. His beliefs in the power of music to influence behavior, music as a cultivator of good manners, and music as a public service to the community support the goals and objectives of many an ensemble in American higher education today.11

The American college choir manifested the Public Service role at a very early date when the group at Harvard began singing for commencement exercises in the 1750s. With the rise of normal institutes in the 1850s and the later surge of normal colleges which followed in the 1880s, the Public Service Choir played a leading role in teacher training programs. The Jubilee Singers at Fisk University were an early and very influential model of the fund raising choir which was widely imitated in the late nineteenth century. Max T. Krone's work at the University of Southern California in the 1930s and 1940s spoke to such issues as publicity, showmanship, and broadcasting performances, all of which are important considerations for the public service choir.12

In spite of its seemingly altruistic nature, the Public Service Choir has not escaped criticism. In 1932 C.M. Smith of the University of Chicago attacked the undue emphasis on performance, frequent tours, extravagant productions, and excessive appearances on music convention programs. He wrote that such activities tended to result in the loss of amateur spirit and in the shifting of focus from the music to the performance of it.13

Few if any college vocal ensembles fall exclusively into any one of the categories described here. Most groups are a mixture of the three and fit into one category or another because certain characteristics predominate over others. While this may disturb the philosopher and annoy the historian, it provides a means of solution to the choral director or the music administrators who must appeal to a variety of students and fulfill a variety of needs. In schools large enough to support three or more ensembles, it might be feasible to have one of each type. Even in these cases, however, students are not often found who are of such narrow personalities as to make a single-purpose group attractive. The better approach would appear to lie in eclectic thinking and diversified courses of action.

In preparing press releases for the campus paper and designing posters for campus billboards, it might be helpful to highlight the attributes of the Gleeful Chorus. In writing spots for the college FM radio station, it might be wise to mention the characteristics of the Chorale Esoterica. In writing copy for the college catalog and in preparing reports to administrators, it would be appropriate to stress the qualities of the Public Service Choir.

Whether these three groups meet in the same room at the same time with the same personnel or not is of little consequence. What seems important is how the students—particularly those non-music majors for whom participation satisfies no degree requirements—get inside the tent and what is done with them once they are in.

In an attempt to ascertain the current state of choral music in higher education a survey of a stratified random sample of choral programs in colleges and universities throughout the U.S. was undertaken. A questionnaire was mailed to 148 institutions randomly selected from the six divisions of the Music Educators National Conference. Of the 100 responses, four questionnaires were unusable. Table I shows the number of respondents from each of the six MENC divisions.


Table I. Respondents from each of the MENC Divisions

MENC Divisions Number of Respondents

Eastern 21
Southern 23
North Central 23
Southwestern 19
Northwestern 5
Western 5

Table II shows the size, type, and number of institutions which responded to the survey.


Table II. Size, Type, and Number of Institutions Responding

Size Type of
Number of

1,000 or less Liberal Arts 3
Private Liberal Arts 1 4

1,000-5,000 Private 7
Public 4
Liberal Arts 7
Private Liberal Arts 8 26

5,000-15,000 Private 7
Public 14
Land Grant College 4 25

25,000+ Private 1
Public 11
Land Grant College 4 16

Total Private Schools 26
Total Public Schools 70

All 96 of the respondents reported that their institutions offer a major in music, 69 reported that they offer a graduate program in music; 37 offer a master's degree in choral conducting; and 11 offer a Ph.D. or D.M.A. in either choral conducting or choral music. Eighty-six of the respondents reported that the percentage of the total school enrollment participating in choral organizations at their institution was 20% or less; 7 respondents reported that between 20% and 40% of the total student body participated in their choral programs; and 3 respondents reported that between 40% and 60% of the total student body was involved in choral programs sponsored by their music departments.

Concerning the percentage of students participating in choral programs who were non-music majors, the results of the questionnaire indicated that the mean is at 30%; i.e. 30% of all students participating in choral programs in colleges and universities in the U.S. are non-music majors.

When asked if the percentage of non-music major participation had significantly changed during the last 10 years, the survey indicated that the choral directors felt that participation had remained fairly constant during the period. Sixty-three percent of the respondents considered non-music major participation very important to their programs. When asked about the degree to which the respondents' choral programs met the needs of the non-music major, 7% reported very inadequately, 14% reported somewhat inadequately, 4% reported a neutral or adequate response, 29% reported somewhat adequately, and 38% reported very adequately. The mean for the total sample indicated that the directors felt the manner in which their programs met the needs of these non-majors was somewhat adequate.

Based on these data, we may draw the following conclusions: (1) nationally, less than 20% of the total student enrollment is involved in choral programs sponsored by the institutional music department; (2) of those students participating in choral programs, 30% are non-music majors; (3) according to the choral directors, the participation of these non-music majors is very important to their respective choral programs; (4) the choral directors judge that the number of non-music major participants has not significantly changed during the last 10 years; and (5) these directors believe that their choral programs, generally, are meeting the needs of the non-music major.

As we have noted, the strict assignment of choral ensembles to the three categories identified is sometimes difficult because of the overlapping functions of choirs at different institutions. In this study, however, some data seem to support the identification of these three large categories of choral ensembles: the Gleeful Chorus, the Chorale Esoterica, and the Public Service Chorus. Four types of ensembles surveyed belong to the first category: the Women's Glee Club or Chorus, the Men's Glee Club or Chorus, the Oratorio Chorus and the Choral Club or Choral Union. In the second category three types of ensembles were identified: the Madrigal Group, the Collegium, and the Chamber Choir. Finally, only one Public Service Chorus was identified and that was the Jazz-Show Choir. The Concert Choir was not placed in a specific category because of its multi-purpose function at many institutions.

Table III shows the percentage of non-music major participants in each type of choir included in this survey.


Table III. Enrollment, Nonmajor Participation, Audition Requirements, and
Average Weekly Rehearsal Hours for Various Types of Choirs

Type of
% Requiring

Concert Choir 60.8 35.0 96.5 4.0
Oratorio Chorus 133.8 59.4 49.0 2.7
Madrigal Singers 17.4 29.7 100.0 2.8
Collegium 14.9 32.0 88.9 2.3
Chamber Choir 26.7 22.6 98.0 3.4
Jazz-Swing-Pops Choir 21.7 54.1 97.1 4.2
Women's Glee Club 47.6 53.9 65.8 3.0
Men's Glee Club 46.3 55.0 70.4 3.3
Choral Club or Union 89.4 60.3 32.0 3.0

The average of these percentages indicates that the Gleeful Chorus was most popular among non-music majors. Non-music majors constitute 57% of the membership of these groups. The Public Service Chorus is second in popularity with a 54% non-music major participation. Chorale Esoterica, on the other hand, is made up of only 28% non-music majors. The concert choir, a hybrid choir not specifically categorized, boasted a 35% non-major enrollment.

Obviously several variables affect the enrollment in these various categories. Primary among these is the audition. This survey indicates that 54% of Gleeful Choruses utilize an audition for membership; however, 95% of the Chorales Esotericae require an audition and 97% of the Public Service Choirs (Jazz-Show Choirs) utilize an audition. The greatest concentration of non-music majors lies in the groups which do not require an audition for entrance into the ensemble. The second highest concentration, however, is in a group which usually does require an audition—the Public Service Choir. It may be further noted that the jazz-show choir, the only Public Service Choir represented in this survey, generally requires some expertise in dance and drama. Thus it seems that the audition itself is not necessarily a barrier to non-music major participation in an ensemble; rather it is the nature of the ensemble and/or the audition that attracts or repels these students. Ironically, this ensemble, so popular among non-majors, is often disdained by music departments.

What may we infer from this mound of data? First, if choral directors value the participation of non-music majors in their ensembles, then they must look at the historical record of the Gleeful Chorus. Non-major participation has remained high in this organization throughout the life of choral music in higher education. Second, if greater non-major participation is desired, certain characteristics of the Gleeful Chorus might be incorporated into other kinds of ensembles. Third, the nature and function of the audition should be evaluated to determine if it is unnecessarily threatening to the non-major. Audition procedures could be revised so as not to discourage non-major participation in select ensembles.

These data raise some interesting questions. First, can music departments afford the cost of encouraging more non-major participation in their ensembles; i.e. additional faculty time required in a quasi-curricular setting? Second, are the musical experiences that the non-majors have in the Gleeful Chorus and the Public Service Choir adequate to satisfy the musical and/or artistic needs of these students, or could their experiences be enhanced if they tasted some of the fruits of the Chorale Esoterica? Finally, are choral directors in fact, as they seem to believe, adequately serving the musical needs of the general student on today's college and university campuses?

Historically, from the time of the early glee clubs and oratorio choruses through the era of the a cappella choirs of the 1930s and 1940s, the non-major was the mainstay of the choral program in higher education. Today participation by non-majors tends to be concentrated in large, non-selective ensembles and jazz-show choirs. If singing in choral ensembles is still thought to enhance learning, in music and other subjects, and if choral programs are still seen as servants of the academic community in entertainment and enlightenment capacities, then perhaps a reevaluation of the present situation is required.

In responding to the questionnaire used in this survey, many choral conductors commented on the dedication of the non-music major participants in their choral ensembles. They were described as intelligent, interested students who participate in the ensembles by choice, not because of some degree requirement. Several directors described these conscientious non-majors as some of their best choir members. Perhaps there is a wealth of such students desirous of new musical and artistic experiences who are waiting for the opportunity not only to indulge in "some of the carnal Delights of the Flesh, such as kissing, squeezing, &c." but some of the musical excellence generally attributed to the Chorale Esoterica as well.

1Curt Sachs, Our Musical Heritage (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1955), pp. 9-10.

2Cited in Irving Lowens, Music and Musicians in Early America (New York: W.W. Norton, 1964), p. 282.

3Bernard W. Regier, The Development of Choral Music in Higher Education (Dissertation, University of Southern California, 1963), pp. 16-44.

4Idem, pp. 46-67.

5Idem, pp. 88-98.

6Idem, pp. 25-26.

7Leonard Van Camp, "The Rise of American Choral Music and the A Cappella 'Bandwagon'," Music Educators Journal 67 (November 1980), 36-39.

8Regier, op. cit., p. 52.

9Idem, p. 67.

10Van Camp, op. cit., pp. 36-39.

11Joe E. Tarry, "Music in the Educational Philosophy of Martin Luther," Journal of Research in Music Education 21 (Winter 1973), 335-365.

12Regier, op. cit., pp. 24-74; see also J.B.T. Marsh, The Story of the Jubilee Singers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1880); and Max T. Krone, The Chorus and Its Conductor (Park Ridge, Illinois: Neil A. Kjos Music Co., 1945).

13Regier, op. cit., p. 76.

2320 Last modified on January 5, 2014