Is it Chorus or chorus?

Hola a todos. A musician e-mailed me asking about the difference, if there is one, between the word “Chorus” (with upper case “C”) and the word “chorus” (with a lower case “c”). She said she had noticed that I usually use “Chorus,” and wondered why, so I thought I’d answer her here.

There is a difference between the two words, although most people don’t seem to know the difference, even other musicians and especially sloppy classical music performance reviewers who are notorious for using lower case.

A simple answer to her question is:

the Chorus = a vocal ensemble
the chorus = part of a musical composition, as in “let’s sing the chorus again” or “this oratorio has a chorus after every aria.”

Hopefully you see the difference.

For example, if you go on the San Francisco Symphony Chorus webpage, they refer to the Symphony Chorus as “the Chorus” (initial cap “C”) when they don’t use “SFS Chorus” or San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The same goes for the BBC Symphony Chorus, which they refer to as “the Chorus” when not using the full name.

Personally, I use “Chorus” (upper case “C”) also as a way of respect for the Chorus in a performance that I’m writing about, since most people mistakenly think of the Chorus as second class musicians, which they’re not, and not even worthy of mention. I do the same for “Orchestra” (upper case “O”) as a way of respect for the Orchestra I’m writing about in a particular performance.

Also, a chorus (lower case “c”) can be part of a hymn or folk song or other pieces of music, such as the choruses (lower case “c”) in an oratorio or opera which are sung by the Symphony Chorus (oratorio) or Opera Chorus (opera). In both instances, the ensembles performing the pieces would be referred to as “the Chorus” in short form. Although these days, some Symphony Choruses are performing opera choruses. Also, for example, Händel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt is known as “the oratorio of choruses” because of the abundance of choruses in the work for the Chorus.

Sometimes sloppy classical music reviewers confuse me, and some seem to be getting worse about it. They will write about a “chorus” (lower case “c”) but the vague way they write about it leaves me asking: Are you referring to the Chorus who performed the work or are you referring to a chorus inside the work (such as the choruses as part of an oratorio, for example)? Yes, reviewers are getting pretty sloppy — again, without little respect or regard for the Chorus in a performance, especially when they’re writing from their opera background — where to them it’s all about the vocal soloists screamers. I end up having to read what they write at least a couple of times to figure out what they were referring to when they wrote “chorus.”

For search engine purposes, I usually write out the name of the choral ensemble each time or an abbreviated version (such as UMD Chorus for University of Maryland Chorus) since “Chorus” doesn’t tell a search engine anything. It’s too vague. The same for the word “Choir” as in University of Maryland Concert Choir or UMD Concert Choir. The word “Choir” says nothing to a search engine.

What’s the difference you might ask between Chorus and Choir? At the Conservatory where I trained, we were taught that Choirs are typically connected with churches or religious organisations. A Chorus is usually secular as in Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus or Chicago Symphony Chorus or the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, although these days I don’t think that definition is much held to as it once was since some Conservatories have a Concert Choir, including where I trained. I was piano accompanist for the Conservatory Concert Choir, an example of the use of the word “Choir” for a secular choral ensemble. Personally, I prefer the word “Chorus” over “Choir” because of the secular meaning of the word Chorus, and to me it also sounds better. When I was listening to BBC Radio 3 — before they dumbed-down to compete with Classic FM — their presenters were using the words Chorus and Choir interchangeably. If the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus had just performed at the Proms, I’d hear the presenter say, “the Choir is now standing to take their bows.” The Choir? It’s not called the BBC Symphony Choir, Mr/Ms presenter. Sloppy. They’re called the BBC Symphony Chorus. Call them what they are. No attention to detail in your world? That’s as bad as a review I read recently of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. The idiot that wrote that review referred to them as the Chicago Symphony Choir. (Sigh.) I told mi amigo/my friend about that and he said: That doesn’t even sound right. No, it doesn’t. The Chicago Symphony Chorus has been in existence since 1957 when founded by Chorus Director Margaret Hillis, and that reviewer still doesn’t know their correct name. Where do they get these so-called “music reviewers” or “music critics?” Are they rejects from Conservatories and Schools of Music because they didn’t possess the talent, intelligence or attention to detail (which is heavily required in music) to get through the curriculum?

It reminds me of some things that are changing (for the worst). It’s similar to the concept of perfect intonation — one of the rudimentary foundations of choral excellence, or used to be at least — which now seems to be on the decline especially in the US1 and changing in favour of a cheap and ugly Vibrato Fad(TM), where if you can’t sing spot-on pitch or possibly have vocal technical problems, just use vibrato: Wobble, flutter and quiver your voice so that you don’t blend with anyone else. The thinking seems to be: Nobody will know the difference! They’ll just say, “Oh, they’re classically trained.” Hope this helps. Chau.—el barrio rosa

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1 I’ve previously written about this (the decline of choral excellence especially in the US), but if you didn’t read those articles, I wrote about that in this article, specifically the New England Conservatory Concert Choir in their Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, Op 45 performance, and the Boston University Symphony Chorus in their Mendelssohn’s Elias/Elijah performance (Dra Ann Howard Jones prepared the Chorus) and their Fauré Requiem performance. But in their performance of Rachmaninov’s The Bells, they sang with mostly a straight-tone. I wonder how that happened? Another example is the combined choral ensembles at Shenandoah Conservatory and their annoying heavy-vibrato which they were using in the folk song, “Shenandoah.” It sounded awful. Heavy-vibrato in a folk song? That’s as bad as heavy-vibrato in Renaissance music which I heard from the adult choristers at La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. When it was pointed out to them that noticeable or heavy vibrato is most inappropriate in Renaissance music, they agreed. Then what did we hear the next Dimanche/Sunday? Vibrato in Renaissance music! Loco./Crazy. With the Shenandoah Conservatory performance, one commenter wrote, “Vibrato much?” Glad someone else noticed it. The interesting thing about that is that the Shenandoah Conservatory choral ensembles were conducted by one of the founders of Chanticleer. When I’ve heard Chanticleer they’ve sung without any noticeable vibrato. Fortunately, from what I’ve observed, the choral ensembles in Europe and the EU are mostly still adhering to the concept of perfect intonation. Then you come over here to the US, and the rudimentary concept of the perfect blending of voices seems to be fading away. Depending upon the Chorus one hears, choristers are being allowed to sing any way they want. What happened to standards of choral excellence, highly trained and degreed Chorus Directors? What is wrong with you? Most of you come with very esteemed credentials and advanced degrees, yet this is the way you’re training choral ensembles now? Have you gone insane or lost your hearing for choral excellence? It’s embarrassing. Incredible.

2 comments on “Is it Chorus or chorus?

  1. Conservatory Student

    I share your grief, believe me. I can always spot the amateurs when they say “we sang this in choir” or “we played this in band.” I’m never sure what “in choir” means, but that’s the way they write it. It annoys me to read that. It says nothing. I don’t think I’ve ever read “we played this in orchestra.” I sometimes play for weddings (I need the money) and I give the organ repertoire I’ve chosen or the couple selected to the person printing the wedding leaflet. They always get it wrong. There’s always some mistake with the titles I gave them. All they had to do was copy it from the paper I gave them, but they couldn’t do that!!!!! I read your peeve about someone referring to the Chicago Symphony CHOIR instead of Chicago Symphony Chorus. That’s a pretty bad one. I remember reading a similar mistake on a Robert Shaw video I watched. The guy who put the video on had it correct….Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. An amateur commenter wrote “Long live Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and CHOIR.” That doesn’t sound correct…..because it isn’t. The commenter wrote that well after Robert Shaw’s death. I think these are the same people you refer to as the Classical Music Snots. They expose themselves as amateurs when they slip up like this by not writing the correct name for musical ensembles. Thanks for the article. I always pass them on to my friends here. Regards.

  2. Bill

    Thought you might be interested to know that there was a review of the UMD Concert Choir & NSO concert at Kennedy Center in The Post. The reviewer made the mistakes you wrote about in this article. She said “The University of Maryland Concert Choir was certainly pretty heavenly…..The chorus (sic) was outstanding throughout, beautifully controlled and responsive to Noseda’s energetic gesticulations.”

    I’m a longtime fan of the Choral Arts Society and don’t get to hear the UMD Concert Choir often. They had a clip of the first movement and I thought they were excellent, especially the men. Really fine tenor section. Heard slight vibrato once from sopranos but overall straight tone like you like and talked about. The soloists? Let’s not talk about them and keep this up beat. Your word “screamers” came to mind. :-) I had to turn the volume down when they were doing their thing. I thought it was funny in a sad way that the critic doesn’t know about Chorus versus chorus. She tripped me up for a minute when I read “The chorus was outstanding.” I didn’t know whether there was one special chorus in the Rossini that was good but then realized she was talking about the Choir on stage. I’m a retired musician these days, love reading music articles and have been enjoying your “new” site. It does feel like “in the Conservatory.” Keep up the good work! Warm Regards.

Fin. The End.