Choral singing is one of the most popular forms of amateur music-making in New Zealand in the 2000s. There are community choirs in towns and cities throughout New Zealand, and in churches, workplaces, schools and tertiary educational institutions. The New Zealand Choral Federation, the main umbrella organisation for choral music, had nearly 17,000 individual members in 2013, mostly drawn from about 480 community and school choirs.
Choirs can consist of children or adults or a mix of both, and there are male- and female- only choirs. Some choirs specialise in a particular type or era of music, or bring together like-minded people, for example Auckland’s Gay and Lesbian Singers (GALS), and NZ Young@Heart, a chorus of elderly people who sing pop and rock music.
In an adult classical choir there are four main voice parts, ranging from a high to a low register: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Soprano and alto are usually sung by women and tenor and bass by men. Sometimes choirs sing their music in unison, but usually they sing in harmony, which gives the sound added richness.
Most choirs read from musical scores in which each voice part has a different set of notes. Being able to ‘sight-read’ – quickly read the score and accurately pitch the notes – is an essential skill. Some choral groups do not read music but rather learn their different parts ‘by ear’ – memorising words and notes by listening to recordings and through repetition. Many choirs combine the two approaches.
One much-loved choral work, usually performed at Christmas, is Handel’s Messiah. In the 1950s, when ticket sales opened each year for the Wellington Choral Union’s annual performance, queues snaked along the road. For many choirs, staging The Messiah has been a way to make a profit in order to fund other, less crowd-pulling concerts.
Practice and performance
Choir rehearsals, which are led by the conductor or musical director, sometimes with the assistance of a piano or organ accompanist, help members perfect their parts and interpret the music. Most choirs work towards public performance of one major work or a number of pieces.
Traditionally, mastering an oratorio was the pinnacle of choral achievement. A lengthy work, usually with a religious theme, it was sung by a large choir accompanied by an orchestra, with interludes for soloists in each of the voice parts.
For choirs that perform the classical repertoire, a number of large oratorios were popular from the mid-19th century and remain so in the 2000s. They include George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, Joseph Haydn’s The Creation, and Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah.