English Choral Song: 1850-1920


Nineteenth century Great Britain enjoyed a blossoming of choral societies and other amateur choirs during an era of relative stability and changing socio-economic conditions. Social changes also brought an emerging popularity of mixed choirs rather than the traditional male glee club. New publishers, such as Vincent Novello, set out to supply affordable music for the growing market. As a result, new literature proliferated as opportunity increased for new composers. The Part-Song became a popular choral form, often patterned after music of Continental composers. Published composers included not only “professional” musicians in large metropolitan areas or at large universities or music schools, but also included organists, choirmasters, music teachers, and amateur musicians from a wide array of churches, boroughs, towns, and villages.

Although often considered literature for mixed choirs, part-songs of the era include works for two parts, for treble voices, and especially for male voices with a continued popularity of male choirs. This collection is geared toward compositions for mixed choir.

This movement was boosted by various efforts to increase musical literacy. In particular, the Tonic Sol-fa system developed by John Curwen was promoted through Tonic Sol-fa choirs throughout the country and the establishment of the Tonic Sol-fa College of Music in London. Much choral music in England was published with both traditional and Tonic Sol-fa notation.

The Part-Song in English is a broad genre- essentially a song in parts. Most are strophic, usually taking a form related to the structure of the text. They are generally homophonic, but composers occasionally utilized more elaborate techniques. They can seem simple with hymn-like quality or quite complex with imitative or contrapuntal sections. Some composers emulated attributes of the “glee” or “madrigal” and often subtitled the songs as such. Composers occasionally wrote their own texts, but most texts were drawn from literature and poetry. Most part-songs use secular texts, although some are sub-titled “sacred” since the poetry was of devotional or religious nature. However, they were not considered an “anthem” or having liturgical function. Entertaining texts such as nursery rhymes were popular, as were folk songs and traditional texts.


In America, efforts also emerged to improve music literacy, especially to raise the musical level in churches. Itinerant teachers travelled state to state, town to town, holding “musical conventions,” “singing schools” and “normals”. They would teach musical literacy and vocal technique as well as training others to be music teachers. Often, they were inspired by or imitated similar movements in Great Britain. Starting in Boston and New York with leaders such as Lowell Mason and William Bradbury, this movement stretched across the northern tier of states. The institutes moved through Pennsylvania and Ohio, and eventually reached Kansas and the Dakotas.

These events generated many pedagogical books, often written and published by the teachers themselves. The books included part-songs for pedagogy as well as for performance by convention choirs. The books often contained music from Great Britain and adaptations of choral pieces from the European continent. The traveling teachers often included their own compositions and music by other American song writers of the time. The line between sacred and secular was quite muted. Many of the famous gospel song writers and text authors of the time were also active in creating these secular songs. The part-songs in this pedagogical tradition tend to be uncomplicated, “gospel-hymn-like” songs but some composers included more complex techniques. Quartet singing and quartet choirs were popular and many compositions were intended to be suitable for that use. In addition, a number of emerging American composers apart from the pedagogical movements also composed part-songs, resembling their European counterparts.

NOTE: One very popular form in the United States in published sheet music was the “song and chorus”. This was typically a strophic song with verses intended for a soloist and a refrain set in parts for a quartet or chorus. For the most part, this genre is not included in this collection.