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The Choir

By Charles Hendrickson
Copyright 1988 The American Guild of Organists. Used with permission.

Continuing this series on the divisions of the pipe organ, I will now look into the history and development of the Choir division.

The origin of the term "Choir" is lost in the confusion of history.  For some it is a misreading of the word "chair", which was the name of the Rückpositiv division on early English organs.  For some it signifies that this division is for accompanying the singers of the choir, and for others it signifies the division which once supported the chair on which the organist sat, or which had a separate chair for the organist to sit on while playing this detached division in early organs.  No matter, the name has come to signify a particular type of division quite separate from the Positive, Great or Swell, a somewhat recent development in the history of the organ.  

Continental pipe organs did not have a Choir division, and the term has come to be associated with a particular type of division which is enclosed, playable from the bottom keyboard on 19th and 20th century organs in England and America, marked by unobtrusive voicing and tonal design.  

The Choir is not a division of power to compete with the Great or Swell, and has none of the functions of the Rückpositiv which originally occupied the bottom keyboard in older instruments.  It is somewhat bland in concept, and this is its me métier.  It accompanies, it solos, it provides quieter and more subjective sounds than the big Great or expressive and intense Swell.  Its musical function is not rooted in historic performance and its literature does not really go back more than a century.  Rather it is a development of the late-Romantic era and the style of sacred music prevalent in the early years of this century.  Its critics will find fault with its lack of vitality and an excess of subjective voices.  It cannot serve either as a Brustwerk or a Positive, and much of its literature is not in the lexicon of academic importance.  

What the Choir does do depends on its design and voicing.  In its least capable form, it is a collection of all of the things which did not fit on other divisions.  In its best form it contains vital stops and minor choruses to echo the other major divisions.  Less intense, it can meditate.  Less powerful, it can provide a respite from the strength of the Great.  Less idiosyncratic, it can provide interludes or improvisational beginnings where cool voices are a prelude to more extravagant developments.  In short, the Choir is a secondary or tertiary division, out of character with the major divisions, and having little capability of competing with them.  

It is true that the Choir does become, in some hands, the division for accompanying the singers.  If it does so with competence, then that is a useful function.  If it has neither the character to add to the musicality of the singers, nor the ability to support them with accurate pitch and tempo, then it is a sign of inadequacy and poor design.  

There does not seem to be a current trend to elevate the Choir to the status occupied by the Great, the Rückpositiv or even the Swell.  It remains as a minor division both in use and in consideration.  Its main difficulty is in its misuse and a lack of understanding of its origin and purpose.  It is not the Grand-Choeur of the French organ, and it is not the Chair or even the Choir of early English organs.  It is not a Positive or an Oberwerk, but it seems that whenever a stop is called for in the literature for these divisions some substitute can be found on the Choir.  Thus we are both led to keep the Choir for its ability to fake other functions and sounds, and also to use this all-purpose non-division for those times when no normal three-manual organ will have all the things necessary for all of the literature.  

It is this blandness and lack of true character which keeps the Choir as a pad of tonal design even if more precise and architecturally valid forms do exist.  Not every house can be by Wright, Mies or Johnson, but we will look to these examples for guidance and inspiration while living in a Cape Cod, ranch or other style of house.  The Choir seems to be just that, a popular but architecturally uninteresting division, which is widely used but not critically acclaimed.  

For many years, the Choir was the only choice for the third division of a three-manual American pipe organ- a universal part of any medium-to-large instrument.  Today, even some large three and four-manual organs do not have a Choir and the trend is toward divisions which "count" and which can be justified.  

The Choir is not dead, however, and its continued appearance in new organs and its retention in rebuilt instruments indicates that it survives because it provides a function in the American church.  Subjectivity has not totally succumbed to academic objectivity, and the goal to rationalize totally the design of the organ based on historic precedence will not be universal.  Indeed, if the current anti-Baroque movement and the return to Romantic ideas persists, the Choir, in an updated form, may endure for some time to come.  

I do not expect or wish the Choir to become important in pipe organ design, nor do I expect much discussion about it.  As a part of pipe organ design and history, it is necessary that we understand its place and function within the broad field of thought which surrounds the King of Instruments.



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