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A Survey of the Choral Tradition in the Philippines

Indagine sulla tradizione corale delle Filippine

Choral singing has been present in the Philippines long before the country was colonized by Spain (from the late 16th century to the end of the 19th century) and the USA (first four decades of the 20th century). Various manners of group singing have been practiced by different indigenous tribes, and are still providing sonic enhancements to many of their communal village activities and important rituals today. The dominant form is the responsorial way of singing in which a chorus in monophonic style answers a leader. Communal singing strengthens the bond among the villagers as they perform rituals and important events in sustaining community life in which epics, e.g., Hudhud and Biag ni Lam-Ang, or ritual songs, e.g., Bad-iw and Bayok, are chanted to ease up the long and laborious manual preparation of the soil for planting, to celebrate a good harvest, or to perform a curing ritual. Singing as a group has been a part of the lives of the many ethnolinguistic groups of the Philippines and continues to be an essential weaver of the social fabric of these communities.

Upon the beginning of the Spanish colonization in 1565, Western singing using tonal harmonic language was introduced through the evangelization project of the various religious orders that came to Christianize the population of the Islands. Many of the early evangelizers such as Friars Pedro Bautista, Juan de Santa Marta, and Geronimo Aguilar believed in the importance of music as a powerful tool to make the people accept the new religion. The earliest record of a group singing together is the Tiples de Santo Domingo, founded by the Dominican Friar Pedro Bolanos in 1587 who was composed of street boys housed and educated by the Dominican Order in their convent within the walls of Manila (Carunungan 371). This group continues to sing today at the Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City.

By the seventeenth century, parishes in the Islands were assigned four to eight cantores, depending on the number of tributes received by the community. The imposition of a minimum number of four cantores is noteworthy because it was “ideal for the effective performance of sacred vocal polyphony, and conforms to the teaching of European liturgical music — plainchant and polyphony — in Philippine missions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (Irving 124). As early as 1605, during the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the founding of Manila as a city, the Jesuit Church of St. Anne hosted multiple choirs of both native and Spanish populations who performed newly composed polyphonic music for Mass, Vespers, dramatic events and processions (Summers 212-213).

Two important musical organizations that probably established two major boys’ choirs in the Islands were the Colegio de Niños huerfanos de San Juan Letran, founded in 1640, which housed its Capilla de Tiples; and the Colegio de Niños Tiples de la Santa Iglesia Catedral, founded in 1737, which became the residence of the Cathedral Boys’ Choir (Summers 216). The choirs’ main role was to provide musical assistance during Sunday Masses, major religious feasts, and important memorial services. It was from the Colegio de Niños Tiples de la Santa Iglesia Catedral that many of the major Filipino musicians of the nineteenth century would emerge from. Some of these would become highly respected Bandmasters of the Spanish Regimental Bands that provided free weekly entertainment to the general public in the promenades of Luneta and Malecon, and conductors of orchestras that accompanied the visiting European opera companies and other theatre productions in Manila in the late nineteenth century.

When the Philippines became an American colony by virtue of the Treaty of Paris signed in 1898, the US colonizing slogan of “benevolent assimilation” focused on education as one of its main thrusts to fulfill its mission. School children were taught to sing Filipino and American folk songs arranged in simple harmony through the Progressive Music Series anthology. Primary and secondary schools promoted the establishment of choral groups that provided entertainment for campus activities and public programs. It was also during the early twentieth century that few Protestant church choirs began to emerge, the most prominent among them was the Chancel Choir which became a concert choir after World War II. Reinforcing this new tradition was the founding of the Choral Art Association in 1930 by Pacita Nolasco as an organization to promote and cultivate the choral arts, and this attests to the presence of a considerable number of choirs as early as the 1930s (Hila 138).

The proliferation of Protestant church choirs would dominate Manila’s choral scene after the war. Those who were most active were the Central Church Choir, the United Evangelical Church of Christ Choir, the Philippine Choral Ensemble, the Baptist Choir, the Ellinwood Church Choir, and the Union Theological Church Choir. A few were led by Filipino choirmasters who have undergone formal choral conducting education from Westminster College in the USA— Flora Zarco-Rivera, Lois Florendo Bello, David Yap, and Reynaldo Paguio. Enhancing the growth of choral singing in the country in the 1950s, secular choirs were founded such as the Philippine Choral Society by Liwanag P. Cruz whose aim was to encourage new compositions; the Manila Concert Choir by Lois Florendo Bello; the Philippine Male Chorale, the University of the Philippines (UP) Christian Youth Movement Choir, and the UP Male Glee Club by Flora Zarco-Rivera; the Chorale Philippines by David Yap; and the UP Concert Chorus and Knox Methodist Church Choir by Reynaldo Paguio (Hila 138-140).

It was in 1963 that Andrea O. Veneracion founded the UP Madrigal Singers, later known as the Philippine Madrigal Singers (PMS), patterned after the Renaissance group she sang with while studying at Indiana University. The PMS would eventually inspire many Filipino choirs, as well as choirs from the different parts of the world, through its unique warm choral sound that became a tradition of its own, emulated by many of its alumni who would establish their own choral groups. The PMS is regarded as one of the main forces in the growth of university and high school, church, and community choirs that would become a strong network of choirs, known as the Madz et al., and advance the choral development in the Philippines in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Other university-based choirs including the Ateneo de Manila University Glee Club, University of Santo Tomas (UST) Singers, UP Singing Ambassadors, De La Salle University Chorale, and many more replicated the impressive track record of the PMS in international choral competitions and won for themselves various awards from prestigious European, American, and Asian choral festivals.

Succeeding generations of choirs have since burgeoned and they currently contribute to the vibrant choral scene in the Philippines. Many children, youth, treble voices, and male choirs sprang up in the early years of the twenty-first century, in addition to the unprecedented growth of mixed-voice choirs from various government agencies, private companies, communities and churches. The earlier hegemony of choirs from the capital city, Metro Manila, has been overturned by the surfacing of good sounding and equally successful choral groups from the regions, most of which are led by young and highly motivated conductors whose resourcefulness and aspirations provide unlimited sources of continuous innovations in performance practices and the expansion of Filipino choral literature.

This growth may be attributed to three significant factors: 1) the expansion of formal education in choral conducting in Philippine universities; 2) the proliferation of local, regional, national, and international choral festivals and competitions; and 3) the establishment of organizations focusing on the development of the choral arts such as the Philippine Choral Directors Association, Sing Philippines Youth Choir Project, and the Madz Schola Cantorum. In recent decades, Filipino conductors have benefited from these circumstances which are also partly attributable to the effects of globalization that allowed for the increased mobility of people and the introduction of new technologies, including the Internet which has become a natural tool for research on repertoire and current performance practices, choral pedagogical strategies, establishing international linkages, and learning about general choral updates worldwide.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the University of the Philippines College of Music offered choral conducting as one of the major studies for a Bachelor of music degree, and later in the Masteral level. Having the alumni of Westminster Choir College—Zarco-Rivera and Paguio—as members of the faculty, the UP College of Music pioneered in the training of younger Filipino conductors who became the leading choirmasters in the 1990s. Among the products of this program are Joel Navarro, Janet Sabas-Aracama, Mark Anthony Carpio, Raul Navarro, Arwin Tan, Beverly Shangkuan, Cristina Cayabyab, Phoebe Bitoon, Miguel Angangco, and Noemi Binag, to name a few. The program includes courses on conducting techniques, pedagogical methods and techniques, and choral literature—Western and Filipino. Two major recitals are needed to complete the degree in which the student conducts a full program of short works for the first, and a program featuring full-length choral works for the ultimate recital.

Jonathan Velasco and Eudenice Palaruan also started their music studies in UP but eventually finished their training at the Berliner Kirchenmusikschule as scholars of the Asian Institute for Liturgy and Music (AILM), another significant training ground for choral conducting founded by Francisco Feliciano which specialized in church music and catered to students from nearby Asian nations. Unfortunately, AILM ceased to operate a few years after the demise of Feliciano in 2014. Another important institution for choral conductors is the UST Conservatory of Music where Fidel Calalang, Jr., Maria Theresa Vizconde-Roldan, and Anthony Villanueva obtained their degrees. Other institutions offering studies in choral conducting include the Centro Escolar University, St Paul’s College Manila, Philippine Women’s University, and the Adventist University of the Philippines.

A Survey of the Choral Tradition in the Philippines
Kammerchor Manila, director Anthony Villanueva

In addition to these formally trained conductors, the Philippine choral scene is overflowing with dedicated and resourceful choirmasters who capitalize on their practical musical experience either as a chorister, solo singer, or instrument player. A majority of conductors in the Philippines belong to this group and they equip themselves with conducting skills and knowledge of choral literature through diligently attending workshops. From this category, two distinct conductors stand out who have shaped their choirs into excellent sounding ensembles—Edgardo Manguiat of UP Singing Ambassadors and Tristan Ignacio of Imusikapella, both choirs competed in the finals of the 2019 European Choral Grand Prix.

Another factor that triggered the development of Filipino choirs in the twenty-first century is the proliferation of choral festivals and competitions. The longest running choral competition is the National Music Competitions for Young Artists (NAMCYA), an annual competition which started in 1973, aimed at nurturing the musical talents of the Filipino youth which has various categories that include solo instrument playing, solo voice, rondalla, bands, indigenous traditions, and choral music. This competition brings regional winners from Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao, and the National Capital Region in the annual national finals in November. Other choral competitions for school-based choirs include the Voices in Harmony (started in 1999) and the Musica FEUropa Choral Festival (started in 2009). An anticipated annual choral competition outside of Manila is the Himig Handog Choral Competition in Tagum City in Mindanao that began in 2002. A distinctive contest is the Government Choral Competition, hosted by the Civil Service Commission. It started in 2011, and it is the only competition that caters to choirs of the various government agencies nationwide. The premiere international choral competition in the Philippines is the Andrea O. Veneracion International Choral Festival held biennially at the CCP. The winner of this festival earns the right to compete for the Asian Choral Grand Prix, pitted against the winners of choral festivals in Singapore and Indonesia.

The founding of the Philippine Choral Directors Association (PCDA) has tremendously transformed the choral environment in the past years. Its annual conventions—alternating between regional and national levels—have brought together conductors from all parts of the country. The workshops organized by the PCDA provide the much-needed training for conductors who have not received formal music education. In addition to the efforts of the PCDA, the Sing Philippines Youth Choir Project of the Philippine Madrigal Singers has become an avenue to bring together choristers from all over the country for a workshop that culminates in a major concert at the CCP. Similarly, the Madz Schola Cantorum has focused on training young aspiring conductors with their concentrated study of conducting and choral literature.

The choral tradition in the Philippines is vibrant and continues to welcome innovations in performance practice, repertoire, and pedagogy. As a nation of singing people, the Philippines prides itself of a long history of music making, including the establishment of a firm choral culture that recognizes both its indigenous origins and appropriated European tradition. Ingrained at the very core of our existence as social beings, singing together has forged relationships that continues to strengthen communal bond and solidarity among the Filipinos, a special quality that distinguishes our unique spirit as a people.

(A Survey of the Choral Tradition in the Philippines)

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One thought on “A Survey of the Choral Tradition in the Philippines
  1. I would like to add the important role that the Manila Cathedral Choir played in the 60s. It was established with the re-opening of the Manila Cathedral in 1958 with the Belgian musician Fr.John van de Steen CICM. as its director. At the same time the Cathedral got a 4 manual (70 stops) pipe organ built by Pels (Holland). This made it possible to perform the choir literature with organ accompaniment. There was a working relation between Van de Steen and Andrea Veneracionm evenso with the Episcopalian Church (St.Luke’s in QC) where the same firm installed a few years later a large pipe organ (53 stops) in the Cathedral of St Mary and St John, and a smaller organ in the chapel of St Andrew Seminary for the use of the AILM.

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