A brief historical overview
The choral movement in Spain emerged during the second half of the 19th century in a country with very different circumstances to the rest of Europe. The economic, social and political situation in Spain in the 19th century was very complicated and unstable. Political, economic and social problems impoverished the country and the worst part of this situation fell on the most disadvantaged classes. The process of industrialisation was quite slow in comparison with other countries and, moreover, very unequal. Much of the industrial activity was centred in the north of Spain and attracted large numbers of workers to the urban centres, which generated, as had happened in the rest of Europe, a new social mass, the proletariat, which needed recreational and entertainment spaces. For this reason, popular associations began to emerge, following bourgeois models, in order to meet the cultural and leisure demands of this new social class. Within these associative organisations, choral groups were born in many cases in Spain, which adopted the French name of orfeones (choral societies). These were usually very large groups made up only of men, from the same or different social, professional or guild classes, with the aim of singing.
The first choral societies in Spain were born around 1850 in Barcelona and spread rapidly during the second half of the 19th century throughout the Spanish regions that had more industrial cities. The choral movement developed mainly among the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Given that the eminently agricultural territories were left out of the choral movement. So, the choral phenomenon took root and evolved hand in hand with industrialisation and did so with two different profiles: the choral activity carried out by the lower classes, basically the proletariat, with a “social” and moralising function, and the choral societies linked to recreational institutions made up mainly of members of the bourgeoisie whose main objective was musical training and interpretative rigour.
The choral movement arose in Spain as an activity to be carried out by men, and for decades, both choral societies and choral societies maintained this tendency. Women began to form part of the orfeones as members during the last decade of the 19th century, occasionally taking part in the concerts that were organised. The cultural exchange, the meetings between choral societies and all the activity generated around the choral movement contributed to making it a phenomenon that would see its greatest splendour in the passage from the 19th to the 20th century, coinciding with the times of economic prosperity in which there was an awakening of interest in culture and a development that provided a certain economic prosperity for the lower classes.
After the second decade of the twentieth century, the number of choral societies tended to stabilise and soon began to decline again as a consequence of the complicated political situation, the appearance of new leisure alternatives such as the cinematograph, comedy and the rise of zarzuela, as well as the growing interest in sporting events and the creation of philharmonic societies that allowed the public access to symphonic concerts.
After the parenthesis which, as in so many other areas of Spanish culture, was caused by the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the post-war period, a new stage began in the 1950s in which the number of choirs increased progressively until reaching considerable numbers in 1970. From 1975 onwards, there was a greater increase in the birth of choirs in Spain, coinciding with an important change of political regime. This situation perhaps indicates that there may have been a certain relationship between the increase in choral activity as an associative network with the appearance of other forms of social participation and, ultimately, a suggestive relationship between choral life and democratic forms.
In 1991, the number of choirs in Spain was 1320 and in just three years, there was a growth of more than 300 choirs, reaching the figure of 1686 choirs in 1994. In 2016, the database of the Music and Dance Data Centre of the Spanish National Institute of Theatre Arts and Music (INAEM) contains references to a total of 2,516 choral groups, although experts from this entity estimate that the real number of choral groups could be 30% higher. In any case, these figures show that choral practice is possibly one of the musical activities with the greatest social impact in Spain, given the number of people involved in it.
In recent times, many amateur choral groups with very diverse profiles have been reaching levels of quality similar to those of professional groups. On the other hand, the emergence and development of a significant children’s choral movement is a further indicator that choral activity is booming in Spain.
Characteristics of amateur choirs in Spain today
A large majority of the choirs existing in Spain today are more than 20 years old. Most of them do not have any institutional links or support and are self-financed through the fees paid by the members themselves or through the remuneration of the concerts they offer or events in which they participate. There are very few cases in which they have external funding from grants, agreements or public or private sponsorship. Most adult choirs are constituted as associations which, in turn, belong to regional or provincial choral federations.
Many choirs are alternatives for musical training at the service of society, as they provide specific musical training. Vocal technique is the most common training activity and, in most cases, it is the musical director who takes on this task. When this is not the case, vocal training is provided by an external specialist. A considerable majority of the people who sing in a choir in Spain do not have a solid musical background. Even so, in recent decades there has been a certain increase in the quality of the performance of choral music by non-professional choirs, although this is still an area in which further work and improvement is needed. Another characteristic of choral groups in Spain is that they do not have a notable specialisation in terms of repertoire, and the predominant tendency is that most choirs perform works from all periods and styles.
Spain has a young generation of choir conductors. Most of them are under 50 years of age. The fact that specialised training in choir conducting has decreased in recent years in Higher Degrees of Musical Education in Spain may be the reason why conductors with a specific degree in choir conducting are those who are found in a lower percentage, being more numerous the percentage of conductors who have higher degrees in other musical specialities. There is also a considerable percentage of choir conductors who only have an intermediate musical education or even less. Therefore, it can be concluded that in Spain, it would be necessary to generate training spaces in which it would be possible to specialise in choir conducting. As far as remuneration is concerned, the levels of remuneration, in general, are quite precarious, although, at the same time, it is true that there is a certain tendency towards the professionalisation of choral conducting even if there is no specialisation in this discipline.
Choral groups in Spain generate an activity involving tens of thousands of people who contribute to creating an important and fundamental part of Spain’s social, musical and cultural capital. The profile of choral groups is very diverse and, as a result, very different choral experiences are generated in different aspects, including musical quality.
There has been some interest in research related to different areas of choral music: educational, social and historical, but research in these fields needs to be encouraged as they can help choral music grow as a discipline.
After the difficult times brought about by the pandemic, it will also be necessary to rebuild our choral scene not only in Spain, but worldwide. To this end, it will be necessary, more than ever, to work together. Choir conductors must assume the responsibility that this task entails. For this reason, it is so important that we all participate in initiatives that will help us to achieve the improvement of choral music in all its fields.
 Typical Spanish dramatic and musical composition in which a dialogue text, generally of a light nature, is staged alternating sung and spoken parts.
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Nuria Fernández Herranz obtained her higher degree in Choir Conducting and Conducting Pedagogy at the Savaria Egyetemi Központ (Hungary) achieving the highest grades attainable and complementing her studies at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest (Hungary). She holds a PhD in Humanities from the Carlos III University of Madrid, a university where she has also developed different choral projects that have become benchmarks in the Spanish choral panorama: the University Choir, the Children’s Programme of Scenic Music (1999-2008) and the Choir Conducting Course, which has been running for more than twenty years. She is also artistic director and founder of VokalArs, a vocal group of recognised prestige that has won various national and international awards and recognitions. Throughout his artistic career she has given many premieres of choral and stage repertoire in the main concert halls and is regularly invited to conduct different artistic projects in Spain and abroad. She is also frequently asked to sit on the juries of national and international choral contests. As a teacher, she has more than twenty years of experience in the field of Higher Artistic Music Education. She currently teaches at the Conservatorio Superior de Música de Castilla-La Mancha, at the International University of La Rioja (UNIR), at the Universidad Autónoma of Madrid and at the Katarina Gurska Higher School of Music Education.