A Brief History of A Cappella

In which I sing the praises of a much-misconstrued genre

The above image, whose painter I could not identify for the life of me (drop a comment if you can), does not depict the a cappella style we know, as there are instruments present. However, it does depict (again) that musical troublemaker St. Cecilia, plus a cherub who seems happy to jam with her, so it pertains.

Back in high school, I would spend this time of year singing Renaissance madrigals and richly harmonized Christmas carols with the premier choir at my school. The choir’s signature sound, heard throughout the city at traveling carol sing-alongs and its scripted Elizabethan feaste—yes, with an extra E—was a staple of the holiday season and a highlight of the school calendar. To say I remember my three years in the group with joy would be an understatement. Many of our arrangements, especially of the madrigals, are as near and dear to me as if I had sung them yesterday.

I mean…actually I was singing one yesterday. Just to myself. It’s fun to bounce between voice parts.

Concurrently with that teenager’s revelation, America has seen something of a cappella renaissance. A cappella being a genre of unaccompanied music presently associated with glee-club renditions of pop hits. I’ll first point out how the phrase has been bastardized along the way. It is spelled a cappella, two words, from the Italian, meaning ‘in the style of the chapel.’ Let’s get it right.

I bristle out of dedication to two things: the Italian language, and spelling. Now, it’s difficult for people to care about either if they are uneducated in the genre. That, presumptuous as I may be, is where I come in. And before you call me too presumptuous, this is also where I tell you that I’ve unearthed my own miseducation: the term as defined in the 1800s, and as I accepted it, turned out to conflate a few styles and has become too popular for the mistake to be corrected. My research is the only thing saving me from myself.

So here we are. How did we get here?

The genre now called a cappella originated—you guessed it—in sacred spaces, with composers adhering to institutional and/or textual rules. Variations appeared in Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. At the time it referred to more than simply unaccompanied music: stringed instruments were frequently played in unison with the voices, blending to sound as though the voices were singing alone. But just as frequently the voices were singing alone, so the ambiguity remains. The goal was a minimalistic texture that would direct worshipers’ focus toward the text and praise instead of the performance or performers. Note that Latin was de rigueur for the Christian Church, and they had a lot of sway in those days.

As the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, and art got more sophisticated and human-centric, polyphony seeped into the liturgy. A fuller, more colorful sound paired well with the exponentially ornate cathedrals springing up across the continent. The cantatas and oratorios seemed to filter harmony the way stained-glass windows filtered light, and thus further glorify God. By the late seventeenth century, rock stars like George Frideric Händel and my man Johann Sebastian Bach—both of German origin, though Händel would make a name for himself in London—were composing elaborate works for 4+-voice choir. Secular polyphony had also been gaining traction since the 1500s, coming out of Italy, Germany, France, England, and those weird pan-European states like Flanders that no longer exist as such. Crucially, this offshoot allowed for the use of the vernacular. One common form was the madrigal, again derived from the Italian (madrigale, “mother tongue”), whose subject matter covered everything from women gossiping about their husbands to how great Queen Elizabeth I was to a guy watching a swan die (a personal favorite).

But those aforementioned cantatas and oratorios were helping to jumpstart the popularity of keyboard instruments (like the one discussed here) and chamber orchestras, so by the eighteenth century the lone human voice had fallen out of fashion. Cue montage of minuets and sarabandes and gigues. In the mid-nineteenth century a renewed interest in Baroque polyphony—prompted, I suspect, by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn’s championing of Bach’s catalogue—sparked a resurgence of the performance style. It was somewhere around then that a cappella came to be defined as strictly vocal music, to the exclusion of all other instruments; we’ve operated under this definition ever since.

Once the craze crossed an ocean, the momentum was sure to be sustained. The first a cappella choir in the United States was founded at Northwestern University in 1906. Barbershop quartets were becoming a thing, too, alongside the expansion of a uniquely American songbook. The groups and the material progressed in step—to sum up, there were the Four Freshmen, then there were The Beach Boys, and then everyone wanted in on that harmonic density. By the turn of our century, the proliferation of pop music and the co-opting of vocal jazz into academic programs yielded a higher volume of a cappella music than ever before, as well as media representations like Glee and (perhaps even more notably) Pitch Perfect.

To shift gears from narrative into transparent opinion, I don’t care for Pitch Perfect. I saw it well after its debut and was disappointed: neither the humor nor the singing did anything for me, and most of the characters ranged from regressively stereotypical to aggressively unsympathetic. I lacked the heart to admit this to the girls with whom I performed the film’s final mashup at our college’s spring musicale, and otherwise I’ve had no occasion to talk about an uninspiring experience. I find it difficult to draw a through-line from the Elizabeth I groupies to the Jessie J imitators. It doesn’t check out that the endgame of the genre Wikipedia claims “could be as old as man itself” is a group of overgrown students shouting five bars of “Hey Mickey” only to segue into “S&M” by Rihanna. I just…something feels off.

Religion has its problems, as I discover in more unsavory detail with each passing year—this is not to suggest we revert to remixing Tantum ergo for the rest of our unaccompanied musical lives. But anyone who has sung Bach (as, back-door brag, I have) knows his stuff is more than enough to keep you occupied and rehearsing a good long while. For the next phase of a cappella development, I think it wouldn’t hurt us to visualize the sort of thing we might sing in a chapel and run with that.

Of course, my dad would argue similarly against Straight No Chaser, and I love those guys! (At the very least, they’re a crucial addition to the festive season.)

All pith aside, the fact is that the teenager who set her sights on that choir as soon as she set foot in high school didn’t know what a madrigal was. She had heard them sung at concerts and in churches; but the term, however oft dropped in her community, meant nothing to her. Being a bit older and more knowledgeable now, she thought others—maybe even teenagers—could benefit from the knowledge. Here’s hoping they do.

Happy holidays, reader. May they bring you comfort, cheer, non-life-threatening togetherness, and a resilience that you never need to exercise. Così faccio io thanks you and loves you.

Dedicated to Brian Germain. Teachers really do change your life if you let them.

Image: “And this one’s called ‘Only the Good Die Young.’ Haven’t decided who I’m gonna give it to yet.”

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti (she/her) lives in Berlin with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. She co-hosts and produces the music commentary podcast POD SOUNDS. Her free time goes toward dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, taking city walks, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her heroes. Connect with her on Instagram (@c_m_giglio, @ceciliagphotography, @pod_sounds_podcast) and see what else she's up to (linktr.ee/ceciliagigliotti).

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