CHOIR (O. Fr. cuer from Lat. chorus; pronounced quire, and until the end of the 17th century so spelt, the spelling being altered to agree with the Fr. chœur), the body of singers who perform the musical portion of the service in a church, or the place set apart for them. Any organized body of singers performing full part choral works or oratorios is also called a choir.
In English cathedrals the choir is composed of men (vicars-choral or lay clerks) and boys (choristers). They are divided into two sets, sitting on the north and south sides of the chancel respectively, called cantoris and decani, from being on the same side as the cantor (precentor) or the decanus (dean). This arrangement, together with the custom of vesting choirmen and choristers in surplices (traditional only in cathedrals and collegiate churches), has, since the middle of the 19th century, been adopted in a large number of parish and other churches. Surpliced choirs of women have occasionally been introduced, notably in America and the British colonies, but the practice has no warrant of traditional usage. In the Roman Catholic Church the choir plays a less conspicuous rôle than in the Church of England, its members not being regarded as ministers of the church, and non-Catholics are allowed to sing in it. The singers at Mass or other solemn services are usually placed in a gallery or some other inconspicuous place. The word "choir," indeed, formerly applied to all the clergy taking part in services of the church, and the restriction of the term to the singing men and boys, who were in their origin no more than the representatives (vicars) of the clergy, is a comparatively late development. The distinction between "choir services" (Mattins, Vespers, Compline, etc.) - consisting of prayers, lections, the singing of the psalms, etc. - and the service of the altar was sharply drawn in the middle ages, as in the modern Roman Church. "Choir vestments" (surplice, etc.) are those worn by the clergy at the former, as distinguished from those used at the Mass (see Vestments). In England at the Reformation the choir services (Mattins, Evensong) replaced the Mass as the principal popular services, and, in general, only the choir vestments were retained in use. In the English cathedrals the members of the choir often retain privileges reminiscent of an earlier definite ecclesiastical status. At Wells, for instance, the vicars-choral form a corporation practically independent of the dean and chapter; they have their own lodgings inside the cathedral precincts (Vicars' Close) and they can only be dismissed by a vote of their own body.
(W. A. P.)
In an architectural sense a "choir" is strictly that part of a church which is fitted up for the choir services, and is thus limited to the space between the choir screen and the presbytery. Some confusion has arisen owing to the term being employed by medieval writers to express the entire space enclosed for the performance of the principal services of the church, and therefore to include not only the choir proper, but the presbytery. In the case of a cruciform church the choir is sometimes situated under the central tower, or in the nave, and this is the case in Westminster Abbey, where it occupies four bays to the west of the transept. The choir is usually raised one step above the nave, and its sides are fitted up with seats or stalls, of which in large buildings there are usually two or three rows rising one behind the other.
In Romanesque churches there are eastern and western choirs, and in former times the term was given to chantries and subsidiary chapels, which were also called chancels. In the early Christian church the ambones where the gospels and epistles were read were placed one on either side of the choir and formed part of its enclosure, and this is the case in S. Clemente, S. Lorenzo and S. Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. In England the choir seems almost universally to have assembled at the eastern part of the church to recite the breviary services, whereas on the continent it was moved from one place to another according to convenience. In Spanish churches it occupies the nave of the church, and in the church of the Escorial in Spain was at the west end above the entrance vestibule.
(R. P. S.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)