SF Bay Area Chorus History

[as published in the 4th edition of the San Francisco Bay Area Chorus Directory, August 1999]

Choral music has been a part of our greater Bay Area community from the days of the Spanish missions to today, when 500+ choruses of varying numbers and interests meet weekly from Monterey to Mendocino, San Francisco to Sacramento. Over 25,000 people sing on a weekly basis in community choruses and large performing church choirs.

Our Bay Area tradition has been one of choral depth and variety for over 200 years. Although indigenous people did not have choruses, music, both instrumental and vocal, was certainly a part of their lives and rituals. Different faiths brought their musical traditions and practices to California. California Mission music consisted of both plainchant and liturgical polyphony, and from 1769 to 1833 there was a vibrant Roman Catholic tradition of choral music within the Mission communities. This practice ended with the secularization of the Missions.

The Gold Rush brought immigrants from all over the world, and they in turn brought their musical traditions, both sacred and secular. By 1860 in San Francisco, there were thirteen Protestant churches, seven Catholic, two Jewish, three African-American, and individual Unitarian, Swedenborgian, and Chinese congregations. Most churches had choirs. The quartet choir was particularly popular, and public concerts by these choirs were an important fund-raising activity for the churches. San Francisco heard its first oratorio, Rossini’s Stabat Mater, in December 1852, at Grace Episcopal Church, with solos sung by Signora Elisa Biscaccianti. Among secular groups, the German athletic clubs and singing societies were most prominent. Their primary activities were physical culture and choral singing. In 1854, they had approximately 6,000 members. Their tradition has continued to this day, in groups such as the San Francisco Männerchor, founded in the 1920’s, the Oakland Turnverein Gemischter Chor, established in 1867, the Oakland Männerchor, first active from 1910 to 1929, and revived in 1948, the Richmond Chor, founded in 1911, and the Harmonie Gemischte Chor of Belmont and the Sacramento Turner Harmonie, both founded in 1854!

The establishment of colleges and universities brought another kind of important choral organization. The University of California, Berkeley established a chorus in 1885, and Stanford University formed its Memorial Church Choir in 1891, although the formation of its other singing groups came later. San Francisco State University established both a large chorus and a madrigal group in the early 1930’s. The San Jose State University Concert Choir was established in 1933. California State University at Hayward began both its University Singers and its Chamber Singers in 1957. Many of the community colleges began to establish choruses in the 1960s, and still support choruses which are open to the community at large.

As area symphony orchestras developed, they also needed good quality large choruses to sing regularly with them. In some cases, college and university choruses have played this role. In other cases, a large community chorus has developed a performing relationship with its local orchestra. Several professional orchestras have formed their own choruses.

San Jose boasts the area’s oldest large orchestra. The San Jose Symphony Orchestra was organized in 1867. The San Jose Symphonic Chorus, which often has performed with the Symphony, began in 1924. San Jose State University’s Concert Choir performs twice a year with the San Jose Symphony. The Oakland Symphony Orchestra was created in 1933. The Oakland Symphony Chorus, established in 1958, regularly performs with today’s Oakland-East Bay Symphony Orchestra. The Marin Symphony also calls upon local choral groups to perform, including the Winifred Baker Chorale and College of Marin Chorus.

The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1911, and in 1922, Dr. Hans Leschke organized the San Francisco Municipal Chorus, which performed with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra up to the early 1960’s. The Stanford, University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State University choruses also sang occasionally with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, from the 1930’s to the early 1970’s. The Symphony finally established its own San Francisco Symphony Chorus in 1973.

Several other prominent choruses begun during the first half of the century and still active today include the Vallejo Choral Society, which dates from 1917, the San Francisco Bach Choir, founded in 1936, the San Francisco Opera Chorus, founded with the Opera in 1932, and the San Francisco Boys’ Chorus, established in 1948.

The explosion in local choral development began in the late 1950’s. 22 choruses that still exist today were established in the 1950s. 50 choruses established in the 1960s also exist today. The Oakland Symphony Chorus and the Winifred Baker Chorale were formed in 1958. The Ohlone College Community Chorale began in 1960 and the College of Marin Community Chorus began in 1961. The Valley Choral Society of Livermore and the Santa Clara Chorale began in 1963. The Masterworks Chorale and the Schola Cantorum were formed in 1964. 1965 saw the formation of the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra, the Napa Valley Chorale, the Contra Costa Chorale and the San Francisco Civic Chorale. In all, over 30 new choruses were formed during the 1960’s.

The 1970s saw the creation of over 98 new choruses which still exist today, including such major groups as the Diablo Valley Masterworks Chorale, Sonoma Valley Chorale, California Bach Society, Sonoma Bach Society, Baroque Choral Guild, Sacred and Profane, Pacific Mozart Ensemble, sfsings/San Francisco Concert Chorale, San Francisco City Chorus, City College Community Chorus and the professional ensemble, Chanticleer, in addition to the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.

The 1970’s also brought the formation of a number of groups reflecting newly conscious ethnic and social interests: La Peña Community Chorus, Coro Hispano, Slavyanka, Kitka, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

The Bay Area choral spectrum also contains many gospel, jazz, and barbershop choruses, some of which go back to the 1940s. Choruses which perform gospel, jazz, and barbershop music include the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Chorus, the Bay View Opera House Community Choir, the Lighthouse Singers of Marin County, the Love Center Choir, the Anything Goes Chorus, the Oakland Jazz Chorus, and all the many chapters of the Sweet Adelines and the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America.

The 1980s brought a flood of approximately 127 choruses, which still exist today! These included the San Francisco Choral Artists, Piedmont Children’s Chorus, Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco, Golden Gate Men’s Chorus, San Francisco Choral Society, American Bach Soloists, and Oakland Interfaith Gospel Chorus.

Choral activities and developments in San Francisco are mirrored by similar activities in other Bay Area communities. The process of choral creation continues. We have identified 119 choruses which began in the 1990s, including Valley Voices, Teatro Bocchino, and Pacific Musical Singers, 1990; Sanford Dole Ensemble, 1991; Napa Valley Symphony Chorus and Oakland Jazz Choir, 1992; Lesbian and Gay Chorus of Santa Cruz and Rohnert Park Children’s Chorus, 1993; Coro Ciconia, 1994; Philharmonia Chorale, San Francisco Lyric Chorus, and Katy Hatfield Singers, 1995; Norwegian Male Chorus, 1996; City Opera Theater of San Francisco and Choral Singers of Marin: Marin Youth Chorus, 1997, and the Good News Gospel Chorus, Contemporary A Cappella Singing, East Bay Mass Choir: Praise Summit, and San Francisco State University Women’s Chorus, 1998.

We mention a few names of music directors past and present who either founded choruses or who directed them for long periods of time, including Dr. Hans Leschke, San Francisco Municipal Chorus; Waldemar Jacobson, San Francisco Bach Choir; Joe Liebling, Oakland Symphony Chorus; Winifred Baker, Winifred Baker Chorale/San Francisco Civic Chorale; Galen Marshall, Masterworks Chorale; Madi Bacon, San Francisco Boys’ Chorus; Donald Aird, Berkeley Chamber Singers; Alden Gilchrist, Calvary Presbyterian Church; Louis Botto, Chanticleer; Eugene Jones, Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra; Walter and Edwin Hawkins, Love Center Choir; Edwin Flath, California Bach Society; and Charlene Archibeque, San Jose State University Concert Choir. There are many more from the past and present, who served and serve today their choruses and the community by providing spirited leadership and wonderfully varied programs.

In 1985, when we compiled the first edition of the San Francisco Bay Area Chorus Directory, we identified 140 choruses in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. By the time of the second edition in 1988, there were over 300 choruses, and in 1992, there were 450. The birth of new choruses continues to this day. Choruses are like people--they are born, they die, and/or they are transformed. We must not forget the many local choruses which have been created and then disbanded over the years, as well as those which have changed radically since their origin.

Many large American cities have a choral history and tradition, from New York and Boston, to Washington and Chicago. The Bay Area is outstanding in the country for its sheer number of diverse choruses. The types and styles of choruses reflect the variety of personal interests of a large number of community members. Looking at choruses and their activities--their musical emphases, their programs, their numbers, their supporters, their products, from CDs to t-shirts, their rehearsal and performance sites,--is one way of documenting aspects of how people live in our community, what they do in their leisure time. Choristers are unsung heros. They often are taken for granted as part of the musical experience. The choristers will be there--attentive, quiet, prepared, ready to rehearse and perform. They may have had to take a vacation day from work, but they are there. Community choristers are volunteers who give of their time to come to rehearsals, buy their music, buy, rent or make appropriate concert clothing, and pay dues for the privilege of doing all this. Why? Because choral music adds great meaning and richness to their lives. In today's depersonalized world of rush and stress, choral activity is one source available for people to be inspired, refreshed and allowed to rejuvenate their natural emotions and feelings. The reward of being in a chorus is the making of friends and the creation of music, a gift which choristers and all connected to the making of choral music give back to the community.

Involvement in choral activities is not limited to those who participate in the singing and conducting. Others participate as well. Many instrumentalists, from rehearsal pianists and organists to full orchestras, are involved in the production of choral music. Each of the choruses has friends and support groups, volunteers who want them to succeed. Those friends, colleagues, and acquaintances come to choral concerts, contribute money to support those choruses and offer their services in ushering, fundraising, building risers, holding garage sales, etc. Our communities have businesses who advertise in choral programs, put our flyers and announcements in their windows and even match employee contributions to different choruses. And, what about the institutions which provide the space for creating music? A community may have a concert hall, but most often it is the local church or school which provides the space for rehearsal and performance. All of these people and institutions participate on a regular basis in the production of choral music.

Choral singing is the most accessible form of music performance. People who wish to participate in the performance of music can most easily do so by joining a chorus. For this reason, choral singing was the cultural activity which involved the largest number of participants in the San Francisco of the 1850s. Even today, with the incredible diversity of opportunity to attend cultural events or listen to recordings, people still want to participate, to create music themselves. Choral singing is a musical activity which continues to involve large numbers of people in our communities and contributes incalculable fullness to our cultural lives.

by Helene Whitson


San Francisco Bay Area Choral Archives

Commanday, Robert, “San Francisco,” New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Vol. 4, pp. 135-141. New York: MacMillan, 1986.

Lengyel, Cornel, editor. History of Music in San Francisco, Volume 1: Music of the Gold Rush era. San Francisco: U.S. Works Progress Administration of California, 1939.

Soule, Frank, John H. Gihon, and James Nisbet. Annals of San Francisco, compiled by Dorothy H. Huggins. Palo Alto, California: Lewis Osborne, 1966, pp. 694-695.