Swiss choral singing: a tradition that unites

Singing together is about meeting, communicating, sharing a part of yourself and connecting with like-minded people. The importance of Switzerland's choral singing tradition is reflected in the number of young people making up today's ensembles.

When the people in a choir sing in unison, their heartbeats synchronise. Even their heart rates go up and down at the same tempo. Each singer coordinates their breathing with the others – inhaling, holding their breath, and exhaling in the same rhythm. And when your heartbeat is in harmony with your neighbours, isn't there a greater chance that you'll fall in love? That's a question science can't answer, but Switzerland's French-speaking choirs rebound with just such stories of friendship and love.

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Sociological laboratories

Every choir has its fair share of home-grown couples and close friendships. "It was where I met the person who became my son's godmother, and the one who became my husband," says Marianne, who sings in a church choir in Lausanne. "When you're in a choir, you listen to the people around you and look at them before you start talking. It's a place full of goodwill, cooperation and solidarity. If one of us has to go to hospital or loses a relative, we all sign a card for them. Sometimes, we even sing at the funeral. The choir is a place of sharing. There's no competitiveness, just the desire to create something beautiful together," she explains. Choirs are places where you can find heads of hospital departments singing alongside nurses, Swiss students next to newly-arrived foreigners, and young mothers with widowers. A veritable sociological laboratory. "Our choir is full of great stories – a law student who joined another member's law firm, twenty-somethings going on holiday together, people falling in love, two single retired women becoming best friends..." Marianne continues.

Why do Swiss people sing?

The choral tradition is fundamental to Switzerland. For a long time, it was very much a religious tradition. In protestant Vaud, for example, choral singing was banned during the Ancien Régime. Although this type of polyphonic singing had arrived there in the 18th century, it struggled to establish itself because of the preference for the solo vocal singing influenced by the French. It was only in the 19th century that the art of choral singing really took off, thanks to a combination of songs from the winegrowers' festival, the Zofingen chansonniers and the Société vaudoise d'utilité publique, which promoted singing as a means of education. At this time, it was mainly aimed at teaching moral virtues and love of the homeland.

As for Fribourg, they are so fond of singing that every 35th inhabitant is in a choral group. There's a saying that if a village doesn't sing, it's dying. These numbers can be explained by the centuries-old choral tradition that is firmly rooted in the region's history. While the choral movement evolved in all of Switzerland's catholic cantons, it was Fribourg – with its rural population and firm backing from the local clergy – that provided the most fertile breeding ground. In Switzerland, there are around 2,000 amateur secular choirs. The average age of a chorister is 60.

"Like our gymnastics and shooting clubs, choirs helped create the Swiss nation state," explains Grégoire Mayor, co-director of the Museum of Ethnography in Neuchâtel and baritone. "Singing collectively – one people, one voice – and listening to one another: that's just what Swiss consensus is all about. Being in a choir also gave Swiss people the chance to travel to other cantons and meet different people, via various competitions and singing festivals for example. Nowadays, this educational and political aspect has eased off considerably and singing is mainly about pleasure," explains Mayor.

And the younger generation?

Each year, there are fewer and fewer choirs. It's a cause for concern. In the villages, one solution is to merge groups that are near to one another. The overall lack of interest among the younger generation is blamed on schools – for failing to encourage singing in all its diversity. Programmes like The Voice, which focus on the individual, do not inspire young singers to join a choir. "Even though some groups are vulnerable and end up fading away, new ones are being born all the time," says a hopeful Christophe Gesseney, who conducts the Vivace oratorio choir in Lausanne. "When they leave the conservatory, a lot of young conductors create small vocal ensembles to complete their master's degrees, and some of these go on to survive. People will always worry about the next generation, but I'm not one of them. Just look at all the concerts that were produced in Lausanne this year." Gesseney is one of the conductors that holds auditions for his singers. "There has to be a certain level and the right mix. I don't take on new singers after retirement age, except for tenors, but I don't chase anyone away either. I'd never ask an older singer to leave.  But this approach does mean that the group can keep re-inventing itself."

School and university choirs are a good place to give potential recruits a taste for this type of singing. The Geneva university choir has plenty of young talent and its conductor, Pierre-Antoine Marçais, is not worried. "There are about 90 singers, and at least half of them are young students. Our only problem is finding tenors, but that's a challenge for everyone. Most of the students who get through the auditions have a background in music, but some of them are novices when it comes to singing. The appeal of choral singing hasn't lessened in the 50 years since the university choir was created. It's more that there are so many other activities on offer that there's some competition."

There's also an impressive range of repertoires these days. In the French-speaking part of Switzerland, singers can join any number of ensembles – jazz, gospel, liturgical – to train in the vocal masterpieces of classical music or local folk songs. "It's wonderful how many different styles there are," says Gesseney. "And it's indicative of the diversity of our Swiss folk culture."

Article by Aïna Skjellaug originally published in Le Temps in August 2020