On Monday I was contacted by a Hartford Courant reporter who wished to conduct an interview regarding the rise in popularity of collegiate a cappella. And why should one feign an interest in this socio-economic (mostly university) phenomenon? From about 300 singing groups in New England, "a cappella," or, more accurately, its collegiate incarnation, has literally taken the US by storm. I myself am in two very different a cappella groups, Wesleyan's all-male The Wesleyan Spirits and another group I formed with three other individuals in my freshman year named The Mixolydians (you can conceive of all the bad puns by yourself).
But what exactly of a cappella music and its fresh, new faces? When one mentions collegiate a cappella, perhaps the first thing to bubble up to memory's surface is Tuft's Beezelbubs, thanks (or no thanks) to the highly popular, albeit sensationalized Sing Off program produced by NBC. Under the dazzling overexposure of glitzy lights and adoring fans, a cappella's new faces have somewhat trampled the memories of them good 'ol fraternity-like Glee Clubs and barbershop quartets so pervasive in the mid twenties. Less remembered, however, is that the association between "a cappella" and its modern counterpart was based on a mistaken attribution of the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th Century.
But first, back to basics. A-cappella; "cappella" meaning "Church" in Italian. The term first arose in the early 17th Century, denoting polyphonic music composed in the more "modern" concertato style as compared to the older Renaissance form of high counterpoint, exemplified by Palestrina. The surprising twist comes about in the late 19th Century when the Roman Catholic Church (along with a few non-Catholic music conservatists/museumists) attached special favor to the polyphonic repertory of the 16th Century. A cappella then came to connote music sung "without instruments," or so they believed, with Palestrina hilariously heroicized as its exemplar. And so, it is the latter definition we have inherited, although we've unwittingly knocked Palestrina off the pedestal again.