A partsong is a piece of music to be sung by two or more voices without accompaniment. Many partsongs are written for four voices: normally soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Such a partsong can be performed just by four people, but it can also be performed by a larger group (a choir) which has divided into these four parts.
The term "partsong" can refer to music such as a glee, madrigal or unaccompanied anthem, but it is usually used in English when talking about short, secular (non-religious) songs without accompaniment. In other languages there is no word which means quite the same thing.
Partsongs were very popular in the 17th century in England. They were often fun pieces to be sung at parties or in pubs. They were often rounds, catches or quodlibets. In the 19th century the madrigal came into fashion again and so many composers started writing partsongs. Composers such as Sterndale Bennett, Arthur Sullivan, Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford and Edward Elgar wrote many partsongs, and later Finzi, John Ireland and Moeran.
- Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 5 May 2008), (subscription access)