One of this country's principal musical glories finally has been officially recognized. The National Endowment for the Arts last week announced grants totalling $356,825 "to encourage the development of choral art in America."

The fact is that choral art has flourished in this country, artistically, for more than a century and a half. The Handel and Haydn Society of Boston gave its first concert on Christmas Day, 1815. The Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Pa., started life in 1900. Both organizations today continue to uphold high standards of choral singing.

What the NEA's grants, the first in the choral field, do is to point up that outstanding choruses cannot continue without greater financial assistance.

Think for a moment of concerts and recordings of great works for orchestra and chorus in this country and you will realize what these superbly trained groups have made possible (almost always without remuneration): programs of the New York Philharmonic with the Westminster Choir; of the Philadelphia Orchestra with the chorus of Temple University, the Mendelssohn Club or the Singing City Choir; of the Boston Symphony with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, singers from the Harvard-Radcliffe combine, or from New England Conservatory.

Washington, like most musical cities, has several excellent choral groups, four of which are among the recipients of the new NEA grants; the Choral Arts Society, trained by Norman Scribner; the Paul Hill Chorale; the Oratorio Society, trained by Robert Shafer, and the Washington Bach Consort, trained by Reilly Lewis.

To these must be added the oldest chorus in town, the Cathedral Choral Society, trained by Paul Callaway, and the University of Maryland Chorus, the product of Paul Traver's training.

Why these grants? The answer comes best from Robert Shaw, conductor of the Atlanta Symphony and the founder and sole conductor of the Robert Shaw Chorale, which, decades ago, established standards of choral singing that remain unrivaled and unforgotten today. Says Shaw, who is now a member of the National Council on the Arts:

"For the first time in the history of the Endowment, an American art that has had by far the greatest number of participants and enthusiasts has received substantial and nourishing support. The standards of excellence and professionalism instituted and maintained by the Choral Panel offer aid, counsel and encouragement to a broad spectrum of choral activities at the highest performance level. People with voices now have a say."

To anyone who has traveled across this country for years, it is no surprise whatsoever to find that so many excellent choruses exist. Choral conductors of real brilliance in technique and musical perceptions can be found on hundreds of college campuses from East North Carolina University to Eugene, Ore. Our churches, too, have become centers for some of the most distinguished choral singing in the world. Choir directors of special talents lead their charges in the world's finest repertoire from Sunday to Sunday, making excellent music for the largest audiences in the world.

These fine choirs and choral groups are made up more and more of those who learned to love singing in choruses in high schools and colleges. After graduation, they seek out, wherever they find themselves, the best chorus they can join, a procedure often preceded by increasingly rigorous auditions.

What will the grants be used for? Four areas are receiving the largest assistance: salaries for singers, sometimes to pay a core of professional singers in a large group; for soloists' fees -- you cannot perform the great choral works without first-class soloists to handle the difficult assignments found in nearly all of them; for management and administration costs -- an area that has generally been left to the good intentions of the willing but untrained amateur lovers of choral organizations; and for special training to improve the caliber of singing and repertoire.

Other areas coming in for particular help are performance costs, increased rehearsal time and extra concerts, often to be given in economically deprived areas. The grants are extremely modest: 66 (out of 138 applications) of them average $5,400 each. But they can have a real impact on one of the most important areas of our musical life.

No choral singer in this country can earn his living by singing, even in the busiest of our professional choruses. But grants like those of the National Endowment are a step in the direction of helping the entire field of choral singing, a world without which music lovers would be unthinkably impoverished.