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Significant Choral Works
1. Anonymous – Sumer Is Icumen In (c. 1250)
“Sumer Is Icumen In” is a four-part round set over a “pes” (short repeated phrase), which is also in two-part canon, creating six-part polyphony. In contrast to the favored consonances of fourths and fifths in earlier medieval music, the song displays the English use of thirds and sixths as consonances, as well as a preference for major tonality. “Sumer Is Icumen In” can simultaneously lay claim to being the earliest extent example of a canon, a secular song, and a ground bass.
2. Dufay, Guillaume – Missa “L’homme armé” (c. 1460)
Dufay’s Missa “L’homme armé” is a cyclic mass, the movements of which are united through the use of the same cantus firmus melody throughout. Dufay borrowed this technique from the English and introduced it to the Continent. It is also a parody mass; the cantus firmus melody is taken from a secular tune, “L’homme armé,” rather than plainchant. His mass setting was one of the earliest, if not the first, to use this popular melody, which was the basis for nearly fifty parody masses. Also, his expansion of the texture to four voices, adapted from his motet structure, represents a departure from earlier three-voice masses. Dufay’s “L’homme armé” mass is most innovative in its contribution to the development of larger structures, which would be used throughout the Renaissance and into the Baroque period.
3. Marenzio, Luca – Solo e pensoso (published 1599)
A survey of choral music would hardly be complete without the inclusion of a madrigal, and Luca Marenzio was one of the most artful practitioners of the form. Even Thomas Morley recommended him as an example to follow. Published in his last book of madrigals, “Solo e pensoso” demonstrates the mature Marenzio’s mastery of the text painting practice that is characteristic of the style, such as the ascending whole notes in the soprano line indicating the narrator’s “slow, tardy steps,” or the disjunct setting of “I cannot find [another possible shelter].” Marenzio furthers his musical imagery by employing chromaticism and freer treatment of text for expressive purposes. With its chromatic palette, extensive counterpoint, and florid passages, “Solo e pensoso” is an exemplar of the Late Renaissance virtuosic madrigal.
4. Monteverdi, Claudio – Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610)
To call Monteverdi’s Vespers a “tour de force” is no exaggeration. Possibly intended as something of a demonstration piece, Monteverdi makes masterful use of the resources available to him at the time. His Vespers setting is a dramatic departure from High Renaissance polyphony in the style of Palestrina. It is expansively rich, set for chorus (in some sections, double chorus), seven soloists, and obbligato instruments. Monteverdi’s use of independent instrumental parts, dance rhythms, and continuo presage techniques that will become hallmarks of the Baroque. The vocal music includes passages in falsobordone-style homophonic chant, motet-style polyphony, arioso, and recitative. In the manner of his seconda practica, Monteverdi embraces freer use of dissonance for expression, yet he also makes use of the Renaissance techniques of cantus firmus and points of imitation. A remarkably inventive work, Monteverdi’s Vespers is a synthesis of his Renaissance roots and his Baroque aspirations.
5. Beethoven, Ludwig van – Missa solemnis (completed 1823)
Like Monteverdi, Beethoven bridged two stylistic periods. Missa solemnis is rooted in the forms and structures of the past while simultaneously pushing forward. So fervent was he to do justice to the mass, he mined the works of Renaissance masters in composition and theory to aid him in his task. One of his final works, Beethoven’s mass represents his mature style. The “Gloria” movement alone is a microcosm of human emotion, from the subdued – almost chant-like – setting of the “pax hominibus” to the unrestrained barking of the “Amen,” reminiscent of the finale of the 9th Symphony. The extremes of tessitura, tempi, and dynamic contrast reveal an unbounded emotional exuberance, ushering in the expressionism of the Romatic era.
6. Vaughan Williams, Ralph – Sine Nomine, from The English Hymnal (1906)
It might seem odd to include a hymn tune in a listing of historically important choral music, but Vaughan Williams’ work in English hymnody was a gift to English church music. Vaughan Williams was troubled by the thought of spending two years editing hymns instead of creating original music, but in the end, he declared that working with hymn tunes was a “better musical education than any amount of sonatas and fugues.” In a departure from previous editions of the hymnal, Vaughan Williams emphasized congregational singing, transposing many hymns into lower keys, and removing expressive markings, which he felt were a hindrance. Influenced by his interest in folk music, Vaughan Williams developed hymns drawn from English folk songs and other traditional sources, as well as composing several of the tunes himself. Sine Nomine (“For All the Saints”) is arguably the most beloved of his original hymns.
7. Burleigh, Harry T. (arr.) – Deep River (published 1917)
The African-American spiritual is a uniquely American contribution to choral music. Burleigh is one of a few African-American musicians responsible for preserving this tradition for posterity. His setting of “Deep River” was hugely popular when it was published and served to expand the style beyond the African-American community. Burleigh’s harmonization of the song, influenced as it was by his study of composition at the National Conservatory of Music, was a departure from earlier, simpler settings. While spirituals were commonly performed at the time by all-black touring groups like the Fiske Jubilee Singers, Burleigh’s choral arrangement of “Deep River” made the spiritual accessible to choruses in general.
8. Stravinsky, Igor – Mass (1948)
Although Stravinsky’s Mass was written during his neoclassical period, it closely follows earlier models of the medieval and Renaissance eras, particularly with regard to form. This is also demonstrated in Stravinsky’s suggestion to use children’s voices for the treble lines and his use of both rhythmic and chant modes. In contrast to the intense emotionalism of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Stravinsky intentionally set out to create a stark setting of the mass for liturgical use. The text was paramount, and indeed, the texts of the lengthy “Gloria” and “Credo” are set in syllabic homophony. The sonority of the Mass reflects Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic use of tonal language. While the voice-leading within each line is eminently singable, it leads to unexpected places. Most of the work is rather restrained; only in the “Santus” is there any sense of exuberance, exhibiting greater involvement of the instrumental forces, more complicated rhythms, and the only loud section of the entire piece. Stravinsky’s Mass is a decidedly post-Romantic composition, rejecting the overwrought expressionism of the previous century in favor of a purer, more abstract approach.
9. Parker Alice (arr.) – Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal (1967)
Though the impetus for Alice Parker’s collaborations with Robert Shaw was a practical issue – producing marketable albums for RCA – the result was a collection of some of the finest settings of American folk music available. Parker and Shaw painstakingly sought out quality melodies and strove to set them, unadulterated, as artistically as possible. “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal” is a fine example of these arrangements. The tune is presented clearly, with a modest yet effective harmonization. Parker also sets the melody in canon and with contrasting themes. The effect is a work that sounds complicated but is in fact built up from relatively simple components, masterful in its very simplicity.
10. Pärt, Arvo – Magnificat (1989)
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has emerged as a distinctive voice in 20th Century music. His setting of the “Magnificat” hearkens back to an archaic style, with chant-like declamation of text, lack of meter, long legato phrases, and use of drone. Yet simultaneously, Pärt utilizes dissonance and dynamic contrast as expressive techniques. Technically simple in terms of pitch and rhythm, the tonal language of Pärt’s “Magnificat,” as well as the demand for almost inhumanly long phrases, can prove challenging. The richness of the voicing and extremes of tessitura are reminiscent of the Russian masters. Minimalistic and harmonically static, the “Magnificat” exemplifies the meditative quality that pervades Pärt’s music.
11. Bach, Johann Sebastian – Johannes-Passion
12. Bernstein, Leonard – Chichester Psalms
13. Billings, William – I Am the Rose of Sharon
14. Brahms, Johannes – Ein deutsches Requiem
15. Britten, Benjamin – War Requiem
16. Dunstable, John – Gaude virgo salutata
17. Duruflé, Maurice – Requiem
18. Fauré, Gabriel – Requiem
19. Gesualdo, Carlo – Moro, lasso, al mio duolo
20. Handel, George Friedric – Coronation Anthems
21. Hassler, Hans Leo – Verbum caro factum est
22. Lauridsen, Morten – O Magnum Mysterium
23. Orff, Carl – Carmina Burana
24. Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da – Sicut Cervus/Sitivit anima mea
25. Poulenc, Francis – Gloria
26. Rachmaninoff, Sergei – All-Night Vigil
27. Thompson, Randall – Frostiana
28. Verdi, Giuseppi – Te Deum
29. Vivaldi, Antonio – Gloria
30. von Bingen, Hildegard – Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum