There are a number of contemporary composers of choral music who are well known to those who wouldn’t consider themselves keen students of choral music. Television programmes such as The Choir, and recent royal events have done much to elevate the status of choral singing and the music of those who compose for choirs.

Penny Homer
Penny Homer

But even within the repertoire of household names, there are hidden treasures which deserve wider acclaim, and there are yet more composers who are perhaps better known for other genres, or who simply deserve more recognition overall. These are just a few choice morsels for anyone interested in finding out more about the wonderful world of contemporary choral repertoire.

John Rutter: Hymn to the Creator of Light 

Even if you think you don't know the music of John Rutter, the chances are that you have heard at least one of his Christmas carols – Jesus Child, Nativity Carol, and Mary’s Lullaby are just a few of his enormous output in this genre alone. In Hymn to the Creator of Light, Rutter pays tribute to Herbert Howells, and the influence of John Tavener can also be felt.

Thea Musgrave - On the Underground Set 2: The Strange and the Exotic: III. “The Subway Piranhas”

From the spiritual to the absurd, and from one renowned composer to one whose brilliance is acknowledged far too infrequently. Musgrave’s musical lexicon is incredibly broad, and she employs it fully. She wrote three “Underground” sets, which have moments of mysticism and humour. The wickedly funny “Piranhas”, from the second set, describes a tank of the ravenous fish hidden in a seat on an underground train.

Paul Mealor - Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal

Mealor came to the UK’s attention through his anthem Wherever You Are, which featured in The Choir and was Christmas no. 1 in 2011. Shortly before that, he wrote the choral cycle Now Sleeps The Crimson Petal, the first of which was refashioned to become the Ubi Caritas performed at the Royal Wedding. There’s a nod to Morten Lauridsen in this set of four pieces, the third of which is great fun with its billing and cooing.

Eriks Esenvalds - Stars

A student of Jonathan Harvey, Esenvalds' music has a similar ethereal beauty to it, and often employs similar chance techniques to Harvey, such as staggered entries from one part. In Stars, he uses tuned glasses to create an otherworldly, serenely beautiful night scene.

Eric Whitacre - Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine

Back to another well-known name, this time from across the other side of the Atlantic. In Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, Whitacre imagines Leonardo da Vinci hearing the siren call to flight as he ponders over his designs. Whitacre’s slow, ethereal sound is replaced here by fiendishly difficult madrigal-like writing, great fun to sing or hear.

Ola Gjeilo - Second Eve

Another composer from across the Atlantic, where he is already well-known on the US choral scene, Gjeilo is now coming to the attention elsewhere. Second Eve sets the Ave Maria, taking the unusual step of beginning halfway through and then returning to the opening, impassioned throughout.

Link to Gjeilo's site (no Youtube available):

Roxanna Panufnik - Love Endureth

Panufnik takes a particular interest in multi-faith and cultural perspectives, and her music is at its best when at its most explorative. In Love Endureth, Panufnik weaves Sephardic chants into this double choir setting of Psalm 136 in both English and Hebrew, creating an extraordinary soundworld.

Link to the Love Abide site:

Arvo Pärt - Magnificat Antiphons

One of the titans of contemporary composition, Pärt has written a number of pieces for choir. His Magnificat is familiar, but this setting (in German) of the antiphons which frame the Magnificat in the lead-up to Christmas is equally impressive, shot through with Pärt’s tintinnabuli style from the very beginning

Jonathan Dove - Passing of the Year

Dove is well known for his operas, but his choral output also demonstrates his supreme understanding of, and love for, the human voice. This cycle for double choir and piano explores the seasons and life, from birth, love, sex, death and renewal through a variety of secular texts. “Ring Out Wild Bells”, setting Tennyson, is the final movement.

James MacMillan – Miserere

MacMillan is a committed Catholic, and his faith informs his music. His setting of the Miserere text is full of plaintive devotion, melding twisting harmonies with the famous plainchant known from Allegri's setting, which sits alongside his own, highly emotive musical language

It would be impossible to give a complete survey of the vast richness of contemporary choral music that is available. For some ease, in this instance, a contemporary composer was defined as one still living. This does mean that some great composers did not get their own entry, but their influence is still felt through their successors.

We'd be delighted to discover your contemporary choral highlights to add to those already suggested via social media. Tweet us (@Bachtrack ) a Youtube link or get in touch via Facebook and those pieces which impress us the most will feature in a round-up article before the end of the month!


Penny Homer read Music at the University of Nottingham and has gone on to work for a variety of arts organisations, in education, project management and publishing. Her main interests are contemporary music and choral singing. She currently sings with Vocal Constructivists, Londinium and Wimbledon Choral Society, and works for the Association of British Choral Directors.