Welcome to the first instalment of our regular At Home Guide, in which we discuss what’s new on Bachtrack At Home and guide you through the wonderful performances in our ever-growing archive.

Arnold Schönberg Choir © Rudi Handl
Arnold Schönberg Choir
© Rudi Handl

With our next live stream featuring the Netherlands Radio Orchestra and Choir performing Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil fast approaching, we thought that now could be a great time to take you on a whistle-stop tour through the history of choral music.

The history of choral music in the Western Classical tradition might be seen as a dialogue between sacred and secular art, between scripture and musical innovation, or between the human voice and other instruments. From the hypnotic unison singing of Gregorian chant, to the complex polychoral style of the Venetian school through to the secular cantatas of the 20th century, there is a dizzying wealth of music to discover.

Beginnings

During the latter part of the medieval period, a style of vocal music called organum evolved out of Gregorian chant. With multiple, independent parts, this was arguably the first example of polyphonic vocal music in Europe, laying the groundwork for the choral music of the Renaissance era. Two kinds of choral composition were prominent during this time: the motet, a kind of Latin religious work; and the mass, another kind of sacred composition based specifically on settings of Liturgy – both were largely written for an a cappella ensemble. In England, Thomas Tallis wrote some of the finest examples of Renaissance choral music, including his dark setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the motet In pace in idipsum and O sacrum convivium, his setting of the Magnificat Antiphon (go here to watch to watch Swiss period ensemble Gli Angeli Genève perform these works and more). The verse anthem form – a vocal composition with alternating soloist and choir sections – also came to rise in this period, and Tallis’s fellow Englishman Orlando Gibbons created some of the best-known works in this form.

Into the Baroque

Increased interaction between vocalists and instrumentalists burgeoned as the late Renaissance bled into the early Baroque period. The Venetian School, represented by the likes of Claudio Monteverdi, developed the mass to include more instrumentation and even additional choirs, resulting in a “polychoral” compositional style. Himself a singer, Monteverdi composed some of the finest examples of choral music in his Vespers and Eighth Book of Madrigals (go here to watch period ensemble Vox Luminis perform a selection of Monteverdi’s choral works). Meanwhile, as the seventeenth century progressed, Henry Purcell would continue to develop verse anthems. His anthem My heart is inditing of a good matter was composed in honour of King James II, and you can watch Vox Luminis perform that work among others of the era here.

George Frideric Handel © Wikimedia Commons
George Frideric Handel
© Wikimedia Commons
The motet continued to expand throughout this period: first into separate movements, then into a new form altogether – the concert-length oratorio. Often based on sacred subjects or Biblical narratives, oratorio might be thought of as a sort of “religious opera”. Handel’s Messiah and Israel In Egypt are thought to be among the finest examples of this form in the Baroque period. Meanwhile, the French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier transferred the medium –originally an Italian invention – to his homeland. Here you can watch a concert by Ensemble Correspondances, specifically dealing with Charpentier’s connection with Italy. A discussion of choral music in the Baroque era would be amiss without mention of Vivaldi, a composer perhaps best known for his concerti but who also composed a large body of sacred choral works. Indeed, he wrote four settings for the hymn Gloria in excelsis Deo alone, the most famous of which is the Gloria in D, performed here by the French chamber ensemble Le Concert Spirituel.

Classical Works

Composers became increasingly preoccupied with the potential of instrumental and symphonic music during the Classical period, but choral works were never far from the surface. Haydn, impressed by the Handel oratorios he had heard during his time in England, composed two major works in that form of his own: The Seasons and The Creation. Considered by some to be his magnum opus, The Creation brings to life the story of the beginning of the world as told in scripture, and can be seen performed here by the Bergen Philharmonic and the Edvard Grieg Choir.

Mozart also composed a number of fine sacred choral works, especially masses, his patron being an archbishop. The Coronation Mass in C major and Great Mass in C minor (the latter of which can be seen performed in full by the Edvard Grieg Choir here) are widely thought to be among the highlights of his oeuvre, yet the most highly-regarded arguably his Requiem Mass. Unfinished at the time of the composer’s death, it was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg to honour his late wife. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir are due to perform the work on 6th October, and you can watch the whole concert for free here. Another fine example of Mozart’s choral music, his Litaniae de venerabili altaris sacramento, can be enjoyed here.

True Romance

As the influence of the church began to wane during the 19th century, composers adapted pre-existing forms for more secular ends. The medium-length choral cantata form, which had originally been used to portray religious subjects, was exploited by the likes of Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schubert to reflect non-religious narratives. Sacred choral music itself was changing, too. With composers scrabbling to exploit all the sonic material they had to hand, churches became increasingly unable to accommodate their ambitious works. Thus, compositions such as Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle, with their large choral and orchestral settings, had to be performed in concert halls rather than places of worship. Other Romantic composers seem to have found the solemn mass to be a useful form; Schubert and Beethoven both wrote major works in the convention, with the latter’s being considered to be one of his most accomplished works. Beethoven also used choral texture to add extra weight to his secular compositions, perhaps most famously in his Ninth Symphony. Another fine example of Beethoven’s choral writing can be seen in the cantata Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage, performed here by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Choir.

Meanwhile, the oratorio as a form had far from been abandoned. Felix Mendelssohn, for example, evoked Baroque inspirations such as Bach and Handel with compositions such as St Paul and Elijah, a full performance of which can be viewed here.

In Russia, choral music continued to flourish into the late Romantic period – perhaps due to the influence of the Orthodox Church. In 1885 Tchaikovsky completed a set of works based on Russian liturgy named simply Nine Sacred Pieces, while Rachmaninov set the prayer “O Theotokos” to a stark choral arrangement (watch these works and more performed by the Netherlands Radio Choir here). Rachmaninov also saw the potential for choral texture within symphonic works, and this can be seen perhaps most interestingly in The Bells, a “choral symphony” based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.

Tradition and Modernism

Even as modernism ran roughshod over the forms of the past during the 20th century, vestiges of traditional choral music endured. Poulenc continued to write masses and motets, such as his Motets pour le temps de noël and Mass in G major. The latter is a choral work without orchestral accompaniment, speaking to the high regard with which 20th century composers still held for the vocal ensemble. Two more unaccompanied choral works by Poulenc, his Exultate Deo and Salve regina, can be heard in a spirited rendition by the Netherlands Radio Choir here.

Self-portrait by Schönberg © Wikimedia Commons
Self-portrait by Schönberg
© Wikimedia Commons
Even the great serialist Arnold Schönberg employed choral forces, though largely in his less experimental works. His Gurrelieder is one of the major secular cantatas of the 20th century, employing a large choir and vocal soloists along with the orchestra. Elsewhere, the choir continued to be a source of inspiration for composers working across all manner of styles. Steve Reich and Philip Glass used choral textures in their minimalist compositions, and this minimalist usage of the choir was taken even further out by the experimental composer Meredith Monk. Artists such as John Tavener and Arvo Pärt drew inspiration from Eastern liturgy and medieval chant to create a style that came to be known as holy minimalism. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem – a non-liturgical mass – and the cantata Rejoice in the Lamb are other prominent examples of 20th century choral music. So, while the ecclesiastical foundations of choral music cease to play a major role in European society, its reverberations continue to be felt in the European Classical tradition as it exists today.