Choir composition are at the genesis of classical and one of the first documented forms of music in the world. Polyphony (multiple voices in harmony) revolutionized music as we know it and like most early music, it is thoroughly entrenched in religious tradition. Indeed, gregorian chants performed by secluded monks may very well be the the most profound representation of the fusion of performance and worship and to this day. Coincidentally, the mass is the overwhelming format of choice in choral composition.
Being in a professional choir from a young age, I was exposed to a lot of great pieces and the endless hours of grueling rehearsal were well worth it when I got to sing in a European cathedral or record in an actual cavern. I’ve chosen to introduce a variety of seminal composers from all styles/eras, using the mass format to showcase their work and I will write part 2 with other mass formats have a few of my favorite showstoppers as a finale and an encore. For now lets stick with the traditional mass format and let me take you to church!
Marc-Antoine Charpentier – Messe de Minuit (Kyrie)
For many, mass is synonymous with Christmas and especially the Midnight Mass. My all time favorite midnight mass was composed by Marc Antoine Charpentier a once forgotten French composer who was resuscitated by michel corboz and other baroque renaissance conductors. Kyrie is the opening chant/movement to a mass and rare are the ones that are as energetic and complex as Charpentier’s; as much Thrilling to perform as to listen to.
Claudio Monteverdi – Gloria ”Selva Morale e Spirituale”
If charpentier was french, he was still of the italian composition school, a school whose most emerit pupil may have been Claudio Monteverdi. His compositions were some of the most dramatic and powerful and this is why I chose to highlight him for Gloria. Much like praising is also mourning, gloria is the moment to sing god’s glory and thank him for his sacrifices.
Anton Bruckner – Mass No. 2 in E minor (Credo)
Bruckner is very well known for his romantic symphonic compositions yet his vocal works are less heralded than those of his colleagues. While others composed more famous masses, I’ve always felt that they composed their musical vision in mass format while bruckner gave himself to the exercise and piously let himself serve the lord through musical scripture. Credo is the least popular part of the Mass but the most complentative. This is music meant to be sung in a Basilica
Samuel Barber – Agnus Dei
Another one of my musical discoveries during my decade in a professional choir was the works of British composer Samuel Barber. Agnus Dei marks the end of the mass and is also the theme chosen by Barber for his choir adaptation of his sublime Adagio composition. Great Britain has a long history with choral music and its development but this piece is so eerily beautiful that it transcends nationalistic tradition and simply hypnotizingly captivates anyone that hears it. When I was singing this piece I understood all the years of sacrifices and discipline and what music truly meant.
As you can see from this post vocal music is very plentiful and wide ranging, you could exclusively collect it and have too many records to last you a lifetime. I went this far in order to offer a chiral primer but there are so many other composers to discover. For music that repeats the same short sacred texts, masses really do differ in tone and effect. Most of the sound clips presented in this post don’t do justice coming from earphones or computer speakers they need to be experienced in person or at least on vinyl!
Here are some recommended vinyl versions of the compositions and authors mentioned in this post.