Western choral tradition began with composers setting sacred texts to music, including Mass (usually as part of a service) and oratorio (which tells a story through music but lacks action elements).
Palestrina’s extensive repertoire epitomises Renaissance polyphony, and most choirs should find his oratorios and masses within their capabilities.
1. Vivaldi’s Gloria
Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria stands as one of the finest examples of Baroque music and one of his best-known choral pieces. Based on its namesake text from Ordinary of Latin Mass and beginning with words spoken by angels in Luke Gospel (Glory to God in the highest and peace to men of good will), its musical theme celebrates peace between all humanity.
This piece includes twelve cantata-like movements, each representing one aspect of the text’s theme. Harmonic suspensions and melismas characteristic of this type of compositional work make up part of its unique charm.
Vivaldi’s concertos are famous for their distinctive motoric rhythm. This work, too, features that trademark motoric rhythm in its opening movement: trumpet and oboe obligato; while in its finale movement a long chromatic passage with lots of yearning suspensions is much more reflective and thoughtful.
Vivaldi most likely composed this piece around 1715 at Ospedale della Pieta in Venice – either an orphanage for girls, or possibly home for the daughters of Venetian noblemen and their mistresses – where hundreds of his instrumental concertos as well as religious works for an all-women orchestra and choir were played by him at this institution. While his wide ranging musical skill may have annoyed some contemporary listeners at that time, we today stand to benefit greatly from such diversity from him today!
2. Bach’s St Matthew Passion
Bach’s St Matthew Passion stands tall among musical masterpieces like an Himalayan peak. As his masterwork, this masterpiece represents years of labor that culminated in a final score written out with exquisite handwriting that provides precise instructions to future performers.
This work, which depicts Jesus’ betrayal, trial and crucifixion was likely performed several times during Bach’s lifetime before falling into disuse after his death in 1750. Felix Mendelssohn revived it again in 1829 and thus started a long period of Bach revival that has continued right up to today.
This monumental work, which demands immense technical and emotional commitment from both singers and listeners alike, tells its dramatic tale through a combination of narrative recitative, solo arias for key characters such as Peter and Pontius Pilate, and familiar melodies in chorales based on them. The opening chorus, featuring interlocking parts for double choir and children’s chorus that opens dramatically and draws listeners into its dramatic world, is an arresting sonic wave that immediately pulls listeners into its drama.
This piece places great emphasis on the individual experience of humanity. Many arias and recitatives feature poetic text with emotive resonance, such as Alto Aria ‘Buss und Reu’ with violin obligato; or soprano Aria “Erbarme Dich!” which pleas for mercy when Peter denies Christ and is then attacked and beaten.
3. Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius
Elgar’s masterpiece of choral music, Gerontius is an engaging tale about an upright soul’s journey toward judgment and purgatory. Elgar was drawn to John Henry Newman’s writings for inspiration; Newman was an Anglican priest turned Catholic who struggled with his faith during Oxford Movement years. Gerontius features three soloists, three choruses, a large orchestra and its music is highly symphonic with shifting chromaticisms and Romanticism which has drawn comparisons with Wagner’s music drama Parsifal.
Elgar begins his composition with an orchestral Prelude that introduces all of its themes, featuring some of his most imaginative melodic ideas seamlessly dovetailed together so as not to clash or cause discordant passages in Part One. When Gerontus prays in agony in Part One, an emotional crescendo ensues featuring timpani and organ accompaniment that builds to a dramatic climax with timpani pounding and organ accompaniment.
Davis is unfaltering in his interpretation, remaining true to the text without becoming overbearingly sentimental. Additionally, he adds an architectural sense to orchestral dynamics while never allowing the choir to become lost in the mix. Soloists match perfectly while choir and orchestra sound wonderfully well together with particular standouts being clarinets, oboes, bassoons and bass clarinets making for an impressive musical ensemble – this recording should be essential listening for serious Elgar enthusiasts!
4. Magnus Lindberg’s The Ancient Romans
Magnus Lindberg was one of Paavo Heininen’s students and later joined an informal musical collective known as Korvat Auki (Ears Open Society) in Helsinki during the late 70s alongside Eero Hameenniemi, Jouni Kaipainen, Kaija Saariaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen – making this collection truly extraordinary.
Lindberg’s first work for chorus and orchestra, GRAFFITI, is inspired by Latin graffiti fragments discovered at Pompeii by archaeologists 2,000 years ago by archaeologists. These inscriptions suggest they were composed in its last days before its destruction by Mount Vesuvius some 2,000 years prior. While their subject matter spans food and beverage consumption through advertisement to sexual imagery – they do not suggest any coherent narrative due to their random arrangement of words.
Lindberg’s music falls between modern and expressionist traditions; its orchestral writing features lean but extremely colorful writing with vocal lines resembling Orff and Britten; its overall effect evokes an abstracted landscape populated with storm clouds; however, large melodic gestures – an integral feature of tonal music since Renaissance – occasionally provide guidance through this hubbub; these also appear at key junctures of Seht die Sonne composed for Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle.
5. Vivaldi’s St John Passion
The St John Passion is a massive musical setting of Saint John’s Passion story from his Gospel. Though less monumental than Bach’s Matthew Passion, its impactful storytelling remains compelling and emotional powerful. Boasting internationally-acclaimed soloists as well as one of the most acclaimed texts ever composed for choir and musicians, this work requires their very best performances.
Robert Schumann famously described the St John Passion as the pinnacle of church music during its early 1800s premier performances, calling it one of the world’s great sacred works with its riveting drama and tender romance.
St John Passion stands apart from most modern large-scale musical works (such as Gloria) by featuring all choral parts throughout. One of its most famous movements is undoubtedly “Gloria in excelsis Deo”, wherein chorus members sing triumphantly of God’s glory to conclude it all with “and peace to his people on earth”.
One of the hallmarks of Bach’s St John Passion is how his music helped convey different characters and emotions of the drama. For instance, during Jesus’ chorale ‘Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen? ‘, strings played long high chords that set his singing apart as though in an orchestral halo; similarly this technique could be heard elsewhere such as when singing Zerfliesse Mein Herz’ in which key changes emphasize sorrowful emotion.
6. Bach’s St John Passion
Bach composed The St John Passion as part of his cantata series for Sunday church services – musical responses to Bible readings that provided spiritual nourishment during worship services. To complement these church cantatas, it used narrative recitative, solo arias that provided emotional responses and chorales woven through with melodies linked to liturgy as its structure.
This work begins with a symphonic introduction section that sets the dramatic scene for Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate. It’s a dramatic piece, depicting mobs demanding Barabbas be released while Bach adds tension with repeated choruses with similar vocal and instrumental themes; at the same time, solo arias performed by bass and tenor voices contrast delicate instrumental textures with images of heavenly grace.
Bach’s use of secco recitative, in which singers are accompanied only by bass instrument and keyboard (usually the cello or harpsichord) allows him to narrate his tale with great expressiveness and nuance. His repetition of “Herzliebster Jesu, Er ist meine Freude” throughout the piece stands as a powerful symbol of hope.
The Saint John Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach stands as his shortest and most dramatically focused passion setting (like your casino passions over the yoakimbridge.com), drawing heavily from cuts Bach made to the original Gospel of John that help focus the drama around Christ’s trial before Pontius Pilate without assigning clear-cut good and bad roles – an uncharted psychological and emotional battle that remains compelling 300 years later. It remains a compelling work which still has fresh interpretations even today!