Christmas is nearly upon us! As the day approaches, I’ve been reflecting on the various “wish lists” I used to send Santa Claus, asking for this or that toy with all the earnestness I could muster. I was sure that once that Star Wars X-Wing fighter or Micronaut action figure was securely in my grasp, my life would be complete.
Well, at least until I caught wind of the next Micronaut action figure.
In the holiday spirit, I’d like to pass along another kind of wish list—the list of 10 choral pieces I wish I would have a chance to sing in the upcoming year. Sadly, I’ve never been able to sing any of the works listed, even those that are relatively well-known. Give them a look…they are quirky and personal, and I’m sure they will convince you that I should never, ever be allowed to plan a musical season for anybody.
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Tomás Luis de Victoria: Mass on “O Magnum Mysterium.” In high school, I first had a chance to sing “O Magnum Mysterium,” a motet by Spain’s greatest Renaissance composer. Appropriately for right now, it is a work about Christmas, and for me perfectly encapsulates Spanish mysticism and devotion. And it is drop-dead gorgeous to boot. Victoria was particularly proud of the work… so much so that he ultimately took the material and reworked it into a larger mass. It is pristine in its beauty and profound in its faith. Wonderful.
Luigi Cherubini: Requiem in C minor. Cherubini is one of those composers whose star has faded over time. In the early 1800s, he was a titanic figure of music… today, not so much. I remember first running into his choral music and being absolutely overwhelmed, and surprised that he hasn’t had more of a revival. This is the work that Beethoven requested at his own funeral, which should say a lot.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Mass in C. I think it’s fair to say that if the magnificent Missa Solemnis had not been written 15 years later, this work would be considered Beethoven’s choral masterpiece. It’s one of those works that after you hear it, you wonder why it isn’t performed more often. Hungarian Prince Nicholas Esterházy II, who commissioned the work, called it “unbearably ridiculous and detestable.” Time has proven the good prince wrong.
Felix Mendelssohn: Die erste Walpurgisnacht. What an unusual piece for its time! Here we have a work about wily Druids outsmarting their overbearing Christian persecutors by staging a faux-pagan ceremony and scaring them off. And what fun music!
Jean Sibelius: The Origin of Fire. This work is one I came across by accident. It was added as “filler” on a recording of the composer’s Kullervo (another work I’d kill for a chance to perform). But it completely swept me off my feet. Dark and mysterious, with a primitive, ritualistic feeling as the Finnish god Ukko forges fire after the sun and moon are stolen from the sky. Epic in the very best of senses.
Bohuslav Martinů: The Epic of Gilgamesh. I firmly believe this is one of the greatest choral works of the 20th century. Brooding, mysterious, and slightly unworldly, it tells the story of the mythological hero Gilgamesh—his adventures and his ultimate quest to understand the meaning of life. Wonderfully profound, but gripping as well.
Franz Schmidt: The Book of the Seven Seals. Wowza. There are musical works that sound apocalyptic, and then there is this one that is actually based on the Revelation of St. John. What a rich, powerful choral work that bristles with energy! And a powerful testament of faith.
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Flos Campi. Really, there are all kinds of choral works by this composer I’d love to sink my teeth into, like Sancta Civitas. But this work is in a class by itself. Wordless choir and solo viola craft an astonishing work that takes its starting point from the poetry of “Song of Solomon.” Ethereal, sensual, and haunting.
Maurice Duruflé: Requiem. A bit about this one. I sang the composer’s Four Motets in college and fell in love with them—I had my friends and colleagues of the Minnesota Chorale perform Ubi Caritas at my wedding. I first heard the Requiem in its reduced, chamber orchestra arrangement, and was mildly enthusiastic… enough so to get tickets to hear Robert Shaw conduct the work with the Minnesota Orchestra. And that concert deeply affected me. At that time, my stepfather had been diagnosed with cancer, and it was unclear if he would be able to attend the concert. Fortunately, he was feeling strong enough, and we all went together. Hearing it live, in the full orchestra version, was an experience beyond words and is to this day one of my most treasured concert experiences, and one I will be forever grateful to the Orchestra for. (Sadly, the Orchestra’s most recent performance of the work didn’t use the Minnesota Chorale. Sigh.)
Einojuhani Rautavaara: On the Last Frontier. This work, with an English text taken from a story by Edgar Allen Poe, is astonishingly atmospheric, gripping, terrifying… and in its own way exhilarating. You feel like you’ve stumbled into a forbidden realm beyond mortal understanding. It had the hair on the back of my neck standing on edge for the final five minutes.
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Thank you for reading. Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and to all a happy and healthy new year!