The Top 10 Choral Works of the 20th Century

Last week I posted my list of the 20th Century’s 10 greatest works of classical music. Based on a couple of exchanges in the comments, I realized that I needed a follow-up post detailing the 20th Century’s 10 greatest works of choral music. I am happy to do so here.

This list gets a little tricky. For one, it’s a great deal more personal to me—I am a classical singer, and have the great privilege of serving as the Board President of the Minnesota Chorale.

But also, in some ways “choral music” is an even more ambiguous term than “classical music,” making it somewhat treacherous to assemble a list. Is anything that uses voices fair game? A cappella or accompanied?

Ultimately I decided to establish and follow a set of clear guiding principles… even if in doing so I had to preemptively strike several worthy contenders from contention. For example, I’m decided to focus on symphonic works that pair chorus with an orchestra, which nixes such important a cappella works as Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (Vespers). I’ve also determined to avoid works where the chorus is secondary; by that standard Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé just misses the cut, even though it’s choral parts are gorgeous and it is a masterpiece of the highest order.

But there is also the problem of determining what “greatness” entails. Does durability count? There are a whole series of choral works from the middle part of the century that used to be hailed as masterpieces, but now seem to have faded away like Brigadoon into the Highland mists. It remains to be seen if works like Honegger’s Le Roi David will follow the trajectory of the fabled Scottish village and reappear later this century, or if they are so closely tied to the musical arguments of the 20th Century that they will simply feel dated. In lieu of these, I have chosen a few works that may not be as well-known, but which I suspect will have greater staying power over the long run. Of course, I very well might be wrong, but that’s how it goes.

Anyway, here’s the list, in alphabetical order by composer. I am happy to entertain comments, rebuttals, and further suggestions!

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Adams: Harmonium. This was a break-out work for John Adams—a major work premiered by a major orchestra that brought him a major acclaim. He drew inspiration from Beethoven, Sibelius, Wagner and early Stravinsky, but also incorporated some of the ideas of minimalism to create a work that feels grounded in tradition while being very much a part of the modern world. It begins, as Adams describes, as “a single tone coming out of a vast, empty space and, by means of a gentle unfolding, evolving into a rich, pulsating fabric of sound.” The works has a carefully-balanced sequence of rises and falls, until it finally breaks forth in the highly charged “Wild Nights.” After this explosion of energy, the work finally finds peace, in a luminous chord that somehow manages to sum everything that happened. Then, satisfied, it drifts into final silence. Although written early in Adams’s career, it is a perfect embodiment of his compositional style, and marked a turning point in American classical music.

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Britten: War Requiem. In preparing my previous list of the top 10 classical works, I went back and forth on whether to include Britten’s Peter Grimes or his War Requiem. I ultimately went with Peter Grimes in that it truly launched his career, making the War Requiem possible, but this in no way takes away from the power or importance of this mighty work, and I am pleased to list it here. This is an “interrupted” Requiem; Britten sets the traditional Requiem text, but repeatedly interrupts it with English-language poems that comment on the Latin ritual, amplifying it in some places and mocking it in others. The inserted poems were written by Wilfred Owens, who fought in the trenches of World War I and wrote about his experiences. He was killed on the front lines a week before the war ended, giving his poems greater poignancy. The result is a stunning work that captures the universal horrors of war.

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Duruflé: Requiem. For years, Duruflé’s gorgeous setting of the Requiem mass was overshadowed by that of his countryman Gabriel Fauré. Part of the reason Duruflé was so neglected was that he wrote so little—Duruflé was ruthless in his own self-criticism, and only allowed 14 works to be published. But what a series of amazing works they are, particularly the Requiem! The composer’s stated aim was to “modernize” Gregorian chants, to reconcile them to modern bar lines but to leave them as intact as possible… and that’s exactly what he does. Sometimes, the chants are the basis of the vocal lines, sometimes they are in the orchestral accompaniment, but they are always present and give the work a sense of timeless ritual. Supporting the chants, he created a gorgeous wash of harmonies that firmly ground the work in the modern world. Duruflé’s ultimately wanted to create a Requiem that did not terrify the listeners with visions of the Day of Judgment, but to provide them with compassion and comfort. The result is a mystical, serene work that floats above the trials of this world and provides a vision of the next. Over the years, Durufé’s work has risen steadily in stature, and is recognized as the masterpiece that it is.  For what it’s worth, the Requiem was originally scored for full orchestra, which is the version Duruflé himself subsequently recorded.  He later re-scored the work for chamber orchestra, and again for solo organ, so it could be more readily performed in a liturgical setting.  I prefer the full orchestra version.

A personal aside. When the lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra began back in 2012, we in the Minnesota Chorale had already begun rehearsals for Adams’s Harmonium, which we were supposed to perform with the Orchestra later that fall. When we got the word that that concert had been canceled, and it became clear we were in for an extended labor dispute, we were pretty low. Since we are a chorus, we decided the best way to express our sadness and hope for the future was through singing… so we more or less spontaneously gathered at our regular rehearsal space and did a sing-through of Duruflé’s Requiem. It was a gorgeous moment of hope and community.

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Mahler: Symphony No. 8, Symphony of a Thousand. This is an odd work, in that it is essentially a set of two distinct cantatas linked in their exploration of The Divine. The first part, “Veni, Creator Spiritus,” is based on the text of an ancient Gregorian chant; it is exuberant, thunderous and bold. The second part, pulled from the final passages of Goethe’s Faust, is more reflective and meditative, building to a transcendent vision of Divine Grace. Mahler later expressed wife that he wanted the work to emphasize the link between the early Christian belief in the power of the Holy Spirit, and Goethe’s symbolic vision of mankind’s redemption through love. And he pulled out all the stops to do so. The performing forces required for this work are vast, including many soloists, a massive double chorus, children’s voices and a huge orchestra—all told, there were 858 singers and 171 instrumentalists performing at the premiere. And while it is seldom performed with such forces today, it remains a Musical Event.

Another aside. Some years ago I had the good fortune to perform this with the Minnesota Orchestra. I usually have a group of friends and well-wishers in the audience when I sing, but this was the concert where everything aligned, and everyone I know came out to hear it. Everyone. And all for completely unrelated reasons. I had college friends, people I met when I studied abroad in Costa Rica, poker buddies, and all of my maternal relatives who drove down from Upper Michigan. I was more than a little nervous—is a masterpiece, but it’s a massive work to sit through if you’re only lightly interested in classical music. But, everyone said they liked it….

* * *

Martinů: The Epic of Gilgamesh. I ran across this work some years back, when a person I trusted breathlessly exclaimed this was the single greatest choral work of the 20th Century. I was a bit skeptical, as “greatest work ever” is often a synonym for “pet interest” (as you are no doubt suspecting after reading this blog post). Still, I decided to track down a recording and give it a listen. I’m glad I did—while I don’t know that I’d call it the greatest work, it is a certainly an unqualified masterpiece and unlike anything else. Martinů chose for his text a series of scenes from Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian epic that is one of humankind’s oldest literary works. The story isn’t told through a linear plot, but rather in a sequence of scenes similar to Handel’s Messiah. It tells of the meeting between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who initially battle but ultimately become great friends. Later Enkidu dies, and at this point the work focuses on Gilgamesh’s struggle to understand the nature of life and death, and come to terms with his own mortality. Martinů writes the work in a neo-primitive vein, creating the sense of an ancient, forgotten ritual. The final sequence as Gilgamesh tries to speak to the spirit of his fallen friend is riveting.

* * *

Orff: Carmina Burana. I suppose there are those who will see this warhorse on my list and scream… or at least move to have my status as a music nerd revoked. The biggest strike against it is that the work is horribly over-performed; for example, it’s a rare year that the Minnesota Chorale doesn’t perform it. But that is part of the point. Carmina Burana has struck a deep and abiding chord with the public. Its primitivism, its rhythmic vitality, and its aural effects grip listeners tightly and do not let go. Moreover, its overwhelming popularity has also shifted an expectation of what music should sound like. People appreciate Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis… but they love Carmina Burana. For example, one time after finishing up a performance, I was leaving Orchestra Hall, standing at the street corner ready to cross. While waiting, a passing car slowed, rolled down the window, and the driver shouted out “OH MY GOD, you guys were amazing! Great job!” Has such a thing happened after any other performance? No.

* * *

Poulenc: Gloria. Poulenc’s celebrated Gloria packs an enormous amount of emotion and musical ideas into 25… well, “glorious” minutes.   During the 1960s and 1970s, many composers wrote religious works that dealt with God in terms of irony, struggle and angst—Britten’s War Requiem, and Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony and Mass follow this trend. But like Duruflé before him, Poulenc takes a very different approach, creating a vision of God that soars above the turmoil of this world. Right from the start, Poulenc makes his intentions clear, with a grand fanfare of an opening that drifts into music that is celebratory, inviting, and ultimately life-affirming. Its quicksilver themes grab your attention, but quickly morph into new ideas… which give the piece a sense of propulsive movement and seem perfectly matched for our modern web-surfing attention spans. Another tip to modern sensibilities is the ending—an “Amen” that hangs there, unresolved. It’s as if the work doesn’t end, but is designed to continue in the thoughts and discussions of the listeners well after the music stops.

* * *

Schmidt: The Book of the Seven Seals. This is a work I know through the advocacy of Michael Steinberg, who included it in his list of the great choral works of all time. And it is astonishing. Astonishing. Franz Schmidt was inspired by the Bible’s book of Revelation to create—literally—an apocalyptic work for an apocalyptic age. Written as Nazi forces were rising in his native Austria and premiered in Vienna within months of the Anschluss, the work captures the anxiety of his age, along with hope for a final accounting. The theme is grand in the extreme—the text describes a vision of a great book, whose seals are opened sequentially by the Lamb of God. This unleashes the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, earthquakes, and other terrors, and finally Satan himself in the form of a great dragon who does battle with Archangel Michael. The music Schmidt creates is magnificent, ranging from ferocious choruses to sublime orchestral music. The finale of the work, with its blazing “Hallelujah Chorus” and definitive “Amen” makes for an overwhelming experience.

I would kill for a chance to perform this with our partners in the Minnesota Orchestra.

* * *

Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms. This is a work I didn’t really get until I sang it myself. As I chronicled here on my blog, I heard it once many years ago, but it never registered—I was completely swept away by Duruflé’s Requiem which happened to be on the same program. In singing it last summer, I finally understood why it was so widely hailed as the Great Choral Work of the Century. As I wrote previously, the striking thing about it is that it presents religious belief in an objective way. It is impersonal, and non-expressive. It is a ritual. But paradoxically, because it is impersonal, it becomes universal… and as such it becomes extraordinarily expressive. It is a challenging work, but I’m thrilled I’ve had a chance to get to know it better.

* * *

Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony. Compiling this list, I found it hard to decide between two of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s works: A Sea Symphony and Sancta Civitas. Following the rationale I started with my list of the top 10 classical works, I ultimately decided to go with A Sea Symphony in that it cemented Vaughan Williams’s stature as a composer and helped make the later work possible. Plus, it’s such an incredible work! Like the Symphony of Psalms, this is a work I didn’t have much use for before I had a chance to sing it myself—I thought it seemed obvious, overblown, and just not as tight as his later works (works that I love to distraction). However, once I sang it for myself I realized just how much is going on. The choral part is delightfully challenging, and is a fascinating mix of musical styles that all coalesce into a powerful whole. For example, the scherzo section, “The Waves,” is a white-knuckle thrill ride that somehow combines sea shanties with French Impressionism. But I particularly loved the work’s visionary quality. “The Explorers,” the final movement, is endlessly fascinating, depicting the soul’s hunger to explore as part of a journey that has no end. “O my brave soul! O farther sail!” Absolutely magical.

* * *

So there’s my list. As before, any and all comments are welcome. What would be on your list?

Xochipilli

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11 thoughts on “The Top 10 Choral Works of the 20th Century

  1. Pingback: The 10 Greatest Works of the 20th Century | Mask of the Flower Prince

  2. I will trade you Vaughan Williams “Pastoral Symphony” for his “Dona Nobis Pacem,” and Orff’s “Carmina” for Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms.” As much as I like Mahler’s # 8, I would like to see (either) a choral work of Schnittke, or another American composer.

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  3. I was a fresh-person (1st year) of college (1968-69) when our Collegiate Choir, soloists and orchestra performed Vaughan Williams “Dona Nobis Pacem” and not only was I blown away, I was officially hooked on choral music.

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  4. I can’t resist a few comments on the above. Having finally gotten to hear VW’s “Sancta Civitas” at the Proms last month, I think I’m presently gravitating more towards that work than the Sea Symphony, which has been done with a healthy regularity these days. However, I can’t resist making a plug for the choral masterpiece of VW that everyone has forgotten about: the “5 Tudor Portraits”, which date from the same period as “Dona Nobis Pacem”, and which I’d say would make a very agreeable change from “Carve me a Piranha”, (sorry, I mean Carmina Burana: I overdosed on it early on and haven’t been able to sit through it for the last 20 years or so!). The VW is about as racy, and it’s in English! Other works I’d make a case for would be Delius’ “Sea Drift” (another of those great Whitman settings that English composers seemed to specialise in), Tippett’s “A Child of Our Time”, which I last heard live in Memphis, of all places (with my wife playing in the orchestra), Barber’s “Prayers of Kierkegaard” (Barber has been a favourite of mine since I was a schoolkid, and this work shows him at his gorgeously lyrical best), Hindemith’s “Requiem for Those We Love” (yet another Whitman setting, this one done in memory of FDR), and Shostakovich’s “The Execution of Stepan Razin”: for sheer scorched-earth, red-in-tooth-and-claw drama, I can find no parallel! I probably should stop here, though God knows I don’t want to: once one starts on something like this, where does one stop? And I haven’t even gotten to “Belshazzar’s Feast”, or “Alexander Nevsky”, or Kodaly’s “Psalmus Hungaricus”, or Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells”, or Szymanowski’s 3rd Symphony (or his “Stabat Mater”, come to that), or….,or….., or……………. 🙂

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  5. I love your blog posts…and one about Choral music? YES!! Which leads me to an observation in general. You often refer (not in this post) to orchestra members as “musicians” and choristers as “chorus”. I just want to remind you that choristers are fully trained professional musicians going to the same music schools, and obtaining the same degrees. Thanks so much, and keep up the great work!!

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    • Sorry about not responding right away. My apologies if it comes off that I group “choristers” apart from “musicians.” That is not at all my intent—I am a classical singer myself and am very much aware that singers are real musicians. I have tried to avoid falling into that trap, but perhaps I need to be more diligent; part of the problem might be that in trying to vary my language the point is getting lost. Food for thought. But thank you for your kind words… I’m glad you’re enjoying my posts!

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  6. Pingback: The 10 Greatest Works of the 20th Century | Mask of the Flower Prince

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