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Choral music puts a different kind of musical instrument to work.
Classical Basics

10 great choral works you should know

As instruments, human voices are uniquely capable of combining to create sounds ranging from the soaring glory of Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei to the raw power of Verdi’s Requiem, while expanding and interpreting the poetry of the piece being sung. Listen to these 10 great works and and experience that whole spectrum of sound!

Spem in Alium (Thomas Tallis): Tallis’ transcendent harmonies just bespeak Renaissance. This remarkable 40-voice motet (actually, eight groups of 5-part mini-choirs in one), composed about 1570, creates a halo of sound that envelops you. Listen to the music moving through the choirs before all 40 voices join, then recede again.

Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (Johann Sebastian Bach): This three-movement motet based on three Psalms divides eight voices into two four-part choirs. But enough math. It’s speculated that Bach composed it in about 1727 as a choral exercise for his students in Leipzig. Indeed, it is exceedingly difficult to sing — although not to listen to.

Requiem (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart): Did the young genius write this masterpiece for his funeral? It was, as it happens, his last work, composed on his deathbed in 1791 and left unfinished. Composer Franz Xavier Süssmayr “completed” it the next year — it’s unclear whether he relied on the “scraps of notes” supposedly given to him by Mozart’s widow, Constanze, who had a financial interest in seeing the work completed.

Missa Solemnis (Ludwig van Beethoven): Beethoven regarded this as his greatest work, even more than the Ninth Symphony, composed around the same time in 1824. This “Solemn Mass” has moments of resplendent life, especially the second movement (“Gloria”). The requirements of a full orchestra, sizable chorus and challenging vocal and instrumental solos mean that it is rarely performed by amateur ensembles.

Requiem (Giuseppe Verdi): All the drama of an opera, all the sublimity of a mass for the dead: This isn’t your standard requiem. Early critics called it “an opera in ecclestiastical robes,” but they agreed that the music displayed invention and beauty. You’ll perk up at the roar of “Dies Irae” (9:48) — Day of Wrath indeed! — which countless movies and TV shows have employed to create an atmosphere of terror.

All-Night Vigil (Sergei Rachmaninoff): This piece, composed in 1915, was one of Rachmaninoff’s favorite works; he requested its “Nunc Dimittis” (beginning at the 13:38 mark) be sung at his funeral. Listen as the basses descend to an almost impossible low B-flat at the end of that movement. Much of this prayerlike work is based on ancient chant, reflecting the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church, but there are also soaring, complex harmonies (11 parts in the seventh movement!).

Carmina Burana (Carl Orff): A devotee of the “total theater” concept in which art overwhelms the senses, Orff found the perfect vehicle in a collection of medieval poems whose title translates roughly as “secular songs for soloists and choruses, accompanied by instruments and magical images.” The thundering “O Fortuna,” which opens and closes this 1937 work, is so familiar and indelible, you might not even need this reminder.

Serenade to Music (Ralph Vaughan Williams): This tribute to conductor Henry Wood (and, of course, to music) incorporates lyrics adapted from the “music of the spheres” scene in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Conceived for 16 soloists when it was written in 1938, Vaughn Williams later created various arrangements for ensembles that lacked enough of the requisite singers.

“Agnus Dei” (Samuel Barber): The composer’s 1967 choral arrangement of his famous Adagio for Strings, composed in 1936, just might pack more of an emotional punch than the original. The ethereal voices take the piece into a new dimension, “bringing to the surface the work’s sense of spirituality,” in one memorable description.  

“And the Swallow” (Caroline Shaw): The composer, the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for music, has said the Syrian refugee crisis inspired her to write this 2017 piece. To underscore the theme, Shaw turned to Psalm 84, which references the building of a nest and the yearning for home — and the music dips and soars as the titular bird.

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