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Top 10 Choral Works to Start Your Classical Music CD and MP3 Collection

Singing is the most natural form of human musical expression, and composers have been writing music for voice since ancient times. Nearly all of the medieval and Renaissance music that we know today is choral music. As instrumental music began to gain popularity in the sixteenth century, the human voice was the ideal by which all non-vocal music was judged. Even today there is no instrument that can achieve the fine shadings and emotional power of a well-trained singer.

The Western choral tradition began with composers setting sacred texts to music, and most choral music through the centuries has been devoted to praising God in some manner. The Catholic Mass (or parts of it such as the Gloria) has long been a favorite of choral composers; in particular, the Requiem Mass, or Mass for the dead, has inspired generations of composers (including Mozart, Brahms, and Verdi) to write their most powerful music. Other choral genres include the cantata, which sets a selection of Biblical texts for soloists and chorus; the oratorio, which tells a story like an opera but is not acted; and the motet, a sacred composition for unaccompanied chorus. To add additional expressiveness (and to give the chorus occasional rest in performance!), most large-scale choral works composed since 1700 alternate solo singing with choral passages.

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1 Handel: Messiah -- Trevor Pinnock
Far more than a Christmas carol. Review...

2 Mozart: Requiem -- John Eliot Gardiner
Exploring the depths of grief. Review...

3 Brahms: A German Requiem -- John Eliot Gardiner
Had enough of those Latin Masses? Review...

4 Bach: B Minor Mass -- John Eliot Gardiner
The Baroque master's greatest choral work. Review...

5 Haydn: Lord Nelson Mass -- David Willcocks
A joyous celebration of life. Review...

6 Fauré: Requiem -- John Rutter
French "sensibilité." Review...

7 Josquin: Missa "Pange Lingua" -- Tallis Scholars
Quiz: Name the greatest Renaissance composer. Review...

8 Orff: Carmina Burana -- Eugene Ormandy
Celebrating the ancient themes of Beer and Love. Review...

9 Verdi: Requiem -- Carlo Maria Giulini
The most dramatic of Requeims. Review...

10 Tallis: Spem in alium -- Tallis Scholars
Forty melodic threads creating a tapestry of sound. Review...

11 Vivaldi: Gloria -- Sir Neville Marriner
A stellar choral work from the master of the concerto. Review...

12 Haydn: The Creation -- Fritz Wunderlich, Herbert von Karajan
A musical illustration of the first seven days. Review...


George Frideric Handel: Messiah
Arleen Auger, soprano; Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo soprano; Howard Crook, tenor; Michael Chance, countertenor; John Tomlinson, bass baritone; English Concert Choir, The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock, conductor

Messiah is by far the most popular choral work ever written in English, and the "Hallelujah" chorus has become part of our cultural lexicon. The work is an oratorio, which is a dramatic work that is meant to be sung in concert rather than acted on stage. The texts are taken from both the Old and New Testaments, and are divided into three parts. The first part, especially popular around Christmas time, depicts the birth of Christ. The mood becomes more somber for the second part, which depicts the crucifixion, but as Christ rises from the cross the chorus comes together to sing "Hallelujah." The third part, depicting the resurrection, recalls the joy of the beginning, and the oratiorio concludes with a great choral "Amen." The English Concert's authentic Baroque instruments help give the ensemble a feeling of lightness during the outer parts and a piercing intensity in the middle.

Similar works: Top 10 Baroque
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem in D minor, K. 626
Barbara Bonney, soprano; Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo soprano; Hans-Peter Blochwitz, tenor; Willard White, bass; English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

As anyone who has seen the film Amadeus knows, Mozart was unable to complete his Requiem Mass before his death. (It is untrue, however, that he was poisoned by the rival composer Salieri.) The task of filling out the parts that Mozart had sketched and composing the entirety of the final four movements fell to his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Süssmayr did an admirable job, and the mass feels entirely like Mozart's work. If you think that all Mozart's music is light and fluffy, you should listen to this work -- it is one of the most grief-filled pieces ever written. The English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir attempt to recreate the performance conditions of Mozart's lifetime, and the result is a spectacular performance.

Similar works: Top 10 Mozart, Top 10 Classical
Johannes Brahms: A German Requiem, Op. 45
Charlotte Margiono, soprano; Rodney Gilfry, baritone; Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Brahms's German Requiem shows that the composer could compose on the grandest of scales; this work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra ranks among the most powerful sacred works ever written. Brahms turned away from the traditional Latin text of the Requiem Mass and instead wrote a German text of his own consisting of Old Testament passages of meditation and solace. This recording demonstrates period-performance expert John Eliot Gardiner's mastery of the Romatic repertoire; the musicians move effortlessly from intimacy to grandeur.

Similar works: Top 10 Brahms, Top 10 Romantic
Johann Sebastian Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV 232
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Bach assembled the B minor Mass near the end of his life from various pieces he had composed earlier in his career, adding new music when necessary. The result is a tour de force that sums up all of the composer's extensive knowledge of sacred choral music. Bach demonstrates his versatility by writing movements for one to four soloists as well as choruses in four, five, six, and even eight parts. Some of the move famous movements are the Crucifixus, which consists of a set of variations over a repeated bass line, and the final Dona nobis pacem, which starts quietly and builds into a grand fugue. John Eliot Gardiner's gripping performance on period instruments is widely hailed as the best interpretation available on record.

Similar works: Top 10 Bach, Top 10 Baroque
Franz Joseph Haydn: Mass No. 11 in D minor, "Lord Nelson Mass"
Sylvia Stahlman, soprano; Helen Watts, alto; Wilfred Brown, tenor; Tom Krause, baritone; London Symphony Orchestra, Cambridge King's College Choir, David Willcocks, conductor

Franz Joseph Haydn is often cited as the "father of the symphony" and the "father of the string quartet," but his great sacred choral works are at least the equal of anything he wrote in a purely instrumental genre. Haydn wrote this mass in 1798 and gave it the title "Missa in Angustiis," or "Mass in Fear," which probably reflected the feelings of Haydn's fellow Austrians as Napoleon's armies were beginning their conquest of Europe. The mass acquired its more popular name after if was played for Lord Nelson, the hero of the Battle of the Nile, in 1800. Despite Haydn's ominous title, the mass expresses joy throughout, as it gloriously reaffirms Haydn's relationship with God. David Willcocks leads a superb cast of soloists in this recording that revolutionized the performance of Haydn's choral works. For an even more "authentic" feel, Trevor Pinnock's recording -- featuring instruments of Haydn's time -- is not to be missed.

Similar works: Top 10 Haydn, Top 10 Classical
Gabriel Fauré: Requiem in D minor, Op. 48
Caroline Ashton, soprano; Stephen Varcoe, baritone; Cambridge Singers, City of London Sinfonia, John Rutter, conductor

Gabriel Fauré's music embodies the classic French traits of order, restraint, and sensibilité. Fauré is revered in France, but the Requiem is one of only a few of his pieces that have become popular abroad. We do not know what inspired Fauré to undertake its composition in 1887, but we do know that the composer came back to the work in 1890, added two movements, and revised the orchestration. Most performances today use an arrangement for full orchestra from around 1900 that Fauré neither wrote nor approved. Through painstaking research, John Rutter has reconstructed Fauré's original orchestration for chamber ensemble, and his recording is a revelation.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern
Josquin des Prez: Missa "Pange Lingua"
Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips, conductor

Josquin des Prez was the greatest composer of the High Renaissance. Contemporaries hailed him as "the best of the composers of our time" and the "father of musicians." Martin Luther, who made his name in other fields was no musical slouch (he was a singer and wrote dozens of chorales) declared of Josquin, "He is the master of the notes. They must do as he wills; as for the other composers, they have to do as the notes will." Josquin's most famous work is the "Pange lingua" mass. Each movement starts with the different voices intoning the melody of the church chant "Pange lingua"; from this common beginning each proceeds with its own individual example of contrapuntal mastery. The Tallis Scholars are today's premier ensemble specializing in Renaissance vocal music, and they give a memorable performance of this Mass. The two-for-one set includes more than two hours of beautiful music by the greatest Renaissance composers, including Byrd, Tallis, Palestrina, Lassus and others.

Similar works: Top 10 Renaissance
Carl Orff: Carmina Burana
Janice Harsanyi, soprano; Rudolf Petrak, tenor; Harve Presnell, baritone; Philadelphia Orchestra, Rutgers University Chorus, Eugene Ormandy, conductor

Carl Orff's famous 1937 choral work sets to music texts from a thirteenth-century manuscript entitled Carmina Burana (Songs of the Beuren). Orff selected texts based on three themes, which make up the three parts of the work: spring, tavern life, and love. The texts, in a mixture of Latin and Middle German, are sensuous and often sexually explicit. (Many recordings do not include a translation, but one can be found here.) Unlike his contemporaries who were creating ever more complex music, Orff strove to evoke a medieval atmosphere by simplifying his musical style. As a result, Carmina Burana is one of the most accessible of all twentieth-century works. The Philadelphia Orchestra's performance is bursting with raw energy.

Similar works: Top 10 Twentieth Century
Giuseppe Verdi: Requiem
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano; Christa Ludwig, mezzo soprano; Nicolai Gedda, tenor; Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass; Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor

Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem takes its inspiration from two of Italy's foremost artists: the composer Gioacchino Rossini and the poet Alessandro Manzoni. Verdi composed one movement of the Requiem in 1869 for a compilation Mass in honor of Rossini's death, but this Mass was never performed. Four years later, the death of Manzoni (a personal hero of Verdi's) inspired the composer to expand his single movement into a full Requiem Mass. With more than twenty operas already under his belt, Verdi had vast experience writing dramatic music for chorus, and this expertise is evident throughout the Requiem; indeed, the Requiem has been described as "a magnificent opera disguised as a sacred work." Carlo Maria Giulini's recording, featuring the great soprano Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, has been the classic interpretation of this work for more than forty years.

Similar works: Top 10 Verdi, Top 10 Romantic, Top 10 Opera
Thomas Tallis: Spem in Alium
Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips, conductor

Bach's four-part conterpoint is certainly complex, but it pales in comparison with this motet, which consists of no less than forty separate melodies, all sung at the same time. The result is a great wash of sound that is one of the all-time highlights of choral music. Queen Elizabeth, for whose fortieth birthday the piece was written, was certainly impressed. The Tallis Scholars give a magnificent interpretation of their namesake's music.

Similar works: Top 10 Renaissance
Antonio Vivaldi: Gloria in D major, RV 589
Jean Rigby, soprano; Barbara Hendricks, soprano; Ann Murray, alto; Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Sier Neville Marriner, conductor

Antonio Vivladi composed more than five hundred concertos during his lifetime, but this choral gem ranks with any instrumental piece he wrote. Since Vivaldi chose to set only one movement of the Mass, he can afford to take his time with each stanza of the text. The music of each verse underscores the mood, from the jubilant "Gloria in excelsis deo" to the sorrowful "et in terra pax" to the stately concluding "cum sancto spiritu." This recording features the Gloria as well as another staple of the Baorque choral literature, Bach's Magnificat.

Similar works: Top 10 Baroque
Franz Joseph Haydn: The Creation
Gundula Janowitz, soprano; Christa Ludwig, mezzo soprano; Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Walter Berry, bass baritone; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna Singverein, Herbert von Karajan, conductor

This oratorio (a dramatic work that is not staged) tells the story of the creation, based on the Book of Genesis and John Milton's Paradise Lost. Throughout, Haydn uses instrumental effects to illustrate the story, such as a murky and dissonant texture illustrating chaos that transforms into a brilliant choral outburst at the words "Let there be light!" Herbert von Karajan's performance -- featuring the great tenor Fritz Wunderlich -- is one of the finest ever set down on record.

Similar works: Top 10 Haydn, Top 10 Classical