The historical journey of choral music is a fascinating one. It’s journeyed from plainchant, sung in a strict liturgical settings by monks underneath the spires of great churches and cathedrals across Europe; meandered through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries with newfound polyphonic and harmonic purpose thanks to the pioneering compositions of Byrd, Bach and Beethoven; and evolved further and dissected by early 20th century composers such as Mahler, Schoenberg and Britten.
Fast-forward to today and choral music is thriving. Communal singing is more alive than ever in local choirs, choral societies and churches, and new works are being churned out year on year. So to help freshen up your listening sessions and unearth some more hidden gems from the present day, we’ve decided to share five contemporary choral works that deserve your attention.
Judith Bingham – First Light
Written in 2001 by British composer Judith Bingham for the Winchester-based Waynflete singers, First Light is set to a poem by Mark Shaw about the Incarnation - the religious belief that God became man through Jesus Christ. Bingham plunges listeners into atmospheric uncertainty from the offset of this piece, thanks to her macabre harmonic language and dynamic writing for brass ensemble and choir. The singing itself is epic, fluctuating between delicately sung passages and moments of thunder.
John Adams – Harmonium
John Adams’s Harmonium is a wondrous, sonic treat for the ears. Composed between 1980 and 1981, the piece pulses with layers of minimalist textures similar to those heard in the works of other composers of this era including Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Adams uses these layers of sound to drive the music forward in its most epic moments, and provide an ethereal backdrop in others.
Magnus Lindberg – Graffiti
The clash of old and new comes to a head in this 2009 work by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. The piece's sung text directly derives from vandalism found in Ancient Roman cities, using the Latin language to bring to life the scribbles in and around Pompeii and Herculaneum. The choral writing itself ventures through dramatic, eerie and chaotic soundworlds, reaching an exhilarating climax when the choir’s complex polyrhythmic patterns unite in force. It’s a distorted ode to a world once dominated by the Roman Empire that feels further away than ever.
Meredith Monk – Panda Chant II
Now for something a little different - a work written by avant-garde composer and vocal improviser Meredith Monk. 'Panda Chant II' is taken from Monk's 1983 science-fiction opera The Games, written for 16 voices, synthesizer, keyboards, Flemish bagpipes, Chinese horn and rauschpfeife. The Games is set in a post-nuclear future, where citizens take part in ritualistic games in order to save themselves and the remainder of civilisation. 'Panda Chant II' highlights the flexibility of the human voice as it morphs into the sound of our furry friends.There’s no denying the barminess on show in this minute-and-a-half musical thrill ride of overlapping rhythms, but it’s an incredibly fun piece of music – especially when you add in body percussion of rhythmic stamps and claps.
Eric Whitacre - Lux Aurumque
A translation of the poem Light and Gold by Edward Esch, Lux Aurumque was originally a piece for wind ensemble before being fully introduced to the world as a choral work by composer Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir in 2009. It’s a stunning piece of contemporary choral music, in which Whitacre keeps listeners guessing with every chord, while, at the same time, dazzling with transcendent textures. The final chord is one of pure bliss, and is the cherry on top of an arguably perfect piece of choral music.
This article was written by Alex Weston, a baritone in the London Contemporary Voices.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.