Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Lasell Village wrap-up, Choral version

My summer lectures at Lasell Village ended a week ago. If you remember, I was giving one lecture on "The Ten Greatest Choral Works" and another called "Modern Music: Why It's Not That Horrible." Overall it was a great experience; I learned a lot (such as how MUCH time lecture prep takes, holy COW) and I got to do some research and learning and listening I otherwise wouldn't have had the impetus to do.

At the end of the choral masterpieces class, I took a vote on which piece was everyone's favorite. Some people declined to vote, but here's how it shook out.

Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina - 0 votes
Bach’s Mass in B Minor - 1 vote
Handel’s Messiah - 3 votes
Haydn’s Creation - 1 vote
Mozart’s Requiem - 1 vote
Mendelssohn’s Elijah - 1 vote
Brahms’ Requiem - 1 vote
Britten’s War Requiem - 3 votes
Faure’s Requiem - 2 votes
Barber’s Reincarnations - 0 votes

I think the biggest surprise was that none of them went for Palestrina. As a Renaissance-lover, this was shocking to me! Renaissance music was one of the great revelations of my teenage years. I actually had one gentleman come up and tell me he thought he would have to quit the class because he couldn't stand the Palestrina that much; I told him to stick it out and he was happy by the time we got to Handel. But!!!

Also, the Barber probably didn't get as many votes b/c I played it in-class at the last class, so they didn't have a listening assignment with it the way they did with the rest, and they didn't get a chance to sit with it. It might seem like an odd choice, but I wanted to have something in there to represent the beauty of the small-scale. It was a tough choice between the Barber and Fine's Hourglass Suite.

In general, I was trying to choose a representative variety of pieces, no more than 3 from any one historical period, no more than one from any composer (this was to prevent Bach headaches, among other things), not dominated by the Germanic tradition (though how well I did on that front is debatable - after all, no Russians?), and I wanted to choose pieces where the chorus was the main event. (Hence the lack of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, which is arguably one of the ten best pieces ever, but not one of the ten best choral pieces ever because the chorus is not even present for 70% of it.) What pieces would you have added...and most importantly, what pieces would you have swapped out to make room? Verdi, Berlioz, Stravinsky, and Duruflé were all very close to making the cut for me.


  1. Interesting, Allegra!
    My leaning is toward the small-scale, and away from the choral-orchestral work (though I'm happy enough to sing through them in an open sing format.) That's going to skew my list away from 'greatest' toward 'most satisfying to sing,' and maybe that's a totally different thing.
    For instance: my Bach might be a motet like Lobet Den Herrn, or Singet Dem Herrn.
    Brahms Requiem, lovely, but --O Heiland, Reiss die Himmel Auf is wonderful; also the Marienlieder.
    The first Palestrina I knew was 'Sicut Cervus', three minutes of bliss.
    Mozart, Ave Verum Corpus, likewise
    Your Faure and Barber would make my list.
    But then I'm ready to make some cuts.

    From a purely choral point of view, I'd take a pass on the Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn; and I think Britten is ghastly for the female, as opposed to treble, voice--tends to lie in ranges that always go out of tune.

    But then you could add:

    Schubert, Mass in G-- I just can't resist that walking bass line.
    A Bruckner motet, such as Os Justi or Locus Iste
    Stravinsky Mass (or Symphony of Psalms)
    And the Schutz German Requiem noses out Monteverdi for the last spot.

    This is all a tough sell from the audience development point of view, because it's far easier to sell tickets to a work that's great in scope as well as quality. But for the singer who doesn't care to be doubled by violins, or drowned out by tympani, there's a lot of great stuff around.

  2. Hi Carolyn,

    Thanks for all the thoughts!

    I too also love small-scale works, but the reason I chose so many large-scale works is that you get many small-scale works for the price of one! E.g. Elijah. It seemed more efficient. :)

    I won't respond to every idea you brought up, but I will just say that I did briefly consider using Brahms' Geistliches Lied instead of the Requiem and Stravinsky almost made it on. I may cut Elijah in the future to make a place for him.

    Have you sung the Britten?

  3. That's a point--I have "He watching over Israel" in mind just now. By the same token, of course, not all choruses of a large work are equally successful (except in Bach.)
    I have not sung that Britten, but 'Gloriana,' Hymn to Saint Cecilia, and even the Ceremony of Carols all leave me feeling like I'm playing the wrong instrument, maybe a trumpet in a piano trio piece.

  4. @ Carolyn:

    I've sung the Hymn to St. Cecilia and Ceremony of Carols, and I loved where they fell in my voice! :) I'm an alto though; are you a soprano? May be different for different voice parts. Or more likely, different for different voices!