This year I attempted something different as I began the process of choosing music for our next choral season. I spent a week going through all kinds of choral music and came up with a list of about 50 different motets for various liturgical seasons, ranging in style from the Renaissance to the 21st century (yes, there is very good modern music being written, even if most Catholics don’t experience it on a weekly basis), then I sent it out to my choir members and asked for their feedback. I must admit that I have enjoyed reading the responses from various singers and it will be nice knowing that most of the choral literature we sing throughout the next year will be generally liked by everyone. Anyway, I thought I would share with you some of my findings. Please remember that our parish celebrates the liturgy according to the Ordinary Form, in English, but generally very reverently (we rarely sing choral settings of the Ordinary, with the occasional exception of the Kyrie, so my list contains motets only). I hope those of you in similar circumstances might find this post helpful.
Firstly, there is a general apathy to much of Palestrina, although the music of a number of his contemporaries, especially Tallis and Victoria, is much loved. Two exceptions to this attitude are Palestrina’s Hodie Christus natus est and Jubilate Deo. In general, many of my choir members think of his music as “vanilla” and would rather sing something with a little more flavor. Other works from this era that bear the stamp of approval are Parsons’ Ave Maria, Gesualdo’s Tenebrae factae sunt (everyone likes this piece), Tallis’ O nata lux, Gibbons’ O clap your hands and Victoria’s O magnum mysterium and Improperia. Peter Philips’ music also fared generally well.
The Baroque period did not do as well as the Renaissance, although to be honest, I didn’t include as much music from this era. While Bach (and numerous other Germans) is obviously beautiful, our choir doesn’t usually sing in German. A couple of notable and well loved pieces from this time period are A. Scarlatti’s Exultate Deo and H. Hassler’s Cantate Domino (if you consider it as early Baroque).
The Classical period did about as well as the baroque period. Unfortunately, our parish isn’t in a position to sing the great Viennese Masses and there is only so much of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus that one person can handle (sorry to several readers I personally know who love this piece). Mozart’s Regina Coeli in C is generally well liked.
The Romantic era provided a number of well loved composers and works, especially Rheinberger and Bruckner. Rheinberger’s Abendlied is beautiful and especially appropriate for the Easter season. I would love to sing more of this German-ish repertoire (yes, this will push our group, as I wrote earlier, we don’t usually sing in German). As I understand it, the German countries traditionally had permission to sing in the vernacular at High Mass and a number of beautiful works came about as a result. Holst’s Ave Maria, scored for SSSSAAAA is also popular.
The modern era, if one were to include the early 20th century to the present time, proved to be, besides the Renaissance, the other popular progenitor of sacred music. Casals O vos omnes is one of my personal favorites, as well as a favorite of many others. Other well liked works are Stanford’s Beati quorum via, Poulenc’s Exultate Deo, H. Howell’s Haec dies, Parry’s I was glad, Whitacre’s Lux aurumque, Kverno’s Ave Maris Stella and Ave verum corpus, Part’s The Beautitudes and Nystedt’s Peace I Leave with You. Much to my surprise, many choir members want to sing Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium, although one alto wrote to me a one word description of the piece–“scary.” Oh well, we are going to sing it anyway.
I plan to do more of this in the future and I would recommend it to all others who direct any kind of church choir. While I still have final say over what we sing, I have found in the past that if a motet is well loved, rehearsals and moods tend to remain positive. If we sing great liturgical music and everyone is joy-filled, then our singing during Holy Mass tends to be joy-filled.