Secular choral music
February 24, 2011 6:42 AM   Subscribe

Can you recommend some secular choral music?

I'm looking for recommendations of secular choral music, within some fairly specific parameters:

I'm not after short stuff - partsongs, madrigals etc. (this includes collections). As a rule of thumb, I'd say 15 minutes is a good minimum length; no maximum.

No big solos; although I'm not averse to something that has some small solo sections or passages. Think something that would be taken by a member of the chorus, rather than getting a soloist in.

I am after stuff that is suitable for a large chorus (so not Bach cantatas, for example).

I'm after 'classical' repertoire - not songs from the shows medlies or arrangements of hits from the 60's.

I'm open on accompaniment, from none to big orchestra; but what I really want is stuff accompanied by small ensemble or single instrument (most likely piano/organ).
posted by monkey closet to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
The Carmina Burana came immediately to mind. I'll have to see if I can come up with stuff that doesn't require a full orchestra.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:52 AM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Poulenc's secular choral music.

Carmina Burana is ruled out by the no big solos requirement.
posted by Jahaza at 6:52 AM on February 24, 2011

Love, love love Randall Thompson's Frostiana.
posted by Melismata at 6:55 AM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

A classic is the choirs from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Other than that, I guess that pretty much every French Baroque opera contains tons of material; the choirs are sort of the glue that keeps everything together.
posted by Namlit at 7:38 AM on February 24, 2011

Hear me out, here, but I think that Britten's Hymn to St. Cecilia is awfully CLOSE to secular -- certainly in the same vein as Carmina Burana, which was written by drunken monks. It kind of treats St. Cecilia as a mythological figure and doesn't dwell on it.

Text here.

Oh! Oh! Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzer and Neue Liebeslieder. SUPER fun to sing, and the solos are very accessible. Also, it's easy to mix and match the movements if, for some reason, you have to shorten the concert. (We went back and forth on a few when we went on tour.)

I bet Brahms would have a whole bunch more.

I'm trying to think if Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony has parts that DON'T require soloists. Vaughan Williams, Holst, Britten should all have some good stuff based on folk songs, though if you don't want sets of songs that might not be as helpful.

Vaughan Williams, "In Windsor Forest" (tip of the hat to KathrynT)
posted by Madamina at 8:22 AM on February 24, 2011

Look at the works of Morton Lauridsen -- Les Chanson des Roses & Midwinter Songs. Also there's a Vaughan Williams cantata called "In Windsor Forest" that is for chorus and orchestra; it has some extremely minimal solo work, about 12 bars total, but is gooooooorgeous.

The Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes! Also Shicksalslied, though that is very orchestral.

I've asked a musicology friend of mine; I'll post again if she has other ideas.
posted by KathrynT at 8:28 AM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's all five movements of In Windsor Forest, btw. This is, ironically, the very performance I learned the piece for.

Mvmt 1: Sigh No More Ladies
Mvmt2: Drinking Song
Mvmt 3: Falstaff and the Fairies, this contains the only solo passages
Mvmt 4: See the Chariot at Hand
Mvmt 5: Epilogue
posted by KathrynT at 8:36 AM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

My first thought was The Execution of Stepan Razin by Dmitri Shostakovich, but there's a big bass solo. A reduction for piano & chorus does exist, though I haven't heard it and can't quite believe it would have the same effect.

The Finale of Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette is another great secular choral piece, but again has a large bass solo.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:10 AM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I came in here to recommend Lauridsen's Midwinter Songs, but see I've been beaten to the punch!

Benjamin Britten's Five Flower Songs runs shorter than what you're looking for, but otherwise meets your criteria.
posted by drlith at 10:34 AM on February 24, 2011

Curses! I was going to suggest In Windsor Forest and Frostiana... there must not be that much of this stuff.

It's too short (~7 minutes), but I kind of liked "The 21st Century" by Greg Bartholomew, which is a setting of Kofi Annan's Nobel Peace Prize lecture. From his webpage it looks like he has several other secular choral pieces (though they're all shorter than 15 minutes).
posted by mskyle at 11:02 AM on February 24, 2011

If you're willing to include more recent, but classical-feeling (i.e., not pop song) stuff, you have a fair number of options. The work of Morten Lauridsen, already mentioned, would be in there, as would some of the longer pieces by Eric Whitacre, and a lot of the work of Arvo Paert.

Also, keep in mind that it if you're open to things that involve an orchestra, it might be worth looking at things written for orchestra that feature chorus, rather than the other way around, as those works might be less likely to be sacred. Lots of symphonies that involve chorus only do so for one or two movements, but even if you just excerpted the choral movements, you'd still meet your minimum length, here. Examples of things to look at might include the Mahler 2 or 8, or even the Beethoven 9 (the last movement of which is typically about 25 minutes).
posted by andrewpendleton at 11:05 AM on February 24, 2011

Beethoven's Choral Fantasy Op. 80 is fun, but possibly not choral enough.
posted by Hylas at 11:18 AM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, you might enjoy Mahler's 8th Symphony (The Symphony of A Thousand).
posted by Hylas at 11:24 AM on February 24, 2011

The Bells (Rachmaninoff) is a choral symphony based on a poems by Edgar Allen Poe. Very Russian and luscious.

Three Shakespeare Songs (Vaughan Williams) are knee-tremblingly good but fall a little short of your 15 minute target. Not sure if you're after >15 minutes of through-composed music or a >15 minute programme? There are any number of other Shakespeare settings to pad out with if it's the latter.

Finally, The Music Makers (Elgar). Written very late on in his career and a fitting summation of his life's work. "We are the music makers, / And we are the dreamers of dreams..."
posted by dogsbody at 11:47 AM on February 24, 2011

Also, you might enjoy Mahler's 8th Symphony (The Symphony of A Thousand).

Rough to perform, though, since it involves so many people. I did it with the Seattle Symphony, and we put on probably the smallest possible performance of the work, with 380 people onstage.

but damn it is lovely
posted by KathrynT at 11:53 AM on February 24, 2011

Philip Glass has a number of interesting choral works. "Another Look at Harmony," perhaps, which can be done with organ or small ensemble, or his Symphony no. 7 ("Toltec"). I know his "Symphony no. 5" best, and it is gorgeous and profound, but it's not really secular...though the texts are actually from a number of world religions and not any one in particular, if that makes a difference.

There are entire symphonies written for unaccompanied choirs, though I'm not familiar with them.

I love Frostiana, too. First thing I'd thought of.

Have you also considered choral transcriptions of Bach airs and fugues? They're challenging and interesting. Google the Swingle Singers.
posted by tully_monster at 12:02 PM on February 24, 2011

Glass' fellow minimalist John Adams has done a lot of kick-ass choral work. Harmonium (excerpt), which arranges poems by Donne and Dickinson, is the big one, but his operas also had some striking pieces. Check out "The People are the Heroes Now" from Nixon in China or the Orff-tastic "Night Chorus" from The Death of Klinghoffer.
posted by Iridic at 12:28 PM on February 24, 2011

Look at Frank Ferko. He's got a nice-sized back catalog of choral works, and he takes commissions.
posted by Clambone at 1:40 PM on February 24, 2011

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