A Dozen CDs of Sacred Choral Music

I love choral music, and I have a particular fondness for sacred choral music. I listen to Vaughan Williams’ joyfully melodic Mass in G Minor almost every day, and great choral composers both ancient and modern — including William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, John Rutter and John Tavener — stay in heavy rotation on my iPod. This isn’t just a fad I’ve embraced since becoming a Catholic, either; my love for sacred choral music goes all the way back to my college days, and continued to grow during my decade as an Episcopalian; it even stayed with me throughout my Pagan years (I first heard Lauridsen’s Lux Æterna on NPR while driving to ‘s house a few years back, to pick her up for a workshop we were leading on the Celtic gods & goddesses).

For those of you who might be interested in exploring this kind of music for yourself, here are a dozen wonderful CDs of sacred choral music; I own copies of all these, and most of them are frequently listened to in my house. Read the annotations to discover why I think these are titles worth owning; follow the links to purchase from Amazon.

  1. Abbess Hildegard of Bingen • A Feather on the Breath of God • This 1982 recording ignited a craze for sacred medieval music, and singlehandedly rescued Hildegard’s otherworldly 11th-century chant from obscurity, particularly due to the angelic soprano of Emma Kirkby.
  2. Anonymous 4 • An English Ladymass • Four women with crystalline voices recorded this anthology of medieval chant and polyphony in honor of Mary.
  3. Cappella Nova • Scottish Medieval Plainchant: Columba, Most Holy of Saints • An assortment of Scottish liturgical music, including a setting of the Lauds for the Feast of St. Columba of Iona.
  4. William Byrd • Gradualia: The Marian Masses • One of the true great choral composers of the 16th century, this disc features music for Candlemas and for the Annunciation and Assumption of Mary.
  5. Thomas Tallis • Spem in Alium and Other Works • A collection of Latin works by the celebrated 16th century composer, including his renowned 40-part motet.
  6. Palestrina • Missa Beatæ Mariæ Virginis II, etc. • Still more magic from the 16th century, featuring works by the leading Italian choral composer of his time.
  7. Ralph Vaughan Williams • Mass in G Minor, etc. • Without doubt, my favorite choral setting of the mass, first performed on my birthday (December 6) in 1922. Music critic Douglas Hammond describes it as “purposefully spiritual in the manner of great Elizabethan liturgical music, employing clearly defined imitative entries for the voices, melodic shapes derived from plainchant, and modal harmonies. The composer did not abandon, though, the suggestion of English folksong and parallel harmonies typical of his style in general.”
  8. John Tavener • Sacred Music of John Tavener • Accessible anthology of motets and hymns by England’s leading contemporary composer of Orthodox sacred music. The electrifying “Magnificat” is alone worth the price of the CD.
  9. John Rutter & the Cambridge Singers • Ave Gracia Plena: Music in Honour of the Virgin Mary • Lovely Marian anthology (featuring music spanning over six centuries) assembled by a popular contemporary composer and choral director.
  10. Morten Lauridsen • Lux Æterna, Ave Maria, O Magnum Mysterium, etc. • Richly contemplative, quietly melodic music from a living California composer.
  11. Ars Nova Singers • A Shadow and a Dream (music by Hildegard of Bingen, Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, etc.) • Nice anthology provides an overview of sacred music over the centuries.
  12. The Grail Singers • A Woman’s Celebration of Chant and Harmony • Charming contemporary anthology of a women’s chorus, including music sung in both Latin and English.

Happy listening!

  • http://folkmew.livejournal.com/ folkmew

    Ooh! We have 1, 2. Not sure of all the others but we do have a fair bit.
    I’m very very fond of that particular von Bingen – but then I love Emma Kirkby. Have you heard her GOthic Voices?

    We also are very fond of one we picked up:
    CantoGregoriano
    Gregorian Chant – Choralschola der Wiener Hofbur
    Praetorius_Terpsichore_Motets

    Purcell_Taverner (includes his funeral motet and his wonderful Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day)

    The Andrew Parrot – Tavener Players Messiah is sublime – Emma Kirkby and others. Very nice. No screeching sopranos.

    Voice of Ascension – Byond Chant Mysteries of… (somtehing – sorry ours are mp3 ripped and I don’t have access to the liner notes). It’s a lovely collection though – Palestrina and others. Gorgeous.

    We’ve been checking out Mediaeval Babes and they’re pretty good too. Nice blend. Slighly quirky mix but mostly early music. So far I like them.

    Boston Camerata has some lovely stuff. We like their Rennaisance and Medieval Christmas albums. Anne Azema has a gorgeous voice.

    Ooh – Heart’s Solace – Tavener Consort – Andrew Parrot – I got this because it was the only good early music recording I found of Bach’s fantastic “Jesu Meine Freude” which is just spectacular. There is other nice stuff on it though.

    Visions and Miracles by Ensemble Alcatraz is nice but includes instrumental early music as well. It’s troubadour/trouvere’s type.

    And, even though it’s a bit on the “newagy” side i have to admit that in the right mood I rather like: HildegardVonBingen_Visions

    Thanks for the list! I’ll memory it for future refrence. :-)

    • http://anamchara.com/ Carl McColman

      And thanks for your list, too. This will be fun to explore.

      Check out this recording of Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit and Handel’s Organ Concertos by the New Trinity Baroque:

      Recognize the organ pipes on the cover? It’s the organ at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Atlanta, that Ed helped build. The NTB is currently ensemble in residence at St. Bart’s, and this CD was recorded at the church.

  • http://sihaya09.livejournal.com/ sihaya09

    So much of that reminds me of music that I used to perform– I love Palestrina & Hildegard Von Bingen.

    • http://anamchara.com/ Carl McColman

      Used to? If you are a singer who’s not singing, I hope that’s a temporary situation (and if it’s a matter of religion, well, the Pagan world needs more beautiful music)…

  • http://gratefulbear.livejournal.com/ gratefulbear

    I’m not sure what your comment about Morten Lauridsen means: what is “richly competitive music”?

    I’d add “Te Deum” by Arvo Part, a contemporary composer in the same vein as Tavener and Gorecki.

    • http://anamchara.com/ Carl McColman

      What it means is, like most writers I need an editor, and like most writers I especially need an editor when I’m writing after midnight. It should have been “richly contemplative” as you can see now that I’ve fixed it. Boy, talk about your Freudian slip. Won’t my spiritual director have a field day with this one (“So tell me, Carl, what exactly is it about contemplative prayer that makes you feel so competitive?”)…

      Yes, Pärt’s Te Deum is magnificent. I’d say that Górecki, Pärt and Tavener are the holy trinity of contemporary sacred music.

      • http://gratefulbear.livejournal.com/ gratefulbear

        I agree! Gorecki, Part, and Tavener are the greatest composers alive today. (I might add Philip Glass to that list, if we exclude some of his experimental/repetitive stuff.)

        How do you get the special markings over the o in Gorecki and the a in Part?

        • http://anamchara.com/ Carl McColman

          If you’re using a Macintosh, it’s easy:

          option u + a = ä
          option e + o = ó

          But if you’re using a PC, I can’t help you. :)

          • http://dream_singer.livejournal.com/ dream_singer

            To make the ä in Pärt on a PC you hold down the ALT key and type 0228 on the numberpad :-)

          • http://ethereal_misfit.livejournal.com/ ethereal_misfit

            How the HECK do you come up with a little tidbit of information like THAT? “Stand on your left foot, look at the second star from the right, hum in German while chewing a Cadbury Easter egg, hit the third key on the left side of the right………”

            Just kidding; people who can do that kind of stuff just amaze / amuse me.

  • http://wheezinggirl.livejournal.com/ wheezinggirl

    Ah, nice list. Thank you for it – it will help me tremendously. My father likes Opera and Classical music and he is nortoriously difficult to buy for at Christmastime – maybe I should pick out one of these.

    • http://anamchara.com/ Carl McColman

      “An English Ladymass” and “A Feather on the Breath of God” are both utterly gorgeous, but they’re also older recordings and well-known, so he may already have them. This year is the 500th birth anniversary of Tallis, so something by him would be apropos. I really like Lauridsen, although some folks think he’s a tad on the sweet side. For darker stuff go with Górecki or Pärt (if you hailed from a former Soviet bloc country your music would probably be dark too). If you want to listen to any of these, I can lend them to you. Happy shopping!

  • http://superbbluewren.livejournal.com/ superbbluewren

    This is an interesting collection to explore. Thank you!

  • http://dream_singer.livejournal.com/ dream_singer

    You know, I am continually intrigued by the number of interests we have in common! Sacred choral music is my profession and my two specialities are (1) Tudor music, especially Byrd and Tallis, and (2) the “holy minimalists,” especially Tavener and Pärt. I have recordings of many of the works you list, although by different artists. I’ll look forward to exploring some of the others.

    One of my life pinnacle moments was an opportunity to sing a concert in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. Here we were, an American choir presuming to perform in the venue of the world’s most celebrated choir. I suppose the audience had a right to be skeptical. The first work on our program was the Lauridsen O Magnum Mysterium, which we sang at the far east end of the chapel, a distance from the audience, and it just floated so elegantly in that famous acoustic. The audience was captivated and the rest of the program just got better. Had I died right then I would have been content. I have had nice feelings about Lauridsen’s music ever since!


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