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.
- 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.
- Anonymous 4 • An English Ladymass • Four women with crystalline voices recorded this anthology of medieval chant and polyphony in honor of Mary.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- Morten Lauridsen • Lux Æterna, Ave Maria, O Magnum Mysterium, etc. • Richly contemplative, quietly melodic music from a living California composer.
- 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.
- 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.