Hello! I hope everyone is safe and healthy. I’m Ms. Aste, a DHS teacher and friend of the DHS chorus program. I am thrilled to be a guest blogger! For those who don’t know, I was a double major in college, focusing on English and Music. My primary instrument is piano, but I also played percussion in band and sang alto in various chorus groups. I now accompany two choirs and fill in at area churches on piano.
As I prepared this post, it was tough to narrow down just five composers. My favorites for piano include Debussy, Chopin, and Ginastera, but given that this is a chorus blog, I opted to pick five significant vocal works instead. I also can’t resist the urge to teach, so I will go chronologically in order to illustrate major movements that guided the evolution of Western choral and vocal music.
5. BAROQUE PERIOD, roughly 1600-1750: Johann Sebastian Bach
Anytime you harmonize, thank J.S. Bach. His approach to counterpoint defined tonal music for centuries. Although choirs had existed across Europe throughout the Middle Ages, they often sang one melodic line in unison. By the fourteenth century, though, theory and notation spread rapidly, and by the fifteenth century, religious Masses became vehicles for choral performances. During the Renaissance, society was not exactly secular, with sacred composers like Machaut, Dufay, and Palestrina dominant. By the seventeenth century, the Church’s lessening political control of Europe helped non-religious music flourish, especially instrumental arrangements and several new music styles: the Baroque era.
Devout composers like Bach still experimented with Christian Mass settings, though. His Mass in B minor is one of this period’s masterpieces, and its movements date from different periods of his life. Five-part choral writing exists throughout the work. There are nine arias and duets, fourteen ensemble sections for six and even eight voices, many instrumental solos, and a vast variety of styles. The performers here are the Netherlands Bach Society, and if you only listen to one part of this recording, make it the “Dona Nobis Pacem” at 1:45:17. Hard to believe that there are only twelve vocalists!
4. CLASSICAL PERIOD, roughly 1750-1820: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
If Bach captured a new vocabulary for how to write music - many voices in harmony - then it was Mozart who made that vocabulary laugh. He composed hundreds of pieces for a vast array of contexts, and what unifies them all is an attention to texture and structure. During the Classical period, music shifted away from the ornate polyphony of the Baroque era and became “lighter.” Melodies assumed clear phrases and distinct cadences, with elegant ornamentations that were well-constructed and not overly done.
When I sang in chorus, one of my favorite pieces was Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus.” As an alto, it was thrilling to hold those half notes in steady rhythm as the sopranos leapt high above us. Even though the piece is only forty-six measures, it packs much emotion. On the score, Mozart wrote “sotto voce,” or subdued: performing this piece well means keeping it simple and direct. I selected this recording because Leonard Bernstein (another composer you should recognize – Google him if you don’t!) is the conductor, and he does a sound job of creating atmosphere and building a pensive mood. Filmed at the Basilica of Waldsassen in Franconia, Germany, the performers are the Chorus and Orchestra of Bavarian Radio.
3. EARLY ROMANTIC PERIOD, roughly 1830-1860: Ludwig van Beethoven
So, if Bach established a choral vocabulary and Mozart provided choral joy, then Beethoven ignited the flame of choral passion. Many music historians claim that he set the tone for the romantic period, thanks to his unconventional choices and emphasis on free expression. While the early and middle periods of his life adhered to classical conventions, Beethoven’s later works featured stylistic innovations that laid the groundwork for future composers like Berlioz, Wagner, or Mendelssohn to explore further.
Attached is the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This was the first symphony to feature a mixed chorus, specifically featuring that ubiquitous “Joyful, joyful” melody that I play frequently at the church. Beethoven’s decision to combine a symphony with Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” was radical. If you’re pressed for time, jump to minute 6:00 and feel the rush of “crescendoing” emotion building up to the tenor’s cry of “O Freunde!” at 6:17. By transforming a vocal melody into a complex symphonic statement, Beethoven exuded Romantic ideals of transcendence. This recording includes a graphical score in which the string instruments are rhombi, the brass and winds are colored rectangles, the percussion instruments are gray, and the vocal parts are ellipses. It’s dramatic to see such a range and density of shapes over the course of one movement, and I would LOVE to play this timpani part someday!
2. LATE ROMANTIC PERIOD, roughly 1860-1920: Amy Beach
As an English teacher, the Romantic period resonates with me. Although “romance” is now equated with love, it once meant “journey,” and this movement earned that label because it prized emotional expression. In literature, authors like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron led the way with daring poetry and imaginative novels, and in music, composers like Schubert, Schumann, and Liszt emerged. Romantic traits include a wider range of dynamics, elaborate harmonic progressions, and new structures like the rhapsody, nocturne, or song cycle. Much of the piano literature I studied stems from this era.
In selecting a vocal composer with these characteristics, I decided on Amy Beach, a pioneering female composer who wrote about 150 songs. She was also the first American female to compose and publish an original symphony. During the Romantic period, arrangements for piano and solo voice became popular. The song below, “Ah Love, But a Day,” is from Three Browning Songs, Op. 44, and is perhaps her best-known work. Pardon the old-fashioned video quality and cheesy orchestral setting, but I couldn’t resist this opportunity to introduce you to another influential musician. An acclaimed operatic tenor of the 20th century, Jussi Björling’s legacy and richly inflected phrasing continues to influence many singers.
1. TWENTIETH CENTURY AND BEYOND, roughly 1920-now: Eric Whitacre
Key characteristics of modern music definitely do NOT include homogeneity. Disillusioned by wars and societal upheavals, twentieth century composers reacted to a changing world by innovating rhythms, melodies, timbres, and tonalities. Because they experienced unprecedented creative freedom, composers experimented with performance techniques and reinvented music forms. Thanks to advances in sound recording and technology, musicians had the resources to play with sounds. Recently, I attended a Boston Ballet performance with my niece, andhat night’s program highlighted twentieth century composers like Stravinsky, Phillip Glass, and Thom Willems. It was wild to hear electronica at the Boston Opera House!
If you have ever gazed at the Eric Whitacre poster in the DHS Chorus Room, then you are aware of one such composer. Based out of Los Angeles, Grammy award-winning Whitacre writes orchestral works and is known for his music composed for vocal ensemble. His “Virtual Choir” is a phenomenon with over forty million views, and below is its first performance, “Lux Arumumque.” Inspired by a short Christmas poem by Edward Eschatin, the title is Latin for “light and gold.” Charles Anthony Silvestri then translated the text into Latin for Whitacre, who rendered the piece into a lush arrangement for mixed chorus. Another fun fact that you should know: after Whitacre arranged the piece for wind ensemble in 2005, Mr. Daniels and I began performing it together frequently in BC Symphonic Band concerts!
Thanks so much for reading this blog post. Who is YOUR favorite composer? If you could participate in a Virtual Choir, what piece would be best to perform? Stay safe and I hope to see you all again soon!