Calling all music ministry directors! Is your weekly repertoire feeling stagnant? Does your congregation half-heartedly mumble through the same old hymns with the enthusiasm of a Galápagos tortoise? Well never fear, Aleteia is here with a list of some of the most beautiful pieces of sacred choral music ever written.
The Catholic faith has a deep-seated tradition of downright gorgeous music that goes back over 1,000 years. In fact, the advancement of music in Western civilization was primarily driven by the desire to create beautiful hymns in order to better honor the glorious name of God. You don’t have to go back 1,000 years to find resplendent sacred music, however, as the 20th century saw many composers return to the ethereal traditions set by Palestrina.
So next time you’re getting ready to pull out the hymnal to make your music selections, we encourage you to give pause and consider some of these.
Notre Père – Maurice Duruflé
The Our Father prayer, sung in French. It was written in 1977 by French composer Maurice Duruflé, who originally wrote the tune for a male choir, but it became so popular that he rearranged it for mixed voices the following year. This was the last piece Duruflé ever wrote and he was never able to perform it, because of a car accident that left him unable to leave his house.
O Magnum Mysterium – Morten Lauridsen
Another 20th-century piece, written in 1994 by American composer Morten Lauridsen. Although the Latin text tells the story of the Nativity, the beauty of Lauridsen’s music has made it his most popular piece and it is performed year-round. The tune is written in counterpoint, meaning each voice of this song is singing its own melodic line and they all meld together perfectly to create a mystifying sound.
Of the work, Lauridsen said: “I wanted this piece to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound.”
Spem In Alium – Thomas Tallis
A Renaissance-era motet written by English composer Thomas Tallis in the 1570s. “Spem in Alium” is another example of excellent use of counterpoint. The song was originally composed for 40 voices, broken into eight choirs of five singers, and Tallis even specified that the small choirs should stand around the room to surround the listeners. The 40-part chorus version is more commonly reduced to 11 parts, because what church choir has 40 people nowadays?
Ave verum corpus – Mozart
Mozart composed “Ave verum corpus” in 1791 for the feast of Corpus Christi. Mozart put his opera, The Magic Flute, on hold so he could finish this hymn, written just 6 months before his death. The tune foreshadows many of the elements found in his Requiem, which he would compose the majority of over the following 6 months, but could not finish before his death.
Versa est in luctum – Alonso Lobo
Written by Spanish composer Alonso Lobo in the late Renaissance era for the funeral of Philip II, in 1598. The Canadian poet Donato Mancini best described the piece:
Out of the slow river of beautiful notes, stunning phrases sometimes emerge, or bold homophonic internal gestures divert the forward motion somewhat. The full choir is present almost throughout, and Lobo creates, with his wall of gorgeous sound, an appropriately majestic work of mourning.