15 of the greatest classical choral works ever written

7 September 2021, 17:38 | Updated: 9 September 2021, 12:55

St Paul's Cathedral Choristers Prepare For Live-Streamed Concert
St Paul's Cathedral Choristers Prepare For Live-Streamed Concert. Picture: Getty

By Rosie Pentreath

From Pergolesi to Pärt, here are the choral bangers absolutely guaranteed to make your heart sing.

There’s nothing quite like experiencing a large chorus and orchestra performing sublime choral music in full force.

And, luckily for us, many of history’s great composers have turned their pen to large-scale works for choirs, creating glorious choral music to fill large sacred spaces, and help us question the meaning of life.

From early Baroque composer Pergolesi, to modern Estonian master of minimalist music Arvo Pärt, here are some of the very best choral pieces ever written.

Read more: 10 pieces of classical music that will 100% change your life

  1. Vivaldi: Gloria (1715)

    Baroque great Vivaldi’s popular setting of the hymn, ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ is joyous and magnificent, as much of a pick-me-up as any choral gem. From its opening flourish the driving piece never lets up, carrying even the most nonchalant listener along on its ecstatic journey.

  2. Bach: St Matthew Passion (1727)

    You can’t have a playlist of choral music without Bach. It would just be preposterous. Listen to every single choral piece he ever wrote right now, but also the St Matthew Passion is picked out for sublime moments like the aria ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott,’ which seems to literally tear your heart apart, and the stirring opening chorus ‘Kommt, ihr Töchter’.

  3. Pergolesi: Stabat Mater (1736)

    Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater is quite simply one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. Big call, we know, but just listen to the opening ‘Stabat Mater Dolorosa’ and three or four notes in, you will agree with us. The whole piece is heart-wrenchingly moving, existential and compelling. Everything you want in fine sacred choral music.

  4. Handel: Messiah (1741)

    Handel composed his enduringly popular English-language oratorio in 1741 and it contains the crowd-pleasing ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. Today, the large-scale choral piece has become a firm favourite at Christmastime, as traditional for concert hall regulars as Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet and a cheeky snifter of eggnog.

  5. Mozart: Requiem (1791)

    For the most profound spiritual existentialism in choral music, you’ve got to turn to Mozart’s Requiem – the final, unfinished work he wrote, and one that some would have you believe contributed to the composer’s tragic early demise. Movements like the ‘Lacrimosa’ contain incredible beauty but also an awe-inspired terror, reflecting the composer’s descent into the abyss of eventual death. It’s a powerful work not to be missed.

    Read more: Deceit, murder and a masked man – the true story behind Mozart’s Requiem

  6. Haydn: The Creation (1798)

    Classical composer Joseph Haydn was strongly influenced by Handel’s Messiah when he crafted this, one of his greatest masterpieces. The piece presents the Judeo-Christian Creation story as it is told in John Milton’s 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost, translated into German by Haydn’s patron, baron Gottfried van Swieten.

  7. Beethoven: Missa Solemnis (1823)

    Beethoven wrote his crowning choral achievement at the same time as his magnificent Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’. It’s grand to listen to, and technically demanding to play, demonstrating the very best of Beethoven.

  8. Coleridge-Taylor: The Song of Hiawatha (1855)

    British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Song of Hiawatha is a three-section choral work of epic proportions. Setting poetry by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, it tells of native American Ojibwe warrior Hiawatha, and his love for aative American Dakota woman Minnehaha. It was premiered at the Royal College of Music in London under the baton of Charles Villiers Stanford.

    Read more: 10 best works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

  9. Bruckner: Mass in F minor (1867)

    Austrian Romantic composer Anton Bruckner’s music is vastly ambitious and almost architectural in its scale and structure. His Mass No. 3 in F minor is a setting of the Roman Catholic mass ordinary which deploys vast choral and orchestral forces with the high drama and high intensity of 19th-century orchestral writing.

  10. Verdi: Requiem (1874)

    Verdi’s Romantic era take on setting the Requiem Mass is a true blockbuster in the choral music canon. It’s often labeled as an opera, it’s so epic (and, after all, that’s what Verdi is best known for). The composer dedicated it to the memory of the poet, playwright, and novelist Alessandro Manzoni.

  11. Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius (1900)

    English composer Elgar completed this large-scale choral work in 1900, and based it on a Victorian poem exploring big questions around life, death and purgatory, by Cardinal John Henry Newman. The work is huge, calling for double orchestra and two organs as well as the large choir. A towering piece for any choral music fan to get their teeth stuck into.

  12. Orff: Carmina Burana (1936)

    German composer Carl Orff dubbed Carmina Burana a “scenic cantata”. The monumental work is built from excerpts from a manuscript of 11th- to 13th-century poems and dramatic texts, and they make for an earth-shatteringly dramatic choral piece. The work uses harmonies and textures that give it a timeless, or if anything a medieval feel, and the opening ‘O Fortuna’ packs an instant punch as it strikes up.

  13. Britten: The War Requiem (1962)

    The War Requiem was commissioned for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral when it was rebuilt after World War Two bombing, and first performed in 1962. The poignant music sets the traditional Latin text of the Requiem Mass alongside poetry by the war poet Wilfred Owen.

  14. Pärt: The Beatitudes (1990)

    The Beatitudes are blessings pronounced by Jesus Christ. which sum up his teachings on life and living as a child of God’s kingdom. They are found at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel and known as the Sermon on the Mount, and Pärt’s settings of the words are reflective and beautiful.

  15. Panufnik: Westminster Mass (1997)

    British composer Roxanna Panufnik composed her Westminster Mass for treble or soprano soloist, with choir, strings, two harps and tubular bells. The bells, and interesting interweaving, often suspended, harmonies lend the piece a hypnotising and expansive quality. Sublime.