Singing is the oldest form of musical expression. The origins of solo and choral vocal music are found in prehistory since singing in big groups is extremely widespread in most cultures. The oldest surviving evidence dates back to classical antiquity. In Ancient Greece, there is considerable evidence of unison singing and chorus singing to accompany drama.

The earliest evidence of music being written down in the Western world is in the form of Gregorian chant which dates from Medieval times. During the Middle Ages, new types of singing emerged, namely organum, the singing involving multiple melodic parts and polyphony.

The origins of solo and choral vocal music are found in prehistory

During the Renaissance, sacred music was the principal type of formally notated music across Europe. Hundreds of motets, masses by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, William Byrd and Josquin des Prez make up a huge part of the magnificent Renaissance vocal repertoire. Madrigals were more light-hearted, secular songs, consisting of musical settings of unrequited love poetry and songs about the seasons, eating and drinking, very popular in Renaissance Italy and England.

One of the ground-breaking Baroque choral works was undoubtedly Handel’s Messiah. Many German Baroque composers wrote cantatas. Significant composers of cantatas are Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann and Dieterich Buxtehude.

...the oldest form of musical expression...

Caitriona O'Leary

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Composers of the late 18th century became intrigued with the new possibilities for composing for instruments, meanwhile, choral music took second place for a time. Nevertheless, Mozart’s Requiem remains one of the most prized pieces of his vast corpus of masterpieces. Franz Schubert is renowned for his vocal music. Indeed, he strengthened the German vocal repertoire. He composed over 600 secular vocal works, mainly Lieder, as well as some sacred works.

Schubert had a close friendship with the poet Mayrhofer and two of Schubert’s operas and 47 of his songs are based on Mayrhofer’s lyric poems. He paid tribute to numerous other writers, focusing intensely on one poet at a time, for example 15 of his songs from 1814 are dedicated to Friedrich von Matthisson and he was focused on Goethe towards the end of the following year. One remarkable song from this time was the Erlkönig, inspired by the Goethe tale of a father and son trying to escape the figure of death in which he vividly captures the frantic terror in a large ballad structure, tied together with urgent virtuosic triplet rhythms, ending in a poignant recitative.

In the Romantic Period, Schumann, who composed a great deal of important vocal repertoire, actually claimed never to have considered song composition as ‘great art’- he pragmatically saw vocal music as the most marketable of genres, which led to him almost exclusively writing for voice in a particular year of financial instability.

Mahler’s song style mixes modernism, ideals of Romanticism and ethnic influences. Mahler grew up in a prosperous Moravian market town where Czech folksongs and barrel organs were part of the fabric of his surroundings. Although most commonly remembered as one of the greatest symphonists who ever lived, he wrote a large amount of Lieder for voice and piano. In his twenties, he composed a song cycle for solo voice and orchestra, dedicated to a soprano with whom he had a love –affair, Johanna Richter: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Travelling Apprentice – sometimes translated as Songs of a Wayfarer). Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) is written for two voices and orchestra, which was described as a symphony when it was published.

Mahler’s song style mixes modernism, ideals of Romanticism and ethnic influences.

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In the twentieth century, Olivier Messiaen wrote many songs, mostly liturgical, such as O sacrum convivium and Trois petites liturgies de la presence divine. Messiaen’s Harawi and Cinq rechants for twelve unaccompanied singers are both based on the legend of Tristan und Isolde.

Arvo Pärt is an example of a living composer associated with vocal music and as of 2013 is one of the most widely performed contemporary composers. He has worked extensively in a minimalist style that is partly inspired by Gregorian chant. His beautiful Magnificat and Nunc dimitis are representative of his ethereal, expansive sonority.

Ars Nova Copenhagen

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