A History of Western Choral Music.
In this two-volume set, author Chester L. Alwes discusses composers and elements critical to understanding Western choral music from the medieval period until the mid-2010s. Alwes feels it is essential to familiarize oneself with medieval-era liturgy and theory before examining fifteenth-century masses, so these works are presented mostly chronologically. Volume 1 begins with Guillaume de Machaut (approximately 1300-1377) and ends with Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901); volume 2 opens with the development of the oratorio and nineteenth-century genres such as the choral symphony, and concludes with John Adams. The publication is based on thirty years of Alwes's teaching of upper-level undergraduate and graduate student courses on the history of choral literature. In the preface to volume 1, Alwes outlines the three foci of the set: (1) text, due to the fact that most elements of choral music are naturally driven by words; (2) analysis, because knowing the composer's intent leads the conductor to a more informed performance; and (3) external influences--such as religion, culture, and politics--that shaped composers' motivations (ix-x).
Few comprehensive surveys of the development of Western choral music are currently in print, so Alwes's contribution is particularly welcome. The most comparable recent publication is Dennis Shrock's Choral Repertoire, published in 2009, also by Oxford University Press. The two publications differ in several ways. Shrock's book first appeared as a single volume that was later supplemented by an anthology, Choral Scores (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). While there is no separate score anthology for the book by Alwes, his discussion of the music is detailed and theoretical enough that music examples are necessary, and the charts exploring texts and translations as well as movement titles and their elements (keys, meters, modes) are helpful. Shrock very cleanly assigned major musical eras to his chapters, and within each chapter he adhered to a hierarchical arrangement by country, composer, and selected works listed by genre (for composers with a notable output of choral music). He followed a predictable formula for each composer: a brief biography, summary of the composer's compositional output, and some detailed discussion of select works. While this is a sensible structure, Shrock's book functions more like a reference tool than Alwes's history, which is much more free-flowing in thought and concept, and more transparently acknowledges the ambiguity of transitions between time periods and classification of works into certain genres.
Alwes's volumes could certainly be used as course texts. Section headings tend to reflect the composer, time period, or genre being discussed, rather than something more specific. Both volumes have an abbreviation key, and the thorough indexes represent composers, work tides, genres, techniques, and subject terms in useful detail. However, the volumes lack the pedagogical tools typically provided in a textbook; for example, there are no checklists at the end of each chapter or in the margins, or obvious questions that might encourage readers to reflect on what they just read.
Volume 1 has fourteen chapters that flow mostly chronologically, each focusing on a genre, composer(s), or location within a particular time period. Alwes covers the Middle Ages in a single chapter; in chapter 1, he briefly explains the liturgical frameworks that became the basis for later polyphonic vocal music, then follows with the effect of modality on chant, and concludes with the emergence of polyphony.
Sacred choral music of the Renaissance outside of England receives two chapters, which sandwich a single chapter that discusses madrigals, chansons, and other secular genres. Ending at the year 1525, chapter 2 explores developments in the mass and motet. Alwes unsurprisingly turns to the innovations of Franco-Flemish giants--Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem, and Josquin des Prez--to demonstrate the effect of points of imitation on sacred genres. Chapter 3 uses Josquin as a pivot to transition to discussion of the chanson and other secular vocal music, such as the lieder and frottola. Alwes spends the bulk of this chapter on Italian and English madrigals, using Cipriano de Rore, Carlo Gesualdo, and Thomas Weelkes as representative composers of the genre. He finishes the chapter with a discussion of (he madrigal comedy and intermedium, both Italian styles that were immediate precursors to opera. Chapter 4 returns to sacred choral music of the Renaissance by exploring composers' increasing use of imitation and parody, ultimately concentrating on contributions to the Mass Ordinary by three giants of the High Renaissance: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, and Tomas Luis de Victoria.
Alwes dedicates chapter 5 to sacred choral music in England both before and after the English Reformation. To discuss choral music of English Catholicism, he focuses on the melismatic writing of John Taverner (Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas) and the post-Reformation dedication to Latin sacred music of both Thomas Tallis (Audivi media node) and William Byrd (Gradualia, liber 1. Ave verum corpus). Alwes concludes the chapter by discussing the more syllabic English-texted anthems of the Anglican Church, represented principally by Orlando Gibbons (Hosanna to the Son of David) but also by Tallis, Weelkes, and Thomas Tomkins (When David Heard).
The next five chapters cover the baroque era. They are mostly organized by geography, but Johann Sebastian Bach is afforded his own chapter. Chapter 6 turns to Italy, specifically the innovations of Giovanni Gabrieli (polychoral works), Giacomo Carissimi (oratorio), Claudio Monteverdi (sacred works, madrigals), and Antonio Vivaldi (Gloria, RV 589; Magnificat, RV 610). In chapter 7, Alwes examines musical developments in Germany, such as Heinrich SchUtz's emphasis on the relationship between text and music and Dietrich Buxtehude's influence on the emergence of the church cantata. Chapter 8 covers French baroque music; composers represented in this chapter include Jean-Baptiste Lully, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and Jean-Philipe Rameau. Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel understandably dominate the chapter on English choral music, and Bach's substantial output of motets, cantatas, oratorios, masses, and passions merits its own chapter. Alwes devotes chapter 11 to the transition between the classical and romantic periods and, in the final chapters of volume 1, he discusses the mass, requiem, and various other sacred choral developments from the late eighteenth through nineteenth centuries.
In volume 2 Alwes all but abandons a chronological approach, instead focusing on genres, compositional methods or movements (impressionism, serialism, and so forth), or geographical areas. Chapter 1 explores the oratorio from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries, centering on Joseph Haydn's Die Schopfung (The Creation), Felix Mendelssohn's Paulus, Robert Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri, and Edward Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, while chapter 2 surveys notable part songs by Franz Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Charles Villiers Stanford, C. Hubert H. Parry, and Elgar. As a survey of choral music in dramatic works, from the chorus in Gioacchino Rossini's Guillaume Tell to Richard Wagner's Die fliegende Hollander to settings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by Brahms, Schumann, and Schubert, chapter 3 is great fun. Chapter 4 explores the use of the chorus in symphonies, naturally beginning with Symphony no. 9 by Ludwig van Beethoven, spending a good deal of time on Gustav Mahler's Symphonies no. 2 and no. 8, and concluding with works by Gustav Hoist, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, and Luciano Berio.
Chapter 5 surveys the rich contributions of French composers beginning in the late nineteenth century, including Gabriel Faure's charming Cantique de Racine; the avant-garde output of Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and Francis Poulenc; the beloved requiems of Maurice Durufle and Faure; and Olivier Messiaen's more traditional O sacrum convivium and innovative Rechants. Chapter 6 explores serial choral works by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Anton Webern, while chapter 7 turns to the folk songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams (Five English Folk Songs), Bela Bartok (Tot nepdalok [Four Slovanian Folk Songs]), Veljo Tormis (Raua needmine), and the nationalist choruses of Zoltan Kodaly (Psalmus Hungaricus) and Sergey Prokofiev (AleksandrNevskii [AlexanderNevsky]).
Chapter 8 looks at the neoclassic works of Stravinsky (Symphonic, de Psaumes [Symphony of Psalms]) and Paul Hindemith (Six Chansons), and chapter 9 gives lengthy and thorough treatment to avant-garde composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Berio, Iannis Xenakis, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Alfred Schnittke. Chapter 10 is devoted to European composers who resisted modern compositional developments and produced a largely traditional output--Einojuhani Rautavaara, Knut Nystedt, and Frank
Martin among them. Chapter 11 turns to American choral developments and the contributions of William Billings, Charles Ives, Horatio W. Parker, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Vincent Persichetti, while chapter 12 covers British composers Herbert Howells, Britten, William Walton, Peter Maxwell Davies, and John Tavener, among others. Alwes titled the final chapter "The New Simplicities," and through it attempts to answer the question, "how does [a twentieth-century composer] write choral music and still feel modern or relevant?" In this chapter he looks into the innovative works of Witold Lutoslawki (Trois poemes d 'Henri Michaux) and Krzysztof Penderecki (Passio et mors Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Lucam [St. Luke Passion]), as well as minimalist composers Steve Reich (Desert Music), Arvo Part (Stimma, mixed solo voices [Credo], and John Adams (Harmonium).
This set is recommended for college and university library collections supporting music education and conducting programs. It is also appropriate for use as a text in choral literature courses at the graduate level. The vocabulary and theoretical focus assume that the reader has had formal coursework in theory and history, so early undergraduate students would likely feel lost or overwhelmed. The set is also an essential reference tool for choral conductors.
Illinois State University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2017|
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