Playlist: Essential Sacred Choral Music
Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival was created to illuminate the transcendent power of the arts, so it’s unsurprising that sacred choral music features prominently. This year’s offerings include two spiritually robust events from Rundfunkchor Berlin—Human Requiem and Immortal Bach—as well as a performance of the Verdi Requiem by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. In this playlist, British chorus conductor Simon Halsey, known to Lincoln Center audiences as the leader of 2014’s St. Matthew Passion, last summer’s the public domain, and Human Requiem, shares his personal list of favorite sacred works for chorus.
1. William Byrd: Haec Dies
From the album Haec Dies: Music for Easter
Clare College Choir, Cambridge conducted by Graham Ross
This reminds me of my choir boy education in the beautiful chapel of New College, Oxford, where we learned to live by the lively rhythms of Byrd’s incomparable Renaissance church music.
2. Hymn: Once in royal David's city (arranged by A.H. Mann)
From the album Christmas at King’s
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge conducted by David Willcocks
As a student, I was lucky enough to sing in the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and this carol begins their world-famous Christmas Eve radio broadcast every year.
3. Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
From the album Britten: War Requiem
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Sir Simon Rattle
My very first job, straight out of school, was to become Chorus Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, England, at the invitation of Simon Rattle, and our first project together was a recording of Britten’s War Requiem for EMI.
4. Bach Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227
From the album Bach: Motets
Vocalconsort Berlin conducted by Marcus Creed
My Father, Louis Halsey, was a great choral conductor and worked with, among others, Stravinsky, Britten, and Vaughan Williams. As a child I heard him record the complete Bach motets for the now defunct L’Oiseau-Lyre label of Decca Records.
5. Joseph Haydn: Mass No. 14 in B-flat Major, “Harmoniemesse”
From the album 6 Great Masses
The Monteverdi Choir conducted by John Eliot Gardiner
Philips / Decca
Simon Rattle taught me to love Haydn. This mass setting is so joyful, so affirmative. We need these feelings of loving joy in today’s fractured world.
6. Johannes Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem
From Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem (Arranged for Voices and 2 pianos)
Rundfunkchor Berlin conducted by Simon Halsey
My time in Berlin with Rundfunkchor Berlin taught me to love and revere this piece above all others. My recommended recording featuring the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Simon Rattle is sadly not available on Spotify in the U.S., so I’m including the gorgeous arrangement for two pianos and voices that we use in Human Requiem. Medicine for the soul!
Recommended full orchestra recording:
Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem
Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Simon Rattle
7. Giuseppe Verdi: Requiem
From the album Verdi: Requiem & Four Sacred Pieces
Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini
I learned this piece with Robert Shaw, the great American conductor. He had been Toscanini’s chorus master and Toscanini knew Verdi! I'm bringing the London Symphony Chorus to Lincoln Center on October 30 to perform this theatrically thrilling masterpiece under maestro Gianandrea Noseda.
8. John Adams: Harmonium
From the album Harmonium/Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Robert Shaw
The best recent major choral piece? A masterpiece of considerable difficulty for the performers, but viscerally exciting for the public? Is it sacred? What will be sacred in the 21st century? If anything, it certainly touches on our innermost feelings.
9. Benjamin Britten: A hymn to St Cecilia
From the album Allegri Miserere
Tenebrae conducted by Nigel Short
Written, with text by W.H. Auden, in New York and while on a boat returning to the U.K. during the Second World War. Perhaps my favorite work. I so love its imaginative setting of the superb words.
10: Orlando Gibbons: O clap your hands
From the album I heard a voice – the music of the golden age
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury
We come full circle and arrive back in the Renaissance with the liveliest and loveliest virtuoso show piece.
Listen to the full playlist.
About the curator
Simon Halsey is chorus director of both the London Symphony Chorus and the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus. He was principal conductor of Rundfunkchor Berlin from 2001 to 2015. Known for his enthusiasm, wit, perfectionism, and passionate pedagogical dedication, Halsey is one of the most sought-after choral conductors in the world and a frequent visitor to Lincoln Center.