Contemporary Choral Music has been slow to catch up with the instrumental world regarding highly chromatic or atonal works. But that’s starting to change.
The following five composers are making their names in the choral field by breaking out old molds and challenging choral singers to do what they do best.
Grammy Award-winning composer, conductor, innovator, speaker, and lyricist Eric Whitacre’s works are performed worldwide, and his ground-breaking Virtual Choirs have united more than 100,000 singers across 145 countries in over a decade. A graduate of New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music, he is a Composer-in-Residence with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and a Yamaha Artist.
His work combines influences from trance, electronica, and anime with choral, orchestral, and cinematic traditions, embracing modern influences while remaining true to the rigors of classical music. His simple but indelible constructs are both ethereal and uplifting, drawing in audiences across generations.
One of his latest works, Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, is a musical response to the ‘misunderstood’ invention of the helicopter and the loss of a young man who was killed while trying to fly an uncrewed aircraft. The piece’s dramatic, eerie, and chaotic soundworlds build towards an exhilarating climax as the choir’s complex polyrhythmic patterns come together in force.
As a performer, Eric is an in-demand soloist and has recently joined forces with British pop star Laura Mvula for a special album featuring their choral versions of their most popular tracks in Dolby Atmos. He also runs his independent label, UNQUIET, to release works by a wide range of contemporary artists. Spitfire’s recording sessions were conducted by Eric and his acclaimed singers, who were able to capture an astounding array of sounds, from vocal techniques that are familiar to most people, such as open vowels that change their harmonic content with mouth shape to the more unusual articulations, shorts and rhythmic passages.
The success of television programs such as The Choir and the plethora of royal events has greatly elevated the standing of choral music. However, some composers still need to be household names and whose works deserve wider recognition.
During the last decade, a new generation of choral composers has emerged. Many of them are young and have been trained in the most prestigious colleges. The traditions of their ancestors influence some, and others create their distinctive style. Some are embracing “holy minimalism,” which offers serenity and austerity without the dissonance that has been common in other modern music. Others, such as Arvo Part of Estonia, John Tavener of the UK, and Henryk Gorecki of Poland, have incorporated ancient musical traditions to create old and new works.
Michael Gjeilo is a prolific composer and an award-winning choral clinician and director. His music has been performed internationally in Vancouver, Cape Town, and Ho Chi Minh City. He is an accomplished pianist, and improvisations over his published choral works have become a trademark of his collaborations with choirs worldwide. His musical influences are varied, including jazz and film scores. His thick harmonies and rich textures often recall film score music. He has been described as writing with “an honesty which enchants.” The Boosey & Hawkes Contemporary Choral Series features some of his work and the most exciting young composers in this field.
Paul Mealor is a Welsh composer who is rapidly growing in popularity. His music is uplifting and accessible, regardless of musical or religious preferences. Mealor’s work is full of skillful harmonies and melodic lines that create a mesmerizing atmosphere. In addition to his choral compositions, Mealor has written operas and three symphonies for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Mealor first came to the public’s attention with his anthem, Wherever You Are, featured on The Choir in 2011. The following year, Mealor’s setting of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal was refashioned as Ubi Caritas et Amor, which was performed at the Royal Wedding. In 2021, Mealor’s motet, Locus iste, was commissioned to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the King’s College Chapel in Aberdeen.
Mealor’s music is full of mystical and spiritual references, and his use of color and texture makes his works incredibly appealing. His choral compositions are often inspired by nature, which gives them an ethereal beauty that’s hard to match. A student of Jonathan Harvey, Mealor’s music often incorporates chance techniques such as staggered entries from one part and tuned glasses to create an otherworldly sound. Mealor’s songs have been recorded by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and by Polyphony, which premiered his piece Sanctuary Haunts in 2022.
Among the most sought-after composers working today, with a hectic commission schedule and performances on every continent, Latvian-born Eriks Esenvalds’ music exudes a reverence for nature and its Creator. His choral work, including the stunning “Stars” (watch below), revels in the splendor of the night sky, while “The Long Road” includes a wordless section that he describes as a musical response to the universe’s magnificence—“a glory beyond words.” He is a frequent guest at international choir festivals and is strongly committed to outreach through commissioning and teaching.
His works have been performed internationally and are published through Pavane, G. Schirmer, GIA/Walton, and Gentry, as well as recorded by VOCES8, ORA Singers, The Crossing, Elina Garanca with the Latvian Radio Choir, Iveta Apkalna with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and by several prominent soloists. He has also been featured at ACDA conventions and has worked as a composer, conductor, pianist, and arranger on three feature films.
Donald Nally, a choral composer of international renown, collaborates with creative artists and leading orchestras to create new works for the voice that address social and environmental issues. He has commissioned over 120 new pieces and produced over twenty recordings with his ensemble, The Crossing. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in international studies and economics from Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is pursuing a Master of Music degree in choral conducting at the Manhattan School of Music, studying with Kent Tritle and Ronnie Oliver.
Despite being only in her 40s when she started composing, Panufnik has produced a remarkably consistent and inventive body of work. She is particularly good at taking a broad approach to multi-faith and cultural perspectives, as evidenced by her remarkable piece Love Endureth (2000), which incorporates Sephardic chants and fuses them with English and Hebrew poetry.
Her compositions often explore a wide range of textures, using quarter tones to create an impression of density and incorporating elements from all over the world, including India and Africa. This is evident in works such as Four World Seasons, a large-scale choral work that employs Carnatic music and Indian instruments. This theme is developed further in the stunningly evocative Unending Love, a double-choir setting of a Tagore poem for choir, Carnatic singers, sitar, and veena, again showcasing Panufnik’s melodic inventiveness.
While working at the BBC, Panufnik became increasingly disillusioned with its creative restrictions and an over-emphasis on technical knowledge, which she believed led to composers churning out music to meet specific briefs. This eventually led her to leave the organization, and in 1960, she met Leopold Stokowski, who gave the American premiere of Panufnik’s Symphony of Peace. Afterward, he persuaded her to take up the offer of a position at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, where she struggled to adapt to the bureaucratic pressures on composers there. Still, she was finally able to develop her voice.
John Dove has done much to elevate the status of choral music in our modern age. Choirs regularly perform his work, and he has received several accolades, including the Ivor Novello Award in 2008 and a CBE in 2019 for music services. He is a renowned composer of liturgical works and has produced pieces that are now standard repertoire, such as his Missa Brevis and the carol The Three Kings, which was used for the BBC’s Nine Lessons and Carols service on Christmas Eve in 2000.
In addition to his choral output, Dove has been an acclaimed composer of orchestral music and song and provided scores for numerous theatrical productions. He was a Composer in the Association for the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain and is an Associate of the Royal Theatre (his music has been used for productions of His Dark Materials and Oedipus).
Despite the often negative perception of choral music, brilliant vocal compositions still exist. Although a minority, many wish to make this genre of music contemporary, enjoyable, and vibrant. These composers and their works help to dispel the myth that choral music is outdated, boring, and monotonous. The fact that they are rooted in tradition rather than the atonal and tuneless world of musical modernism makes this work all the more remarkable. Choral music is alive and well and continues to evolve with the work of these outstanding composers.