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Contemporary Choral Compositions

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Contemporary Choral Compositions

Most people that live in the modern generation view choral music as old, boring harmonies whose composers died with kings. However, choral music is not just for the elderly singing hymns apathetically in the church pews on Sunday morning. Though the perception of it remains unenthusiastic among common listeners, the life of choral music is not as dead or boring as most would assume. Choral music is made modern, enjoyable, and vibrant through the works of contemporary composers. Although it is not as recognized in modern generations, brilliant vocal compositions and composers still exist today.

Two of the most recognized composers of contemporary choral music today are Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre. Often both are classified as impressionistic composers, displaying similar compositional techniques. Though there are differences found amongst the techniques of Whitacre and Lauridsen, a connection can be drawn between their composition styles. Through clever uses of harmonic and dynamic techniques, sonorities, and musical color, a connection is easily heard in both composers' beautiful music. Each composer's style remains present in each individual composition, such as Whitacre's Sleep and Cloudburst and Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium and Madrigali; and though similarities are heard within the music of both composers, style representative pieces are rarely confused because both compose with their own unique elegance. Because of ingenious techniques used by both composers, a common music listener is able to appreciate their music. Brilliant composers, such as Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen, make contemporary choral music enjoyable and accessible to the modern listener.

Whitacre and Lauridsen have a common basis for their composition styles, musical impressionism. Musical impressionism focuses on musical color, fluidity, and atmosphere, tending to make more use of dissonance. Sonority is one of the most important elements of musical impressionism, and also designed to peak the senses. Lauridsen draws influences from mainly older classical techniques, and Whitacre is influenced by a wide range of styles; however they do share similar impressionistic influences. Both composers' compositions are similar, with common sonorities, musical color, and harmonic techniques. The choice of text for impressionist composers, such as Lauridsen and Whitacre, is important in presenting the music and eliciting the sensation of the composer and listener. Both composers let the general nature of the text dictate the musical settings. Cluster chords, polytonality, and minimalistic features all make appearances in impressionistic choral music, and help depict the musical setting. Lauridsen and Whitacre make use of subtle dynamic shifts, a common quality found in impressionism and minimalism. Both give their compositions a continual motion through rhythm, tempo shifts, and musical color. While Whitacre and Lauridsen are influenced by musical impressionism and older techniques, they still compose with modern influences and their own style.

Morten Lauridsen was born in Colfax, Washington and raised in Portland, Oregon. He studied at Whitman College and the University of Southern California, where he would join the faculty in the mid-1970s. Lauridsen has composed for many professional and collegiate choral ensembles in the United States, including Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Harvard Glee Club. Lauridsen is the most published and performed American choral composer of modern times, with several of his works having sold well over 100,000 copies. In 2007, he was the recipient of the National Medal of Arts from the President in the White House ceremony, "for his composition of radiant choral works combining musical beauty, power and spiritual depth that have thrilled audiences worldwide." Lauridsen's best known works are secular song cycles. One of these compositions, Madrigali (1978), subtitled "Six 'Fire Songs' on Italian Renaissance Poems," was inspired by the madrigals of Monteverdi and Gesualdo, and set to texts used by these composers and other late renaissance madrigalists. While reading love poems, Lauridsen became increasingly intrigued by the symbolic image of flames that recurred within the context. "I decided to compose an intensely dramatic cycle based on Renaissance love poems employing this fire motive while blending stylistic musical features of the period with contemporary compositional idiom," says Lauridsen.

The musical textures of this composition are replete with Renaissance techniques, including word painting, modality, intricate counterpoint, and bold harmonies unified by what Lauridsen terms the "fire chord," a minor triad with an added major seventh. The six movements of Madrigali, in order, include Ov'è, Lass', Il Bel Viso?, Quando Son Più Lontan, Amor, Io Sento L'Alma, Io Piango, Luci Serene e Chiare, and Se per Havervi, Oimè. In the final movement, Se per Havervi, Oimè, the text translates to:

"If, alas, when I gave you my heart,

There was born in me that passion,

Cruel Lady, which burns me everywhere

So that I am all aflame,

And if, loving you, bitter torment

Makes me die of sorrow,

Wretched me! What shall I do

Without you who are my every joy?"

[Play Madrigali] Lauridsen explains, "I wanted this music to emanate (like ripples from a pebble thrown into a pond) from a single, primal sonority; one dramatic chord that would encapsulate the intensity of the entire cycle and which would provide a musical motivic unity to complement the poetic." This sonority, which he has termed "Fire-Chord," opens the piece, is found extensively throughout the movements, and finally returns to its original key and spacing on the word you in the end. In the final movement, he leaves the final cadence in the cycle unresolved, as if this love will forever remain unrequited.

Morten Lauridsen makes use of cluster chords, polytonality, and minimalistic characteristics. He uses chant-like rhythms that have large tempo shifts, giving his compositions a feeling of continual motion. Lauridsen makes use of subtle dynamic shifts and rarely cadences in root position until the important moment of a work. However, by keeping clear of root position chords and providing a fairly static harmonic motion, he creates a clear sound cycle without a clear feeling of resolution. The emphasis on text and the stimulation drawn from it is also important



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