Noteworthy living composers of sacred polyphony
  • Pes
    Posts: 623
    I know there are composers who contribute to this forum and do no wish any offense whatsoever to them by asking this question, but who are the composers writing today best-known or most notable for writing sacred polyphony? I'm ashamed that I can only think of three that have international status, but this is no doubt due to my own pitiful limitations:

    Arvo Pärt
    James MacMillan
    John Tavener

    UPDATE (3/23/10):
    Gerald Near
    Kevin Allen
    Gerre Hancock
    James Woodman
    William Hawley
    Stephen Paulus
    David Conte
    Judith Zaimont
    Alf Houkom
    Z. Randolph Stroope
    Colin Mawby
    Morten Lauridsen
    Eric Whitacre
    Nicholas Wilton

    Again, the composers have to be alive and writing. Please feel free to add any name you wish, even your own, or perhaps direct me to a website that collects this kind of information. Thank you!
  • PaixGioiaAmorPaixGioiaAmor
    Posts: 1,473
    Gerald Near has written music in exactly the same style as renaissance era polyphony. Not sure I'd classify Lauridsen as polyphony, unless you just meant great music in parts.
  • RagueneauRagueneau
    Posts: 2,592
    Kevin Allen

    (In my humble estimation, Arvo Pärt and John Tavener cannot hold a candle to Kevin Allen, because they seem never to have studied species counterpoint. Just because a person wants to write in a contemporary idiom, that doesn't excuse not knowing the first thing about counterpoint, consonance, and dissonance. On the other hand, I've only sung a limited amount of pieces by those composers.)
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    Many of Gerre Hancock's compositions exhibit use of contrapuntal idioms, but I question whether he could truly be considered a composer of "polyphony". It all depends on the terminology.

    And didn't Joncas write some Latin polyphony for an NPM conference a few years ago....? (ducks!)
  • Mark M.Mark M.
    Posts: 632
    Shall I assume that it's not necessary for one to compose from a standpoint of faith? That is, can the work itself stand as a testimony to the faith, even if the one who composes it does not profess it?
  • Pes
    Posts: 623
    Side note: there are polyphonic passages (e.g. stretto imitation) in Lauridsen and Whitacre, but it's true they're rather more often working with massed chords/homophony. Tavener's secular "Tyger" is in canon, actually, if I remember correctly.

    So for terminological clarity, let's say sacred polyphony means "a sacred text sung as at least two independent melodies sung in synchrony and conceived in primarily horizontal terms." That should obviate the matter of the composer's personal faith and privilege contrapuntal writing over chord-cluster homophony. However, as we know, the entire motet literature is often a mixture of polyphonic imitation and homophony. So let's be generous on that, ahem, score.
  • Donnaswan
    Posts: 585
    Of the composers mentioned so far, my vote would go to Gerald Near. Such beautiful voice leading.
    Donna
  • Though organists know his very functional organ pieces, I suspect few are familiar with the wonderful sacred choral settings of James Woodman. He's written a number of works for various Boston area choral ensembles; they're all winners.
  • I think one of the great sleeper composers who measures up along the lines of species counterpoint issues, et al, is William Hawley. He doesn't restrict his output to sacred vocal/choral.
    I could find a great many accolades to bestow on Stephen Paulus, David Conte, Judith Zaimont, Alf Houkom and Z. Randolph Stroope, but they're eclectic, though fully vested in classical treatments.
  • AlVotta
    Posts: 41
    Dear Jeff! In fact, Arvo Pärt did study sacred polyphony as well as its counterpoint. After writing "avant-garde" compositions until 1968, he engaged in the study of medieval music, starting from the writing of monodies.

    About John Tavener I really don't know.

    But of course I understand your point about differentiating consonance from dissonance as one of the essentials of building a sacred polyphony style. However, I think Pärt and Tavener also do that, though in some other way.
  • Jeff: This might be worth a read.

    An excerpt:

    In his collage works ‘avant-garde’ and ‘early’ music confront each other boldly and irreconcilably, a confrontation which attains its most extreme expression in his last collage piece Credo (1968). But by this time all the compositional devices Pärt had employed to date had lost all their former fascination and begun to seem pointless to him. The search for his own voice drove him into a withdrawal from creative work lasting nearly eight years, during which he engaged with the study of Gregorian Chant, the Notre Dame school and classical vocal polyphony.
  • Colin Mawby might be another to consider. My choir & choristers just sang his AVE VERUM and I found it quite beautiful.
  • RagueneauRagueneau
    Posts: 2,592
    Again, I can only say the works I sang (not many!) did not display this. But it's great to know he came around in the end!
  • BruceL
    Posts: 1,031
    Randolph, you've piqued my interest: do you know who's published Woodman's choral works? A quick google search didn't show up much... I like some things about his organ stuff, and am interested to see how it might transfer to the choral idiom.
  • RagueneauRagueneau
    Posts: 2,592
    FYI: Italian Scholar, Composer, & Organist Aurelio Porfiri is currently writing a book about Colin Mawby --- quite an extensive one, he told me.
  • BruceL,

    Now that you ask, I can't remember the publisher of the Woodman works I've sung. (His organ works are mainly EC Schirmer I think.) He's written a couple of things specifically for the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School, "Arise Shine" being one, and last Christmas we sing "Divinum Mysterium" which was commissioned by the Harvard University Choir. Perhaps we sang from self-published copies. They did have that Sibelius look. I'll rumage through the choir library tomorrow to confirm. If that doesn't resolve it, I'll e-mail the composer directly.
  • Donnaswan
    Posts: 585
    Robet Lau - an Episcopal composer and director . Can't remember his home church. Somewhere in PA. We sing his setting of 'Ave verum" very very nice- divided parts, and in no way resembles Mozart, Byrd or Elgar setting.

    Donna
  • PaixGioiaAmorPaixGioiaAmor
    Posts: 1,473
    Lau is good for semi-contemporary but well written pieces that are not too difficult. I have done his "Give Me Jesus" and "There is a Balm".
  • Donnaswan
    Posts: 585
    Funny- I almost ordered 'there is a Balm' this year- tired of our old arr. He has a very nice arr. of the Lourdes Hymn for Xmas titled 'A Maiden most Gentle' with a nice 'Ave Maria' refrain for each verse. Of course, he's not in the same category as Lauridsen or Gerald Near, but his music is accessible.

    Donna
  • BruceL
    Posts: 1,031
    Randolph: thanks! I was worried you were going to say they were unpublished...

    I really do hope Kevin Allen's work becomes more well-known. I think it is all very inspired, artfully crafted, and not lacking in beauty for singer or listener. When I met him, I encouraged him to write more in the vernacular since so many of us still work in environments where Latin is tolerated, at best.

    I have to confess no great love for Lauridsen's work; I have sung/conducted his "O magnum mysterium" and like it fairly well, but his repetitive use of the same compositional devices becomes tiring to my ear very quickly. Listening to his "Lux aeterna", I am convinced, is an ample cure for insomnia.
  • Dittos, Bruce. I think among the compiled list of usual suspects in Pes' revised post, that others suffer from being trapped by their own elemental vocabularies. I just heard a local choir sing Skippie's new "Sure on this shining night" and I remarked to my wife he ought to sue himself for plagarism, besides the inevitability of its shortcomings being obvious compared to the Barber.
    Heck, the Beatles evolved more than many of our hallowed living COMPOSERS. Same for maybe even Burt Bacarach.
    Shudders.....
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,870
    Bach... (I don't think he (his music) ever died)

    As much as I like some of the music of Lauridsen or Part or Tavener or Gorecki, they do not compose sacred polyphony. More like homophony. I would like to hear more of the composer's works that represent sacred polyphony on your list before I would make a judgement, but I don't really like to perform modern (the last 100 years) music when it comes to polyphony since the true greats are from way back. I do have one exception that I have found. I will discuss him below.

    I also ditto Bruce concerning Lauridsen. His comps are on the level of Rutter. The Britts themselves don't even consider Rutter a serious composer as I have been informed by one of them.

    I have not heard much of Kevin's music yet.

    However, to be in keeping with the mandate of this thread, my good friend Robin Hodson should be someone you all look up. Some of his music reflects H. Howells at times, which is not really polyphony as far as I am aware, but Robin composes some truly excellent 3rd millennium sacred music.

    Take a listen to his Diaphonic Mass for example. Or the Agnus from his English Missa Brevis. Wonderful!

    music of Robin Hodson