Church Music across History, part II

Back in January, I had posted a request on behalf of a colleague of mine at Villanova who was seeking texts treating the history of church music.  (Thanks again for those who offered suggestions.)  I am back with a follow-up request.  Are any of you PT readers able to suggest recordings of church music that are good “period pieces” (whether on CD or perhaps YouTube)?  Are there resources out there that feature music from the seventeenth-century, for example, or which provide samples from across church history?  I assume that the answer is yes but church music is not my primary field.  The collective wisdom of you all will be much greater than my own.


  1. Some of the best-preserved and most-oft-recorded music from the 17th c. (esp. early) is from a group known as the Roman School. Palestrina (though he died late in the 16th c.) is often considered the “father” of the school. I think Victoria co-parented, and he wrote into the early 17th c. Probably the best-known are the Anerio brothers (Felice and the other one), Allegri, and Carissimi (who kind of closed out the school).

  2. Well, for the 17th century, you start with the handy if somewhat overly bifurcated division between prima pratica/stile antico vs seconda pratica/stile moderno – with Monteverdi as the typical dividing line.

    In the USA, Seraphic Fire and the Green Mountain Project are two choral groups that have released wonderful recordings of the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers (GMP also has recorded the 1640 Vespers). GMP’s concerts are well worth attending, I might add. And recordings (and concerts) by the French group Les Artes Florissants are of extraordinary caliber as well.

    I will just note that the relative independence of the Venetian republic* allowed it greater freedom to develop sacred music in ways other areas were less free to do. Always remember that, at the time of this fulcrum point in the development of Western music, the Basilica San Marco was a palatine chapel (but, wow, what a palatine chapel), not a cathedral – the cathedral was a much more modest church (S Pietro di Castello) on its own island at the edge of the city past the industrial district near the Arsenale. Music in Venice developed not only to glorify God, but also to show off for the state….

    What Florence was for visual arts, Venice and its periphery was for music (though each cultural center was also very very fine in the other), in the sense of being the center of gravity for the most fundamental developments and the popularization thereof.

    * Which republic in the first decade of the 1600s pretty much permanently ended the power of the papacy to exercise any effective secular power by excommunication and interdict….

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:

      Try Paul McCreesh’s sumptuous recording of a Venetian Easter Mass on Archiv 453 427-2, with music by Gabrieli and Lassus. I listen to it every Easter Sunday.

  3. PS: Here’s a sampler of GMP in concert: “Duo Seraphim” from the 1610 Vespers:

    GMP has more, well, Italian, energy in it than is often the case in the world of choirs in English-speaking countries. The singers and some instrumentalists move around if the space invites it….

    (Green Mountain…Monte Verdi…)

    As for Les Artes Florissants, I would add that a concert of music by Charpentier by LAF at the former Immaculate Conception Church in Boston (which space the director of LAF preferred to others in the Boston area; but now is being converted to condos) was probably the finest musical event I’ve had the privilege to attend. The tuning of singers and musicians was so perfect (even on wonderfully stylized trills) that I could feel the overtones resonate through the woodwork of the floor of the organ loft at the rear of the church. While I wouldn’t say that I came into that concert as a lover of Charpentier, the experience was . . . ineffable.

  4. Works by Buxtehude and Biber are must-haves if you want to survey seventeenth century church music. (Also note the works of Johan Heinrich Schmelzer, Georg Muffat, and Heinrich Schutz; and don’t forget Henry Purcell in London.) Fortunately, there are many good recordings out there. Check out anything published by Deutsche Harmonia Mundi or Harmonia Mundi France. Alia Vox is another good label. For a collection, I draw your attention to a Sony Classical collection entitled North German Organ Music, Gustav Leonhardt conducting.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      And Schütz. With his music, you can also feel the connections between developments in the Catholic and Lutheran sacred music worlds, such as his Deutsches Magnificat (Meine Seele erhebt den Herren, SWV 494) near the end of his life.

      (Of the English collegiate choirs, Trinity Cambridge rocks. St John’s Cambridge and New College Oxford, too. Do thou not limit thyself to King’s Cambridge….)

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:

        And the Choir of Westminster Cathedral, the only Catholic cathedral in the world that still has daily choral liturgies. I’ve been enjoying their recordings on Hyperion for over 30 years. The choir has a bright tone, quite different from the more familiar Anglican sound and ideally suited to the music of Palestrina and Victoria that forms the core of the choir’s repertoire. And from the 17th c., the choir has a wonderful recording of Christmas music by Michael Praetorius (CDA66200), sung in German and Latin. I once lent it to a German Lutheran friend who was greatly impressed.

  5. For Charpentier, one exceptionally fine recording is Grace et Grandeurs de la Vierge, sung by Les Demoiselles de Saint-Cyr (Centre Musique Baroque, Versailles, a Virgin Veritas recording, 1995).

  6. For both text and recordings, I would recommend a good college-level music history book, either Kay Marie Stolba or Grout/Palisca/Burkholder, along with its accompanying CDs. Just eliminate the secular and you have a good overview of sacred music. Recordings of great sacred music are so numerous these days, that I can’t possibly list favorites.

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