Obsessive Choral with Nico Muhly

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This Wednesday, Q2 Music begins its Winter Pledge Drive. In anticipation, we're revisiting two of our favorite guest-hosted shows on Monday and Tuesday. On Monday: Obsessive Choral, a survey of English choral music with composer Nico Muhly; Tuesday: Mexico at 200, Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas conductor Alondra de la Parra's look at the birth and progression of Mexican orchestral music.

From Nico Muhly:

"Choral music is my first love. Even though my voice broke in 1994, I still return to the emotional landscapes of Byrd, Tallis, Gibbons, Howells and Britten as a sort of home base for all of the music I write. In this four-part series on Q2, we explore a few centuries of (mainly) English choral music, ignoring, as the genre itself suggests, the better part of the 18th and 19th centuries. This is by no means comprehensive, but is, rather, my own strange itinerary through the pieces I adore." - Nico Muhly

Hour 1: Tudor and Jacobian Music

In this first show, we explore William Byrd, John Taverner and Thomas Tallis. The popular tune The Western Wind appears in various parody masses in the 16th century; this Taverner is a prime example of composers burying secular threads in sacred textures. We end with Gibbons's two spectacularly theatrical verse anthems See, See the Word is Incarnate and This is the Record of John, as well as his Hosanna to the Son of David.

Hour 2: Purcell, Blow and Contemporaries

Henry Purcell and John Blow! Purcell is, I think, the last composer who was allowed to write such unstructured music; his long verse anthems and Te Deum are abstract, meandering and episodic pieces where each little bit of text is its own little étude. I think all of my problems as a composer — and all my delights — can be traced back to these capricious, difficult and charming pieces.

Alfred Deller's recording of the Te Deum and Jubilate — particularly the "When Thou took'st upon thee" duet and the "Vouchsafe, O Lord" solo — is, for me, one of the most beautiful music ever written and recorded.

The hour ends with three works by Weelkes: two muscular anthems (Alleluia, I heard a voice and Hosanna to the Son of David) and a plaintive one (When David Heard) that accentuate the composer's emotional complexity. I also like how Weelkes is operating in a time when "Salvation" is a four-syllable word.

Hour 3: Howells and Stanford

I live for cheesy mid-century choral music. This hour: Herbert Howells and Charles Villiers Stanford.

Howells, who half-ironically styled himself after his Collegiate predecessors, knew his way around long, long lines. The melodies in Howells unfold like taffy: endless, unctuously unfolding strings of notes (usually with a million flats in the key signature). Stanford, for his part, can work a melody: check out the treble solo "I will stand upon my rock" halfway through his bellicose and insane anthem For Lo, I Raise Up.

The Howells Collegium Regale service (an absurd way of saying that he wrote it for King's College) is one of the short list of pieces I can sing all the way through from memory anytime, anywhere. The Gloria Patri in the Magnificat is, I think, the best thing England has produced since the Heptarchy.

Hour 4: Extreme Simplicity and Extreme Complexity

Benjamin Britten and other 20th Century luminaries. Is there anything better than his Te Deum in C? If you can make it through "...whom that hast redeemed with thy precious blood" without losing your mind, you are more dignified than I.

The complicated, Purcellian verse anthem-cum-cantata Rejoice in the Lamb has the best dotted rhythm in the Alleluia. Then, two miniatures: a Ralph Vaughan Williams coronation nibblet, an Elizabeth Poston gesture, some complexity from Michael Tippett, a long scale from Pärt, who contributes a severe bass drum and tam-tam, and finally, Britten's iconic, gorgeous, untouchably beautiful Hymn to the Virgin.

If I could bottle my excitement when I was given the semichoir part in this piece at the age of 11, I could sell it all up and down Soho.