Your Desert Island Discs

If you were stranded on a desert island, what choral music recording would you take with you? When we asked this of some 600 choral singers, many of them thought the question was—how to put this delicately?—ill-advised.

"Are you kidding?"

"Don't be silly."

"Not fair."

"This is too hard!"


"I hate questions like these."

Some of the respondents resorted to diversionary tactics.

"Oh please, anyone who can answer this needs a lot more choral recordings."

"Do they have stereos on desert islands?"

"iTunes has rendered me incapable of answering this question. Sorry!"

The mere suggestion that they could choose just one" choral work nearly unglued many singers, but for different reasons.

"If I were stuck with any one choral recording, no matter how wonderful," one singer said, "I would probably hang myself after a few days on the island."

Phew. Easy now.

Another singer listed 15 composers starting with Bach and ending with Handel and threw up his hands, "For pity's sake—who could possibly choose?"

The mere suggestion that they could choose "just one" choral work nearly unglued many singers, but for different reasons.

Another singer resorted to practically Solomonic calculations. "My favorite choral recording is Britten's War Requiem. However, I would certainly not pick that with which to be stuck. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis? It is incredibly complex, enough to keep my mind occupied. Or is that still too dark? Rachmaninoff's Vespers? Those are beautiful and not really depressing. Some beautiful Bach chorales? The gorgeous music of Palestrina? Much too difficult a question."

Several singers sidestepped the question but offered intriguing alternatives.

"I would not take any because there would be too many to leave behind. I would take a manuscript paper and try to compose."

"I would take a manuscript of the Marriage of Figaro so that whomever I met could sing along too."

Opera on the Island. Now there's an idea.

Several singers said they would burn their own CD of choice selections: "[Richter's] St. Matthew Passion, Poulenc Gloria [Prete], Copland's In the Beginning and works of my own," said one singer, who is also a composer.

Okay, it's a dumb question. But with backs to the wall, a number of singers did choose just one choral CD to keep them warm during those tuneless days on the island.

A healthy minority of singers chose CDs of the choral groups they have sung with over the years.

"Listening to people that I knew (and myself) is something very special to me. It brings back good memories."

"I would take a CD my choir recorded about four years ago. It has a song on it titled Awakening that is breathtaking. I normally listen to that one song ten times before moving on."

The vast majority, though, chose one of the great works of the choral repertoire. Any guesses as to the top vote getter?

And the Winners Are...

Surprisingly, the number one choice was not Handel's Messiah. That beloved work lost by a grace note to—yes, you're right—Brahms's German Requiem. Rounding out the top five choices were the Bach B-Minor Mass, the Mozart Requiem, and the Verdi Requiem.

Singers' comments about these great choral works were both rhapsodic and touching, and explain why the works are great and so dear to the hearts of singers.

About Brahms's German Requiem

The San Francisco Symphony's 1995 recording of the Brahms Requiem got a number of nods for the best ever.

"Performing it transports me like no other. I just close my eyes and sway. I am a mezzo and singing along on a desert island would be the best to that one. Brahms loved his altos!"

"Brahms combines the most beautiful aspects of many kinds of music."

"Because it is a requiem of life."

About Handel's Messiah

"Beautiful music with a beautiful story—would be good to keep my heart from breaking if stranded on a desert island!"

"I know it and could sing along to music that is comforting and uplifting to me, not because of my religion, but because of Handel's beautiful scoring and the challenges of the parts."

"Because it is so extensive and varied, and some of the solo parts are my favorites."

"After all this time, it still speaks to me."

About Bach's B-Minor Mass

"It's the most complicated piece I know, and it has music for every mood."

"The work is absolutely glorious and feels very spiritual to me, as if God had a hand in assisting Bach with its creation."

About Mozart's Requiem

"It was the first choral piece I ever performed, and the piece I have sung more than anything else. It remains my favorite."

"I love it, the feelings it evokes—happiness, sorrow, hope—I know it and love singing it."

About Verdi's Requiem

"It is so exciting and the sound is huge, like an opera. I have probably enjoyed singing [it] more than any other major work."

"Whenever I listen to it, I hear new things."

"I believe it is the most beautiful piece ever written for a chorus."

Not Just Any CD Will Do

Some singers said they had to have a particular recording of their desert island discs. The San Francisco Symphony's 1995 recording of the Brahms Requiem got a number of nods for the best ever. One singer disagreed: "Klemperer. Brahms Requiem. Nuff said." Still another one wanted the 1947 Herbert von Karajan recording with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, or nothing.

Still another singer voted for the version accompanied by two pianos. "I find this an astoundingly beautiful piece of music and I don't think that I would tire of it. I don't remember the names of the pianists but their playing was exciting and added immensely to the work of the excellent chorus."

Here are the recordings singers singled out for their top five choral works:

  1. Brahms's Requiem
  2. Handel's Messiah
  3. Bach's B Minor Mass
  4. Mozart's Requiem
  5. Verdi's Requiem

One singer undoubtedly spoke for all who bought into this preposterous mind game and answered, "Please send me to an island with electricity."