Essential Repertoire: Old Gems, Choral Treasures, and Chestnuts

by David Giessow, College, University & Two-Year College Chair

At recent ACDA concert sessions we have been dazzled and impressed by extremely talented conductors leading premier performances of newly composed repertoire. This certainly illustrates part of the mission of ACDA: to be an advocate for excellent composers and to educate audiences about the accessibility of new music. But, perhaps by being such champions of new music we are at risk of forgetting music that should remain an essential part of the choral repertoire.

There are certain pieces in the choral repertoire which are considered by many experienced conductors to be gems, treasures, or chestnuts. Why did our revered teachers (choral directors from high school and college) select these pieces to be part of our choral music education? Are these pieces truly “essential” and are they still relevant to our choral music curricula today?

The minimum criteria for these old gems to be considered “essential repertoire” should be that they are well-crafted, have educational value for our singers and/or audience, and have some historical significance. Well-crafted pieces generally have sensible voice leading, reasonable tonal progressions, and appropriate vocal ranges. Lyrics are expressive, inspiring, inspired, or historically significant. The melody, harmony, and lyrics complement each other in order to enhance the expression of the lyrics and the voice or intent of the composer.

Many will say that these essential gems of choral repertoire withstand the test of time because they have some historical, literary, or compositional significance. This does not mean that newly-composed music should be exempt from a list of “essential” choral repertoire, but for the moment, the focus is on old gems that should remain part of the standard choral repertoire.

Of course,the overall concert program for our school choirs should include a variety of styles, historical periods, languages, and nationalities. Selected repertoire should fit our specific ensemble in terms of age, ability, and balance between parts. These are topics for a future article and are not presently under consideration for determining which old gems should be considered essential repertoire. There are online lists of “essential repertoire” and books with “essential repertoire” in their titles, but most of these lists are heavily skewed toward music composed within the last 40 years.

It is up to choral music educators of all grade and age levels to teach these choral gems in order to keep them on our list of essential repertoire or they will be forgotten. Assume that some of our students will sing in high school choir for four years and then in a college choir for four years. A few will continue to sing in a choir in their community, church, or synagogue. What are the old gems that should remain part of the essential repertoire that singers must experience in high school and college choir?

You are invited to talk back. Take a look at the list of essential repertoire that Robert Eaton and I have started ( You can also add your own suggestions of pieces that you believe are part of the essential repertoire for choral singers. Limit your suggestions to music composed before 1975. We look forward to reading your suggestions. Later this spring,we will email you and invite you to vote for the pieces that you believe are the most essential “old” repertoire. Thank you for your help