I could easily have spent the next year compiling a seemingly endless list for this entry, but I’ve limited myself to my five favorite anthems from among the great English cathedral literature. I may kick myself tomorrow for a crucial omission, but here are my selections as of this moment:
- “Like as the Hart” by Herbert Howells
“Like as the Hart” is easily my all-time favorite anthem, even beyond English church music, written by my favorite choral composer. Although I realize my own music may not (ostensibly) sound much like Howells, he has had a profound influence on me as a composer. Taken from his collection of four anthems, which are all terrific in their own rights, his adaption of the 42nd Psalm is supreme. Its E Minor framework is merely a loose guideline; much of Howells’s work is tonal only in the sense that Wagner is tonal. Each line is defined by its temporary tonality. In many ways, chord progressions within the anthem follow the nonbinding rules of jazz. For example, an F# minor chord may have its bass note “walked down” from its root to E, followed by D, with occasional 9ths thrown in merely for linear movement, as opposed to chordal expansion. The melody is positively haunting, constantly manipulating his love for pentatonic scales. The dynamic peak of the song is the phrase “Where is now thy God”, but the true musical climax, “When shall I come and kneel before the presence of God”, is surprisingly understated, even reducing its volume until the end of the piece. The only embellishment at that point is the subtle soprano descant, which lasts a mere four measures of ethereality. A large portion of the anthem is made up of soli lines of either unison men or sopranos alone. While this may not make for the most engaging score for the altos, it is irresistible to the listener’s ears. The final phrase which shifts from quiet A Minor 9 to D Major 9 to E Major (although Howells surely would not have viewed the chords in those terms) is heaven.
- “I Was Glad” by Charles Hubert Parry
Sometimes used as a coronation anthem, though not often for obvious reasons, “I Was Glad” is a rousing, spectacular piece of music. While the excellent orchestral accompaniment is standard for larger-scale performances, the organ score is even better. I should say it’s better to listen to. The entire orchestral score is crammed into a two-handed accompaniment, which may be an unnecessary challenge, but creates a fullness that is rarely paralleled in church music. A good choral director knows that the dynamics are meant to be extreme in the sense that crescendos are to be sung with a drastic brilliance and that the middle section, “O pray for the peace…” should be delivered with adoring sweetness. I should mention that my love for this anthem excludes the coronation-themed, optional section, “Viva regina…”, which is needlessly shocking to the ear and doesn’t match the rest of the piece whatsoever, so let’s pretend it’s simply not there (insert smiley-winky emoticon). The dynamic build out of the Gb-based middle section into the final return to Bb is the thing that great movie scores are made of. Despite the radical leanings of Parry in his personal life (he believed composers should be politically inclined activists), his work here is tonal in every sense. That being said, it’s an indulgent joy. Leading this anthem is a job for directors who occasionally prefer a little recklessness with their abandonment. Others need not apply.
- “Audivi Vocem de Caelo” by Thomas Tallis
The counterpoint throughout “Audivi” is simple, and the SATB part writing is very singable, but there is something exceptional about this motet. To say that any piece of music stands out among Tallis’s amazing repertory is really something to its credit. Perhaps what brings me such pleasure are the two chants (which I prefer to hear sung by women), one in the center of the piece and the shorter chant at the end. The first chant is broken into two sections, the first in Aeolian mode and the latter half in contrasting Dorian, creating a mystique of the Major IV of VII. The text is apocalyptic, but is really an abbreviated Revelatory passage, excluding the angels bringing vengeance upon the wicked earth. I suppose this allows for the beauty and complete lack of aggression in the naturally sung dynamics (Of course, any dynamics written into the score are editorial and not historically substantiated.). The mysterious dorian mode does show up in the polyphony at the end of the last 4-part passage, which leads perfectly into the smaller chant at the end. The last chant, though shorter than the other, reverses the modes, placing the dorian first and only implying the aeolian in the final statement. This is mandatory Tudor Era listening.
- “Prevent Us, O Lord” by William Byrd
Much like the Tallis entry, I could have chosen so many individual motets from the masterful William Byrd. Belonging to an elite echelon of Tudor composers that consists of Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons and (rightfully) William Mundy, William Byrd is musically sublime. “Prevent Us, O Lord” can be seen, perhaps with equal frequency, in both four parts and five. While the 4-part version is justified by the fact that it is “harmonically complete”, I’ve always felt that the sacrifice of the 2nd alto line wasn’t worth the loss in texture. Particularly delightful here is the contrast of chorale-style movement and counterpoint, observed easily from the beginning statement as it develops. The 5-part original version is also essential because there are multiple times when four parts move together and one moves independently (the tenors go rogue on “continued and ended” and sopranos throughout the last phrase). Again, while this predates notated dynamics, the linear movement makes expressive dynamics a natural instinct. Every choral singer needs to sing this motet at least once.
- “I Sat Down under His Shadow” by Sir Edward Bairstow
The shortest anthem on the list, “I Sat Down” is perhaps a historical precursor to Eric Whitacre’s “This Marriage”, both in theme and even a little in style. The text is more romantic than religious, taken from the semi-secular Biblical book, Song of Solomon. Honestly, this is the “Tenor Show”, and as a tenor, there are few anthems I enjoy singing more. I also realize as a director that the soprano line begins in an exceptionally low register and that both the beginning and the ending are essentially tenor soli with the other parts acting as veritable backup singers. That’s still not what makes this one of my absolute favorite anthems. The musical peak of the song may be brief, as is the entirety of the anthem, but it is exhilarating. As the music director of York Minster, Bairstow wrote many choral anthems (he also wrote some much underrated vocal solos and orchestral literature), but none of them sound much at all like “I Sat Down”. It’s not very difficult, even for many church choirs, but it is a true gem.