Hunting for treasure (or choir anthems)

by Ken Brown

Choosing the choir anthem is the first of four stages I go through in planning music for a worship service. Choir anthems are chosen as much as eight months in advance. I do the planning in three stages:  in September and October, I choose music for Epiphany through Trinity Sunday. Right after Easter, I plan the summer music for soloists and small groups. In early June, I choose the anthems for September through Christmas. Anthems are posted on our web site, not only for general information, but also to help attract singers that may be new to the area and looking for a church home.

Finding the right anthem for a service is much like going on a treasure hunt. After studying the lessons for a given Sunday, I first go through the hundreds of anthems in our choir library (expertly maintained by Mindy Elledge!). These anthems are cataloged by title, composer, and scriptural reference. I may find six or seven anthems that will work, or I may find none. The next step is to look back and see what the choir did three, six, nine, and twelve years ago (the last time these readings came up in the lectionary). I then look for new music by perusing sample anthem copies I have kept from music publishers, workshops, and anthem reading sessions I attend. I then check several scriptural cross references for anthems that I may not know. If the music is in the public domain (not under copyright), I then check with several on-line sites and print out sample copies. I go to You Tube or other sources to listen to performances of the piece.

My only criterion at this point is to come up with several choices of quality choral music that illuminate the readings for a given Sunday. I may have dozens of ideas, or none at this point. Then I move to the next scheduled worship service and repeat the process.

By the time I have worked my way through the particular part of the year, I will hopefully have several suggestions written out for each worship service. This is when the treasure hunt begins! It starts with a balancing act between the style of music, difficulty of the music, the musical forces needed for the music, and finally, my music budget.

Stylistically, I tend to lean more heavily on the rich musical heritage of the Anglican tradition – Stanford, Howells, Handel, Vaughn Williams. But we also need Bach, Palestrina and Vivaldi. What about contemporary composers? Russian music? Spirituals? A cappella (unaccompanied) pieces? Should the Children’s Choir sing this Sunday? I take a look at tempos (too many slow anthems in row…) and keys (too many minor anthems in a row…). I cross out anthems that are too much of the same style, in order to maintain a variety of musical styles.

Then comes the question of difficulty. We do one major work each musical “semester.” These take extra time for the choir to learn, so I have to balance a longer, more involved work with some familiar pieces, and some easier pieces that are still quality music. If we do too many easy pieces, choir members can become bored (your Canon for Music and Worship, too). Too many hard anthems in a row can lead to frustration. This helps me cross out some additional choices.

Next I have to look at the musical requirements. Do I need the consort for accompaniment? Can I conduct the piece from the organ console? Do I need a soloist for this piece? Will I be in town? What is the likelihood of having a lot of choir members out of town that weekend? For instance, if Pentecost falls on Memorial Day weekend, I will be missing a lot of choir members. The Sunday after Thanksgiving (often Advent 1) tends to have a lot of folks out of town, as does the Sunday after Christmas.

Fourth comes budgetary considerations. I can’t afford to choose new music every week. An average anthem costs about $2.00 a copy these days, major works can be $10.00 per copy. I need a minimum of 50 copies for our choir. There are shipping costs as well to consider. Plus we have a lot of very fine music in our library. We do about a dozen newly published anthems per year.

So the choir anthems are chosen first, not because they are most important musical component of the liturgy, but because they take the most effort to select, cost the most money, and need the most lead time!

Ken Brown is Canon for Music and Worship at the Cathedral.

Cathedral of the Incarnation