Finding Anthem Literature for the Church Choir

Chorister singing

Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a complete neophyte, finding good anthem literature is a major responsibility for the church musician. Those who are new might feel intimidated by their scant knowledge of choral literature, but they are not the only ones who struggle. Sometimes old pros continue doing the same anthem literature year after year, which leaves the choir, the congregation, and, worst of all, the director unchallenged. I was once told by a parishioner that, at his church, the choir repeats the same choral music each year, so that the congregation becomes familiar enough with the anthems that they could sing along.

In the healthy church music program, the organist-choirmaster or director is constantly on the look-out for new choral music. This takes time, of course, in a schedule that might be already packed. The stimulation offered by great, new music, however, makes the effort worthwhile. By “new,” by the way, I don’t only mean recently-composed music. Just this week I learned a “new” 16th century motet that I think will be a valuable addition to our repertoire.

What are some sources one might consult for good anthem literature? Here are four suggestions: 1) Anthem guides that cross reference the lectionary texts and anthems that reflect them. 2) The anthem lists of musicians you trust or personal recommendations from colleagues. 3) Recordings. 4) Workshops, conferences and conventions.

Anthem Guides

There is one resource that, since its inception, I have used nearly every week of my working career. It is my number one, go-to reference, and I trust it implicitly. William Wunsch’s A Catalogue of Anthems and Motets for the Sundays of Lectionary Years A, B, and C (revised edition, 2008) is a goldmine. Each Sunday of the three-year Eucharistic cycle lists the lections for the day, followed by a long list of titles of music that closely reflect the scriptures. Years ago I learned to trust the taste of this book, and its author has consistently pointed me to music that enriched worship for both singers and listeners. The range of difficulty is wide, so that some pieces are highly demanding, while others are simple enough for even a choir of modest ability. Sometimes the list will help merely by reminding me of other pieces I know that would be appropriate. Wunsch’s guide is available in two formats: a print edition ($80) and a CD Rom ($40). Of course the electronic version allows the benefit of electronic searching. This means that, if we’re in Epiphany and you wish to sing something that reflects the subject of “light,” you could enter that as a search word. This resource may be ordered on the website of the Association of Anglican Musicians.

Catalogue of Choral Music Arranged in Biblical Order does exactly what the title implies. If you are trying to find music that complements the eighth chapter of Romans, you simply look in this catalog under that scripture listing, and there will be anthems that quote this text or else are consonant with it. James H. Laster’s book is available from Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, NJ. The second edition appeared in 1996, and a supplement came out in 2001. While Wunsch’s book (above) has an Anglican audience in mind, Laster’s book is broader, meaning that some listings will be more suitable to Anglican ethos than others.

Laster’s listing of choral music was so successful that he later produced a Catalogue of Vocal Solos and Duets Arranged in Biblical Order (2003), also published by Scarecrow. While solos are frowned upon in some parishes, I would not hesitate to use this a resource for the small choir. If your choir needs mostly unison or two-part anthems, this is a resource that will be useful.

Anthem Lists and Recommendations

Some parish websites list all the upcoming music for a season, and you might easily find a piece that is new to you and well worth trying. In addition, brochures from parish music departments often appear in the mail at the end of summer or beginning of fall, listing the anthems the choir will sing. I make it a habit to look over the list to see if there is music that is new to me. Nearly all musicians are eager to share with others their enthusiasm over a new discovery. A few years ago, when I discovered Jonathan Dove’s Seek him that maketh the seven stars, I was excited enough about the piece to tell every colleague I encountered.

Recordings

Listening to a newfound CD or downloading an new album will often yield riches. Especially if the conductor is someone you admire, you will be eager to see what s/he has programed for the recording. Increasingly publishers are providing recordings on their online catalogs, so that you can watch a new score and listen to a performance. (St. James Music Press and MorningStar are among those who offer such a service.)

Workshops, Conferences, and Conventions

Throughout the year, but especially in the summers, meetings are available for church musicians. Even if you aren’t a member of the sponsoring organization, visiting conferees are usually welcomed. Inevitably at these events there’s an anthem reading session, where those in attendance sing through new choral literature. The groups’ websites will describe such upcoming events. Look for workshops offered by the American Guild of Organists, conventions of the Association of Anglican Musicians, The Leadership Program for Musicians, the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians (and the associations of many other denominations), or the American Choral Directors Association; summer courses by the Royal School of Church Music; or conferences such as the Mississippi Conference on Church Music and Liturgy, the Sewanee Church Music Conference (near University of the South), or the East Carolina Music Camp. Not only will you learn an abundance of new literature, but the camaraderie and sharing among colleagues are infectious and will bring you back again and again.

Naturally you will hear live performances that introduce you to new music, too. Sometimes the repertoire of other conductors will challenge us to expand our own. A few years ago, for example, I was shocked and dismayed that I had not scheduled one single anthem by a woman composer that year. I resolved to correct this inequity, and the riches have been rewarding. Occasionally, in looking at the music offered by other choirs, I will observe that I am exclusively scheduling composers that I personally love, ignoring the fact that singers or parishioners might prefer something else. Offering a broad palette will reach the largest number of people.

Discovering newfound choral literature, far from being a drudgery, can become an adventure with many rewards. Your singers will discover new energy, your congregations will hear new music they like, and you the director will be revitalized by new texts and music!

 

The Rev. Dr. William Bradley Roberts is Professor of Church Music at Virginia Theological Seminary and faculty consultant for music at the Center for Liturgy and Music.

 

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