Where on Earth Do You Find Quality Music for the Small Choir?

Choir Member Singing at Seminary Eucharist

Finding anthem literature for the parish choir is a time-consuming and demanding but highly rewarding activity. Nearly every choir director has had the experience of finding that perfect piece: 1) It fits perfectly the lessons for the service; 2) The congregation loves hearing it; 3) The choir wants to sing it again and again; 4) The director finds that discovering, preparing, and presenting this piece was a coup; 5) With some work, it’s within the performing capability of the choir.

Unfortunately, directors have also experienced the opposite: 1) The anthem seemed at first to fit the lessons, but upon further reflection did not; 2) The paucity of comments from the congregation suggested that piece was hardly noticed (while we don’t sing for the praise of others, this is at least one barometer of effectiveness); 3) Even with a lot of work, the piece was clearly beyond the choir’s ability.

Finding music appropriate to the ability of the choir requires discernment. You learn to listen to respected practitioners of church music for suggestions. This might be the musician in a neighboring congregation with similar resources to your own, or even one far away whose repertoire lists you receive. It is also possible to locate in trade journals music reviews, written by editors you’ve come to trust. Years ago there was a music reviewer, whose taste I trusted so completely that I sometimes bought anthems he recommended without even laying eyes on the music.

Anybody can find simple music that lacks musical substance or theological integrity. Thousands of anthems are published each year, many in this category, but singers and listeners alike will quickly grow cranky over such a diet. Also easy is finding highly complex, sophisticated music that is beyond the capability of the choir, even with hard work. The result is that they are left dispirited and unconfident, because, despite your best efforts to rebuild their self-esteem, they know they performed poorly.

Most directors have favorite anthems that we have learned from recordings by the best choirs in the world: King’s College Cambridge, St. John’s Cambridge, Robert Shaw Festival Singers, St. Olaf Choir, Westminster Choir, Conspirare, Voices of Ascension, All Saints Beverly Hills, Washington National Cathedral, etc. We hear astounding performances that send us into ecstasy, leading us to fantasize about our own choir sounding just as gorgeous. In our enthusiasm we might be blinded to the fact that the recorded singers are professionals, who have studied for years to achieve their exalted levels. When I was an eager and earnest twenty-two year old conductor, I began a new boy choir by rehearsing “This little babe” from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols—a noble but foolish decision. Not a wise choice. It didn’t work.

Likewise, we visit a cathedral or large church, whose music program is a great inspiration to us, and then we go back to our more modest choir, determined to replicate what we have heard. Instead of repeating the glorious sounds of skilled experts, we have inadvertently led our choir to feel that they are inadequate, something great leaders never want to communicate to their charges.

I once heard of a choir director who wanted to surprise the bishop by singing Howells’ magnificent “Like as the hart” with his choir of six struggling, unmatched, untrained voices. The bishop was gracious, but, being a musician herself, she noticed that the choir wasn’t up to this challenge. How much better to have sung a simpler anthem that was within the capability of the choir. The bishop would’ve loved it, as well as the congregation, and the choir would’ve felt that they had achieved the worthy goal of enriching worship with beautiful music.

After many years of conducting workshops for church choir directors, this is a question I have never been asked, “Bill, won’t you please show us some highly complex, eight-part, polyphonic motets?” No, to the contrary, people are looking for simple music with musical and theological integrity. That doesn’t mean that we can’t ask our choirs to stretch and grow beyond their present level of ability. Judging when to push and when to “retreat to reality” is an art that a leader of any enterprise wants to acquire.

How do you determine what level music is suitable for your choir? The simplest answer is your own judgment plus trial and error. Some publishers’ catalogs indicate a range between E (easy) to D (difficult), but this is an editor’s assessment. These markings should be taken as a general guide, tempered by your own knowledge of your choir.

There are a number of guides to choral literature. One is James Laster’s Catalog of Choral Literature Arranged in Biblical Order, published by Scarecrow Press. If Matthew 15:1-9 is among the lessons for the day, you would simply look in Laster’s book under Matthew to see what anthems are recommended. Laster also published a guide to vocal solos and duets in biblical order. We should not hesitate to do a solo or a duet as an choral piece. When they are beautifully sung, these pieces make very effective anthems.

Another guide is Carl P. Daw, Jr. and Thomas Pavlechko’s Liturgical Music for the Revised Common Lectionary. This is a guide to selecting hymns, songs and anthems for the three-year liturgical cycle. Three books are available, one for each of the three years. Here is the link to Year A.

The most valuable guide to choral literature I have found is William Wunsch’s A Catalog of Anthems and Motets for the Sundays of Lectionary Years A, B, and C. This is available as an electronic resource from the website of the Association of Anglican Musicians. The author has taken great pains to find music of high quality, marking simpler anthems with an asterisk.

Two final suggestions for locating practical anthems:

St. James Music Press distributes music only through the internet. The parish or school buys an annual membership (currently $139) which gains access to the entire catalog. That’s right. You can download anything (or everything!) from the catalog after paying the annual fee and getting a passcode. You print a single copy from your computer, then duplicate as many copies as you need for your own, local situation. It’s legal to duplicate because you receive a license with your membership. (Legal and ethical advice: please do not make illegal copies of anthems! It deprives composers and poets of the small income they receive and causes publishers to drop items they assume are not being used.) St. James is not limited to simple anthem literature, but there is an ample supply of it. The thousands of items in the catalog not only can be viewed on your computer instantly, but here’s the wonderful news: most of the anthems also have links to recordings you can listen to while following the score.

Finally, hymns make excellent simple anthem literature. Here are some treatments that dress up a hymn: 1) create an introduction, which could also serve as an interlude between two verses, 2) find or create a descant for the final verse, 3) if you have melodic instruments (flute, violin, oboe, trumpet) available, let the instrument(s) play on the introduction/interlude, as well as the descant, 4) alternate voice parts for variety of sound (sopranos and altos on verse one; tenors and basses on verse three), 4) have a soloist sing a verse. In order to reserve for the congregation those hymns that are beloved to them, it’s best to choose choir hymns that are lesser known. Every hymnal has items that are seldom used but that make good anthems. Sometimes a hymn might prove too difficult for a congregation, but be well within the capabilities of the average choir.

The hymns of David Hurd and Calvin Hampton are particularly beautiful and interesting as anthems. (There are a number of hymn tunes by each of these composers to be found in standard denominational hymnals, but you can find even more hymns in The David Hurd Hymnary  or The Calvin Hampton Hymnary from GIA Publications. Your choir and congregation will love them. After your congregation hears a time or two the gorgeous tune St. Helena by Calvin Hampton (Hymnal 1982, no. 469), they will probably insist upon singing it with the choir! New congregational hymns often begin as choir anthems.

Finding appropriate choral literature takes time, judgment and creativity. The rewards, however, are nearly incalculable. You choir will appreciate the work you’ve invested in finding anthems that are worthy of their time and attention, and the congregation will feel that they have the best choir in the world, because everything they work so hard to achieve is clearly within their capabilities.

The Rev. Dr. William Bradley Roberts is Professor of Church Music at Virginia Theological Seminary and a Faculty Consultant for the Center for Liturgy and Music.

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