Choral Anthems: Fitting great texts to wonderful tunes

It feels off to hear a song about suffering-with upbeat rhythms and in a major key. Other new songs use mixed metaphors or trite emotionalisms. That's why choral directors search for anthems that make a meaningful match between words and music. A feature story exploring fitting texts to tunes in choral anthems.

When church choral directors get together at conventions and conferences, they look forward to the reading sessions-which means they sightread through recently published choral literature.

"Sometimes a certain anthem just clicks. 'Christus Paradox' lit a fire. We've sold 35,000 copies of the Dunstan/Fedak version. When you consider that the average church choir has 20 members, that's a lot of copies," says Bob Batastini, vice president and senior editor of GIA Publications in Chicago, Illinois.

Though the rich text of Sylvia Dunstan's "Christus Paradox," written in 1991, was first sung to the 17th century hymn tune WESTMINSTER ABBEY, that tune didn't convey the full impact of Dunstan's poetic words. So the Calvin College of Christian Worship commissioned Alfred V. Fedak to compose a new tune in the choral music series it jointly publishes with GIA.

The response to "Christus Paradox" and other anthems in this series suggests that choirs and congregations are still hungry for anthems that match substantive texts with fitting music.

Powerful texts 

"Anthem texts are often trite or light. But if a conductor wants choir to be more than a musical experience, then the text has to be able to nourish the choir. A good text will stay with choir members, speak to their faith, and also speak to the congregation. Our series with GIA is very text-driven," says Pearl Shangkuan, who is music editor of the series and chair of the Calvin College music department.

"Christus Paradox" was written by the late Sylvia Dunstan, a hymnwriter and pastor in the United Church of Canada. In four stanzas, she powerfully portrayed the paradox of being both human and divine. Her thoroughly biblical text piles on the comparisons, presenting Christ as both Lamb and Shepherd, prince and slave, gift and cost-someone "we both scorn and crave."

Dunstan's phrase "You, the everlasting instant" is the most memorable paradox, because it appears five times in the song.

That line didn't stand out enough when people sang the text to the WESTMINSTER ABBEY. But you can't miss it in the music that Alfred V. Fedak arranged. "He crafted it beautifully. The music builds from a mysterious start to a very powerful climax, without overwhelming the text," Shangkuan says.

Marrying words and music

Fedak set "Christus Paradox" to variations of PICARDY, a French carol tune that Christians variously identify with "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," "Jesus, Tender Shepherd," " Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending," and "For the Healing of the Nations."

His arrangement won second place in the annual John Ness Beck Foundation awards. Each year the foundation asks music retailers and church musicians to name outstanding choral work from the previous year.

A composer, organist, and conductor, Fedak is minister of music and arts at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Capitol Hill in Albany, New York.

He says that John Witvliet suggested using PICARDY to compose his commission. "John liked how the tune's melisma (several notes used to sing one syllable) expanded the word 'instant,' nicely illustrating the words, 'You, the everlasting instant,'" Fedak recalls.

'The choir will now render.'

It's not enough that excellent choral anthems marry substantive texts with fitting tunes. Unless churches settle for viewing the choir's contribution as stand-alone performance, it's crucial to integrate choral anthems into the worship service.

Fedak finds this fairly easy, because his church follows the lectionary, much of its liturgy comes from the Presbyterian Book of Common of Worship, and most hymns come from The Presbyterian Hymnal.

"Also, our pastor gives sermon topics many months in advance. That makes it possible for me to select and prepare high-quality choral and organ music which is liturgically, scripturally, and/or thematically congruent with the rest of the worship service.

"At their best, our liturgy, music, scripture, sacraments, and sermon complement and reinforce each other-putting across a coherent gospel message in the strongest way possible," he says.

Churches that follow the lectionary may find "Christus Paradox" especially apt for Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent. It also works well for Christmas, Easter, and Ascension services.

Besides integrating anthems into specific worship services, choral directors can seek out anthems that involve the congregation. Two good ways to do this are to choose anthems that include refrains sung by the whole congregation or to choose music that both children's and adult choirs can sing together.

Shangkuan says she had a hard time finding such music when she was a professional church musician. That's why she's commissioned intergenerational arrangements such as "We Will Rejoice" (based on a Dunstan text); "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" (based on that song and "My Faith Looks Up to Thee"); and "I Praise You, God" (children's voices punctuate the setting with a lyric refrain.)

Filling gaps

Shangkuan works on two tracks in acquiring music for the GIA/Calvin Institute of Christian Worship music series. When she leads workshops or reading sessions at conferences and conventions, she explains the series' goal of publishing fine choral anthems to produce liturgical renewal in the Reformed tradition and beyond. When composers submit texts or music, she sifts through to find the best. She passes on her selections to GIA, which makes the final decision.

But the series editors also commission anthems to fill topical gaps or for a special event. After cooperating on the contemporary hymnal supplement Sing! A New Creation, the worship institute began work on a forthcoming New Testament hymnal. John Witvliet says the GIA series will likely commission choral settings for some of the New Testament hymns.

Shangkuan noticed that most sung versions of Psalm 139 stop at verse 12. "I wanted to use verses 13 and beyond for baptism, sanctity of life Sundays, and similar occasions," Shangkuan says.

Her Calvin College Alumni Choir had premiered "Passacaglia: On the Emmaus Road," composed by her colleague David Fuentes, with lyrics by Debra Rienstra, a Calvin College English professor. Shangkuan also knew that Rienstra was not only an expert in English religious poetry and Psalm translations but had also written a book about motherhood.

"Pearl asked me to write a text about God's intimate knowledge of us, even before we are born," Rienstra says of the resulting anthem "I Praise You, God."

She notes several differences between writing hymn texts and poetry. "Poetry wants to be innovative, fresh, surprising; every line can take the reader somewhere new. But music is by nature repetitive. So hymn texts need to create richness within patterns. Also, when we sing in worship, we are not necessarily looking for startlingly fresh ways to see the world. We are seeking to be taught and to be reminded of the great truths of God."

Hymn texts also need to fit with music. When Rienstra learned that John Ferguson, a St. Olaf organ and music professor, would set her text to music, she studied his choral anthems to see what kind of lyrics he prefers.

"I was thrilled, because I had sung his anthems in church choir and played a viola solo part on two of his anthems for choir and viola. He composed gorgeous music for my text. He rearranged a few things, but liked the lyric as it was," Rienstra says.

Forthcoming premiere

In May 2004, Shangkuan and Witvliet commissioned organist and composer Emma Lou Diemer to write an anthem that the Calvin Alumni Choir will premiere at evensong on Sunday, June 19, 2005, at the regional convention of American Guild of Organists (AGO) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

"The AGO asked us to find a prominent female composer who can write for organ," Shangkuan says.

Diemer says they asked her to use straight text from either Psalm 63 or Psalm 66, Revised Standard version, for an anthem of three or four minutes that would include congregational participation. "They asked for new music, not an arrangement, with the organ part to be idiomatic to the organ, not doable on the piano."

"I chose Psalm 63 and set it in its entirety. There's supplication, searching, solace in finding God, praise and meditation-even some Old Testament anger at wrongdoers. For verses 9 and 10 ('But those who seek to destroy my life.'), the basses sing and the organ is in a low register, descending," Diemer says.

While the organ provides background, harmonic color, and dramatic transitions from one mood to another, the refrain brings the song back to Psalm 63's key theme. The quiet refrain, sung three times in unison by congregation and choir, is "O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is" (Psalm 63:1).

Learn More

Purchase music in the GIA/Calvin Institute of Worship music series. Find other compositions written by Alfred V. Fedak or other hymn texts written by the late Sylvia Dunstan. Book Pearl Shangkuan to conduct, adjudicate, speak on rehearsal techniques, or lead a choral reading session.

If you'd like to stay informed about new choral music, consider:

Text Week and NPM both suggest appropriate hymns and choral anthems based on the Revised Common Lectionary. GIA offers help for planning choral music, whether or not geared to a liturgical calendar.

Find and listen to free choral sheet music at the Choral Public Domain Library.

Discuss with your music committee how to engage a famous choral conductor or integrate specific anthems into the worship service.

Start a Discussion

  • In what ways do church choir rehearsals spiritually nurture your choir members? Might any changes or education opportunities help your choir director better reach this goal?
  • Do congregation members understand how choral anthems fit into the worship service? How could you use announcements, the church bulletin, or other means to educate them?
  • What criteria do you use to evaluate texts for hymns and choral anthems? Do you have a church worship statement that provides guidance for choosing music?
  • How do you encourage (or do you even permit) members to share song texts and music that they've written themselves? Do you have a respectful way to use some but not use other contributions?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help your choirs become more intentional about choosing appropriate worship music?

  • Have your found helpful training, resources, conventions, memberships, or local gatherings?
  • What methods have you developed to use choir members' gifts-without making people feel burned out or "not good enough"?
  • Have you written checklists or a simple manual so that new choir members (or directors) understand their roles and tasks? Have you shared these with congregations like yours?
  • The choir director, choir members, church staff, and congregation don't always have the same idea of the choir's main purpose. What's the best way you've found to reach agreement and make sure everyone understands it?

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