By Mark Michael
Like most church musicians, Matthew Owens has his favorite choral selections. The director of music at the Cathedral Church of St. Anne in Belfast, Northern Ireland, says that for him, few can surpass Orlando Gibbons’ 1641 anthem, “Almighty and Everlasting God.”
“It’s basically a piece you can do anywhere,” Owens said. “It’s relatively straightforward, suitable for choirs of all abilities. You can use it as an introit or an anthem, and it’s scored so that it can be accompanied with an organ doubling the voices or sung a cappella. It could be performed by a group as small as four people as well as by large choirs. It’s amazingly versatile.”
And, Owens noticed, it’s also a setting of a liturgical text, the traditional Anglican collect for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany. But why, he wondered, should it be the only anthem of its kind?
“I don’t know why it hasn’t been done before,” Owens noted. “It just needs someone to take it up and run with it.
For the past several years, Owens has been working with friends on both sides of the Atlantic to begin a project called the Cranmer Anthem Book. The eventual goal is to commission anthems in a variety of musical styles for all 92 Sunday and holy day collects in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Owens has asked all the composers to take Gibbons’ model as a guideline — relatively short, usable with or without organ — “as flexible as possible.”
That can be a challenge for some composers, Owens admitted. “Some people may say, ‘I can’t write anything that simple … Many have written complex music for professional choirs, but we’re asking them to also write for more amateur choirs, while staying within their signature style.”
British composer Howard Skempton, whose anthem on the collect for the 18th Sunday after Trinity was the second to be commissioned, said that he enjoyed the challenge of the Gibbons model. “What I really like is to write a piece that can be done by amateurs but that enormously benefits when done by professionals.”
Skempton’s oeuvre has been wide ranging — he recently completed a Viking song cycle and a famous piece from the past was a concerto for hurdy-gurdy and percussion. But he was grateful for the invitation to return to choral music, having sung daily services in school chapel as a teenager. “I was an outsider to begin with,” he said, “but I felt I was coming home.”
Gary Davison, an American composer, whose anthem on the collect for the fifth Sunday after Trinity was premiered last summer by the Wells Cathedral Choir, echoed Skempton’s praise. “The most enjoyable part of writing this anthem was the challenge of the constraints: four voices only, unaccompanied, and a text of a specific form. While those disciplines might seem restrictive, they can be quite freeing, as well.”
Owens said that Cranmer’s texts have been very appealing to the composers he has invited to participate in the project. “The language is very beautiful, lyrical in its own way. It lends itself to music in a way that more modern texts do not.”
Skempton agreed. “Even within these texts,” he said, “without the setting, there is a marriage of music and meaning.” Davison, who has composed musical settings for a number of collect texts, said, “I’ve always thought the collects from the BCP (both English and American) represent a very underused treasure trove of prayers longing to be set to music, and none better than those by Cranmer.”
British composer Judith Bingham, whose anthem for the Feast of the Epiphany will be premiered in Belfast next January, described composing her anthem as a way to honor language with deep cultural significance. “Cranmer’s words are almost as important to English culture as is Shakespeare, though without people realizing — the Book of Common Prayer has many phrases that have entered the vocabulary. It’s extremely poetic writing, with a wonderful internal rhythm all of its own.”
“I do try to remember that Cranmer was someone who sent people to their deaths for their faith and then was burned at the stake himself,” Bingham added. “I try to keep the times he wrote in at the back of my mind, otherwise settings can become inappropriately anodyne.”
Owens admitted that commissioning 92 individual works will be a daunting task, and he expects the project will take 10-15 years. He promises to make the collection complete, and will even seek a composer for the infamous Good Friday collect “for the Conversion of Jews, Turks and Infidels,” though he admits, “I don’t know if it will be performed much.” Someone will even have to take up the text Gibbons used for the piece that inspired the entire venture.
Bingham says she hopes that the large number of pieces will make some experimentation possible. “I hope it will be useful, but also that it will encourage people to move away from more formulaic choices, and try something new. I also hope that Matthew reaches out to composers around the world, and that there might be some folk or jazz settings in there. That would be interesting.”
So far, nine anthems have been written for the project. The first was by Francis Jackson, director of music at York Minister for over 30 years, for St. Luke’s Day in 2017, when he celebrated his 100th birthday. Gary Davison’s anthem premiered on BBC Radio Three on the fourth of July last year.
The anthems’ scores are being released independently as they are premiered, but Owens says that the eventual plan is to publish them in a series of volumes, perhaps in 10-15 years, when the project is complete. A website should be live soon with links to the pieces that have already been published and notes about those that are planned for the future.
He aims for the collection to follow in the footsteps of definitive sacred choral collections like the Eton Choir Book and the 2012 Choir Book for the Queen. Owens is currently working on establishing the project as a charity and recruiting patrons who can serve as ambassadors for the work in the church and the music world.
Davison said he believes the project should be a gift to the wider church. “I hope this collection will give choirs of varying sizes and abilities the opportunity to expand their repertoire with well-written settings of these 16th-century gems. It will also be a great opportunity for people to rediscover the brilliance of the entire Cranmer catalogue of collects, and their continuing relevance for today!”