Pieces of the Week – two short anthems

Yes, it’s ‘Pieces’ this week – two short anthems, one for Holy Week and one for Easter Day.

Firstly, my setting of the Phineas Fletcher poem, ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’. This text has been set by many composers, and my setting forms a section from my Passiontide meditation, ‘Wondrous Cross’ which takes the Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ on the Cross and combines them with hymns and original material.  I wrote Wondrous Cross for the church choir in which I sing – we sing it most years and this movement is always the one which needs the most rehearsal time. ‘Why did you make it so difficult’ my colleagues say, to which I can only reply, rather sententiously, ‘this is how it had to be’. And it’s true that when I set this wonderful text, which begins ‘Drop, drop, slow tears, and bathe those beauteous feet, which brought from heaven the news and Prince of Peace’, I didn’t have any options – I just had to write what I felt.

It’s for unaccompanied voices in four parts, and it begins with a poignant dissonance which is taken from the previous movement, ‘My God, why has thou forsaken me?’. The melody begins with a simple descending broken chord pattern, and it was only after I wrote it that I realised that at the back of my mind was the identical three-note shape which begins the instrumental introduction to the penultimate movement of Bach’s St. John Passion, the movement known in English as ‘Lie still’.  I sung the St. John Passion every Easter at my secondary school and in my head it is forever associated with Passiontide, so it’s not surprising that this fragment stuck in my mind. But from that opening developed a 24-bar movement which, though tonal (beginning in D minor and ending with an imperfect cadence in A minor) builds through a chromatic texture with independent vocal lines, false relations, and a wide dynamic and dramatic range. I’m pleased with the result – but I can’t say how I did it – it just happened – and so, ‘that’s how it had to be’!

Easter day, on the other hand, is a day for rejoicing and not too much rehearsal, and my anthem ‘He is Risen’ (setting the traditional text by Cecil Alexander) begins with another three-note broken chord pattern, but this time presented in a much more straightforward manner as the beginning of a sequential tune (admittedly in 7/8) which is simply repeated for the three verses: the first verse in a jovial major, the second verse supported by minor key harmony, and in the third verse underpinning a soaring descant, as we brightly celebrate ‘our joyful Easter feast’.

You can hear and see Drop, drop, slow tears here, and He is Risen here.

Details of Wondrous Cross are here