The term anthem means either a specific form of Anglican church music (in music theory and religious contexts), or more generally, a song (or composition) of celebration, usually acting as a symbol for a distinct group of people, as in the term "national anthem" or "sports anthem".
The word is derived from the Greek ἀντίφωνα (antiphōna) via Old English antefn, a word which originally had the same meaning as antiphon.
Anthems and the church
An anthem is a form of church music, particularly in the service of the Church of England, in which it is appointed by the rubrics to follow the third collect at both morning and evening prayer. Several anthems are included in the British coronation service. The words are selected from Holy Scripture or in some cases from the Liturgy, and the music is generally more elaborate and varied than that of psalm or hymn tunes. Though the anthem of the Church of England is analogous to the motet of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches, both being written for a trained choir and not for the congregation, it is as a musical form essentially English in its origin and development.
The anthem developed as a replacement for the Catholic "votive antiphon" commonly sung as an appendix to the main office to the Blessed Virgin Mary or other saints. Although anthems were written in the Elizabethan period by Tallis (1505-1585), Byrd (1539-1623), and others, they are not mentioned in the Book of Common Prayer until 1662, when the famous rubric "In quires and places where they sing here followeth the Anthem" first appears.
In common usage among many Protestant churches, an "anthem" often refers to any short sacred choral work presented during the course of a worship service. In the context of an Anglican service, an "anthem" is a composition to an English religious text. From this widening usage has come the more modern sense of the word.
Early anthems tended to be simple and homophonic in texture, in order that the words could be clearly heard. Late in the sixteenth century the "verse anthem", in which passages for solo voices alternated with passages for full choir, began to evolve. This became the dominant form in the Restoration period, when composers such as Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and John Blow (1649-1708) wrote elaborate examples for the Chapel Royal with orchestral accompaniment. In the nineteenth century Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876) wrote anthems influenced by contemporary oratorio which could stretch to several movements and last twenty minutes or longer. Later in the same century, Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) composed examples which used symphonic techniques to produce a more concise and unified structure.
Many anthems have been produced since this time, generally by organists rather than professional composers and often in a conservative style. Major composers have tended to compose anthems in response to commissions and for special occasions. Examples include Edward Elgar's Great is the Lord (1912) and Give unto the Lord (1914) (both with orchestral accompaniment), Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb (1943) (a modern example of a multi-movement anthem and today heard mainly as a concert piece), and, on a much smaller scale, Ralph Vaughan Williams' O taste and see (1952) (written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II). With the relaxation of the rule, in England at least, that anthems should be only in English, the repertoire has been greatly enhanced by the addition of many works from the Latin repertoire.
The word "anthem" is commonly used to describe a celebratory song or composition for a distinct group, as in the term "national anthem". Many pop songs are used as anthems, such as Queen's "We are the Champions", which is commonly used as a sports anthem. The term "anthemic" is a modern word coined to describe music with a celebratory connotation to it.
The following is a list of articles on anthems:
- Peter Le Huray "Anthem" in Stanley Sadie, ed. The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians (London: Macmillan, 1980) ISBN 0-333-23111-2
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge University Press.