By Peter Niedmann
Ten years ago, Oxford University Press published The Oxford Book of Flexible Anthems. The collection of 65 anthems, edited by composer Alan Bullard, has one purpose: to allow choirs of all types and sizes to be able to sing the anthems. To that end, at the top of the first page of each anthem, the possible voicings are shown. Some are SA(T)B, meaning they can be sung by a 4-part group, but the tenor part can be omitted, and the piece will still work. There are many permutations of voicings, and the director can even adapt beyond the given suggestions, depending on her choral situation.
The quality of the music in the book is high, for the most part. The collection accepts and embraces the reality that many choirs are not able to sing SATB music. We, as choral directors, also need to accept and embrace that reality. The fact that the majority of great choral repertoire over the centuries is SATB doesn’t mean we have to avoid it if our choir doesn’t have a tenor, for example. Maybe a low alto and a baritone can work together to create a “tenor” section. Or maybe the piece we wish to sing works well with no sung tenor part, but an organ part that fills in that missing voice. And books like the Oxford collection also help the situation.
According to the editor at one of my publishers, 2-part mixed (high & low voices) with keyboard is the most popular voicing these days. The sacred choral landscape is not what it was 50 years ago. Fewer people are members of a faith community, and choirs have gotten smaller as well. But great music-making doesn’t always require bountiful, balanced forces. Sometimes, a lot can be done with a little.
We just need to be flexible.
[Since the publication of The Oxford Book of Flexible Anthems, two other collections with the same concept have been released: The Oxford Book of Flexible Carols and The Oxford Book of Easy Flexible Anthems.]