An anthem is a musical composition of celebration, usually used as a symbol for a distinct group, particularly the national anthems of countries. Originally, and in music theory and religious contexts, it also refers more particularly to short sacred choral work and still more particularly to a specific form of Anglican church music.
Anthem is derived from the Greek ἀντίφωνα (antíphōna) via Old English antefn. Both words originally referred to antiphons, a call-and-response style of singing. The adjectival form is "anthemic".
Anthems were originally a form of liturgical music. In the Church of England, the rubric appoints them to follow the third collect at 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. Being written for a trained choir rather than the congregation, the Anglican anthem is analogous to the motet of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches but represents an essentially English musical form. Anthems may be described as "verse", "full", or "full with verse", depending on whether they are intended for soloists, the full choir, or both.
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. During the Elizabethan period, notable anthems were composed by Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Tye, and Farrant but they were 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. Early anthems tended to be simple and homophonic in texture, so that the words could be clearly heard. During the 17th century, notable anthems were composed by Orlando Gibbons, Henry Purcell, and John Blow, with the verse anthem becoming the dominant musical form of the Restoration. In the 18th century, famed anthems were composed by Croft, Boyce, James Kent, James Nares, Benjamin Cooke, and Samuel Arnold. In the 19th, Samuel Sebastian Wesley wrote anthems influenced by contemporary oratorio which stretch to several movements and last twenty minutes or longer. Later in the century, Charles Villiers Stanford used symphonic techniques to produce a more concise and unified structure. Many anthems have been composed since this time, generally by organists rather than professional composers and often in a conservative style. Major composers have usually composed anthems in response to commissions and for special occasions. Examples include Edward Elgar's 1912 "Great is the Lord" and 1914 "Give unto the Lord" (both with orchestral accompaniment), Benjamin Britten's 1943 Rejoice in the Lamb (a modern example of a multi-movement anthem, today heard mainly as a concert piece), and, on a much smaller scale, Ralph Vaughan Williams's 1952 "O Taste and See" 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 now commonly used to describe any celebratory song or composition for a distinct group, as in national anthems. Many pop songs are used as sports anthems, notably including Queen's "We Are the Champions" and "We Will Rock You", and some sporting events have their own anthems, most notably including UEFA Champions League. Further, some songs are artistically styled as anthems, whether or not they are used as such, including Marilyn Manson's "Irresponsible Hate Anthem", Silverchair's "Anthem for the Year 2000", and Toto's "Child's Anthem".
- "Anthem", Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th ed., Vol. II, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1878, p. 102.
- "Anthem", Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed., Vol. II, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911, p. 93.