This traditional Good Friday hymn has been around a long, long time. There have been a great many anthems written around it in the past. So why this one?
The main "Were You There..." phrase becomes quite repetitious if more than one stanza is done, so this piece goes through only one stanza, but repeats other key phrases, Bach-like, to add depth of meaning to the words. In addition, the intent of this piece was to specifically focus on the crucifixion, not on other aspects of the passion story.
This piece makes complete use of the full capabilities of a good bass section, first by expanding to a full five parts, and second by making rich harmonic shifts of whole or half steps to accentuate the depth of tone of a choir singing in five parts, with most of them in the lower register.
In addition, since the crucifixion itself took place over several hours, and since it certainly gives Christians considerable pause to reflect on what actually happened there, the piece uses stretches of silence to draw the listener into a place where the message of the price that was paid on that day can be heard, and the weight of it can almost be felt.
For a believer the inescapable answer to the question, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" is emphatically yes. Each of us was not only there, but we participated in placing Jesus on the cross with our sin, and we died with him by joining with him in death to sin (Romans 3:21-26 and Romans 6:3-7).
Small choirs might have some difficulty doing this piece if there are not at least two or three very deep bass voices as well as two or three competent baritones on the roster. The alto and tenor parts are also quite low in spots, so keep your personnel in mind.
WERE YOU THERE? arranged by Tom Kirkland, comes in a PDF file of 241K containing a five page score, plus a license page, six pages in all. Performance time will be about 3:30.
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Last update: 14 January 2019