Breathe on Us, Breath of God, 1918. Arthur Farwell, 1872-1952. Music Division, Library of Congress. Call number: M2072.F
Farwell wrote a large number of works intended for amateur community choruses, ranging from unison songs and arrangements to more complicated four-part settings. His New York Community Chorus met on Sundays in Central Park for massive "sings," attended regularly by more than eight hundred people. For these occasions Farwell prepared song sheets containing a potpourri of unison arrangements—everything from classics in English translation (such as Bach chorale melodies and songs by Schubert, Wolf, and Dvořák) to traditional folk songs. His four-part pieces, such as Breathe on Us, Breath of God, were probably intended for a smaller, more select group that rehearsed during the week and served as a core for the colossal Sunday gatherings. A good deal of Farwell's more challenging choral music is found within his large-scale community pageants, such as Caliban and the Yellow Sands. He composed that work for the tercentenary of Shakespeare's birth and conducted it with a cast of thousands in New York's Lewisohn Stadium.
Breathe on Us, Breath of God is a four-part, ecumenical hymn published in 1918 as part of a set titled Four Part Songs for Community Chorus, op. 51. Although the octavo's text attribution states "Poem Anonymous," the words are distinctly related to the hymn text Breathe on Me, Breath of God, written by Anglican minister Edwin Hatch (1835–89). Composed during World War I, when community singing frequently inspired feelings of unity and patriotism, Farwell's piece is a plea to God for inspiration and guidance.
Farwell's strophic setting (four verses followed by a brief "Amen") contains colorful harmonies and unexpected voice leading that beautifully embellishes the text. For example, the soprano's opening tritone leads to an unusual dissonance on the word "breath" resolving to an F-major triad on "God." The return of this striking chord at the end of each verse, as well as in the concluding "Amen," serves to unify this short anthem. Low octaves in the piano accompaniment (which otherwise doubles the vocal lines) add rich sonority, particularly at the beginnings and ends of phrases.