Notes from BenMonthly musings from the Choirmaster



Evensong, as a distinctly Anglican service, dates back to the Anglican Reformation.  In Archbishop Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, Evensong (which came to be called Evening Prayer) in later versions of the book, was derived from two medieval evening monastic Offices (services sung at particular times of the day): Vespers, which always included the singing of the Magnificat, and Compline, which was the last service before bedtime and included the singing of the Nunc Dimittis.  Cranmer combined the two because this was intended to be a daily liturgy for the general public, which could not attend multiple services each day.  He put the entire liturgy into English, where it had been in Latin.  The Psalter was organized so that between Matins (sung in the morning) and Evensong, the entire psalter would be chanted every month.  The psalms are still printed this way in our 1979 Prayer Book, beginning with “First Day: Morning Prayer” (Psalms 1 through 5), and ending with “Thirtieth Day: Evening Prayer” (Psalms 147 through 150).

The service can be done very simply – at a minimum, with two singers and the music consisting only of Gregorian chant – or very elaborately with a trained choir singing polyphony.  If you have internet access, you can listen to Evensong live on the BBC Radio 3, which has been broadcasting weekly Evensongs continuously since 1926.  The venues are predominantly cathedrals and collegiate chapels, many with famous choirs with international reputations.  In some of these buildings the praises of God have been sung daily for several hundred years.  When sung by a trained choir, Choral Evensong does not abound in congregational participation, but is something that the choirs offer every day to God, whether there is any congregation there to hear it or not.  The congregation may sing a hymn and join in the Creed, said prayers and responses, but otherwise they participate primarily by prayerful listening and contemplation.  The commentator Guy Hayward writes: “The fact that Evensong has had such a long evolution means that one has a powerful sense of connecting present with past, of tapping into something much greater than ourselves.  As we come together in a church at the end of the day we join a vast community enduring both through time and in the same place, by acting in the same way as countless people have done before us for over a thousand years.”

I suggest checking out the BBC Radio 3 website when you have a half-hour to spare.  The broadcast Evensongs are now archived for some weeks, so that you can listen to them any time you want to.  I also recommend putting Friday evening, October 14th on your calendar, when the choral scholars of Nashotah House will sing Evensong for us, conducted by Fr. Alexander Pryor.  I will be returning to play the organ for that and for the other services of the Walsingham Pilgrimage this year.

Ben Dobey

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