What’s the music like?
There are up to seven major musical elements to sung Choral Evensong; Introit, Preces and Responses, Psalmody, Canticles, Choral Anthem, Hymns, and the Organ Voluntary.
The Introit is traditionally defined as the first point the choir sings in a service. It may take one of a number of forms, from a congregational hymn to a short choral work or psalm, but may also be omitted entirely.
Choral Preces and Responses are one of the oldest forms of Christian prayer, where short, composed petitions are sung alternately by the precentor and the choir. In a sung Evensong service, the choir will respond in harmony, sometimes also joined by the congregation.
Psalms, or psalmody chant, refers to the singing of select verses from the Book of Psalms, set to harmony. All Anglican psalms use the same musical format, with two clearly defined sections of two halves, each consisting of three chords with some use of passing notes between chords. This consistency of style allows for different harmonies to be used for the same written psalms, or the same harmony to be used for different psalm verses, and is related to the parallelism structure which links every two lines of each verse together. Some Anglican churches continue to sing psalms as medieval chant, though this practice is more commonly associated with Catholic services. Psalms are appointed for each day, either by region or through a cathedral Psalter, with liturgical importance relating to the church calendar, and though they are also sung at Eucharist and Matins, they feature most prominently in Evensong.
The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are the two canticles sung by the choir in harmony in an Evensong service, with the Gloria sung after each. The Magnificat is the Song of Mary, rejoicing at the prospect of Jesus’ birth, whereas the Nunc Dimittis is the Song of Simeon, an old man praying to God to let him depart in peace now his life has been fulfilled by meeting Jesus.
Choral Anthems are compositions set either to a text from the Bible, or another religious text, and are interchangeable with the material used for Introits. The works chosen vary considerably between services, with little repetition of repertoire due to the enormous library of choral works in existence. Pieces performed today have composition dates stretching from over five hundred years ago to the present day, as composers continue to write for Evensong services.
Hymns are typically sung by the choir and congregation together, accompanied by organ or piano. They are written either in unison or with an upper voice melody line and ATB harmony. The words are not necessarily biblical, and are often written specifically for hymn singing or taken from poems. Stemming from the practice of monastic plainchant, hymns allow all those in attendance to come together in common action, giving a feeling of unity to the service.
The Organ Voluntary, an instrumental work played as the choir departs, is the final piece of music heard in an Evensong service. Ordinarily, the organist will improvise in a style typical to Cathedral Music as the choir enter, whilst the Voluntary is more commonly a composed work, ranging in style and era almost as broadly as choral anthems, from Bach’s major organ works, written in the 17th and 18th centuries, to 21st century modern works.