Choral Matins

Matins Made Plain: An introduction to the Anglican service of morning prayer

The origins of the Anglican service of Matins can be found in the pre-Reformation canonical hours, the eight services of the monastic Divine Office spaced throughout the day. The Office of Matins was traditionally sung during the night, at about 2 a.m.

A new service in a new language

After the Reformation, the first version of the Book of Common Prayer (1549), the brainchild of then Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, reduced the eight services to two, combining the first three hours into a single morning service (which retained the title of Mattins, with two ‘t’s) and the last two into an evening service (Evensong). The other three hours were abolished.

While the new services borrowed much from the monastic Divine Office, a significant difference was their being conducted in English (rather than Latin). The services were renamed Morning and Evening Prayer in later versions of the Book of Common Prayer, but their format has remained largely unchanged since the mid sixteenth century and can be heard daily in most Church of England cathedrals and in other Anglican places of worship in many parts of the world.

Matins, Mattins or Morning Prayer ? What is the difference?

Both Morning and Evening Prayer have a similar structure, comprising a combination of prayer and biblical texts, both of which can be spoken or sung by the officiating priests, the congregation and/or the choir. Common practice today is to refer to the choral or sung version of the service as Mattins (or Matins) and the spoken version as Morning Prayer. The term Choral Matins refers to a service in which a choir sings composed settings of the responses, psalms, canticles and anthems. There may be a congregational hymn, but, for the majority of the service the congregation participates through listening. Sung Matins uses simpler music, possibly accompanied by an organ, and allows for more participation by the congregation but does not usually involve a choir. Sometimes (particularly on Sundays) Matins may include a sermon but when sung or said daily it usually does not.

What is the music like?

There are up to seven musical elements to Choral Matins: an introit, Preces and Responses, Psalms, canticles, an anthem, hymns and the organ voluntary.

Preces and Responses

Preces and Responses are one of the oldest forms of prayer. They take the form of a versicle sung by a cantor (often the Precentor of the cathedral) and a response sung by the choir.

The Preces and Responses sung at Matins are identical to those sung at Evensong and were adapted by Thomas Cranmer from the responses of the pre-Reformation monastic hours. There are many choral settings, dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (including those by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons) to more contemporary settings by Bernard Rose and Humphrey Clucas. Preces and responses are in two parts, the first opens the service (or follows the introit), the second occurs after the creed.

Psalms

The singing of Psalms follows the first set of responses. At most services of Matins, the first Psalm to be sung is usually Psalm 95 (O Come, let us sing unto the Lord). This is followed by the Psalms appointed for the day. The Book of Common Prayer allows for the entire Psalter to be sung across Morning and Evening Prayer over the course of a month, but not all Anglican places of worship adhere strictly to this practice today.

Psalms are usually sung following a practice known as ‘Anglican Chant’. This developed after the Reformation from the older tradition of singing psalms to plainchant. Whereas plainchant is sung in unison, Anglican Chant is in four-part harmony. Most of the text of the Psalm is sung to the chanting notes, with the last syllables of each verse being fitted to the notes concluding each section of music. Chants often comprise two sections, with alternate verses being sung to each. Often the two sides of a choir will take turns to sing the two halves of a chant, occasionally coming together for emphasis. Leaning to sing Anglican Chant is one of the first challenges for a new chorister. A standard form of annotation tells the singers when to move from one note to the next and they are expected to chant ‘as one’ in a way that follows the usual pattern of speech. Each Psalm ends with the chanting of the Gloria and the congregation is expected to stand when the final Gloria is sung.

Anglican Chant developed during the seventeenth century. The earliest examples are by Henry Purcell and his contemporaries. Previously, the Psalms would probably have been chanted using a practice known as faburden, which is a way of harmonising a single-line melody using a standard formula.

Canticles

Canticles follow the two readings from the Bible (known as Lessons). There are two options for each. After the Old Testament Lesson either the Te Deum or the Benedicite is sung. After the New Testament Lesson, the options are the Benedictus or the Jubilate. Although these canticles always retain their Latin titles, they are often sung in English (unless a Latin setting is chosen). Most commonly, the canticles sung are the Te Deum (a 4th century text traditionally ascribed to Saint Ambrose) and the Jubilate (a setting of Psalm 100).

Blackburn Cathedral Choir singing

Anthem

After the second set of Preces and Responses, the Book of Common Prayer includes the well-known phrase, ‘In Quires and Places where they sing, here followeth the Anthem’. This is a piece of sacred choral music which sets a prayer or portion of scripture and is usually chosen to reflect a theme from the readings.

Hymns

Congregational hymns may be included at various points during the service, at the discretion of the clergy. They will often be accompanied by an organ but can be sung unaccompanied with four-part harmony provided by the choir.

Congregation singing during a service at Southwark Cathedral
The organ of Chelmsford Cathedral

Organ voluntary

After prayers and a sung dismissal, a voluntary is often played. This is a piece of instrumental music, usually played on the organ. Any piece of appropriate music can be played as a voluntary and organists choose from the vast repertoire for the instrument. The music used will range from the Renaissance and early Baroque to contemporary works by living composers.

Experience matins

While Morning Prayer is said every day in many cathedrals and churches, Choral Matins is less frequently sung than its counterpart, Choral Evensong. You can, however, often attend Choral Matins in many cathedrals and parish churches on a Sunday. Cathedral websites will tell you the times of services.