Evensong Unwrapped

The term Evensong derives from the Anglo Saxon word ‘oefen-sang’. Before the Reformation, it was the English name for the service of Vespers, the seventh of the eight daily canonical ‘hours’ sung in monasteries and cathedrals.

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 these eight services to two, combining the first three hours into a single morning service and the last two (Vespers and Compline) into Evensong. The other three hours were abolished.

While the new Mattins and Evensong 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.

Evensong and Evening 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 Evensong and the spoken version as Evening Prayer. The term Choral Evensong 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 Evensong 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) Evensong may include a sermon but when sung or said daily it usually does not.

Who is it for?

Anyone is welcome to attend Evensong, irrespective of their religion, background or beliefs. A unique daily event in its bringing together of history, faith, music, and mindfulness, Tom Service, writing for the Guardian, described Evensong as “a living tradition that costs precisely nothing to experience live.”

The flexibility and reflective atmosphere of Evensong mean that it has increased in popularity over the last century, with individuals of wide-ranging religious backgrounds attending services. Reasons range from the desire to experience quality live performances of choral music, to finding solace in the stillness and calm of the prayers and readings at the end of a busy day, an opportunity for reflection or meditation.

Revd Dr Jonathan Arnold, writing for the Spectator, commented: “What some will hear through Christian ears is still beautiful heard through secular ones. Choral music within the liturgy is one of our greatest cultural and religious heritages; it is every bit as sincere and meaningful on a wet Tuesday in March as in a Christmas Nine Lessons and Carols. Pop in.”

What is the music like?

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

Introit

The introit is an optional opening piece of music in the service. It may take the form of a congregational hymn or a short choral work or psalm. Introits are often reserved for grander services.

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 Evensong are identical to those sung at Matins 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 appointed for the day follows the first set of responses. 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). The Magnificat is sung after the New Testament Lesson and the Nunc Dimittis after the Old Testament Lesson.

Although these canticles always retain their Latin titles, they are often sung in English (unless a Latin setting is chosen). The Magnificat (from the Gospel of Luke) is the Song of Mary on the occasion of her visit to her cousin Elizabeth. It is a reflection on the news that she is to bear the Christ Child.

The Nunc Dimittis, also from Luke’s Gospel, is the Song offered up by Simeon after taking the baby Jesus in his arms in the Temple in Jerusalem. It recognises the fulfilment of a promise that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. The text begins ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. The Nunc Dimittis was originally part of the final canonical hour of Compline and marks a peaceful, contemplative closing of the day.

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’. An anthem (also known as a motet) 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.

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.

The organ of Chelmsford Cathedral

Experience Evensong

BBC Radio 3 broadcasts a service of Evensong every Wednesday afternoon at 4pm, with a repeat on Sunday at 3pm. You can listen to previous services on the BBC Radio 3 website or BBC Sounds.

Many cathedrals livestream services of Evensong on YouTube. You can find out more about these by visiting the cathedrals’ websites.

To find Evensong services near you, visit the Choral Evensong Trust website.

You can also watch here a special Virtual Evensong service created by cathedral choral scholars during the Covid-19 pandemic.