Vespers

Illuminating Vespers: Jonathan Schranz, Director of Music at St George's RC Cathedral, Southwark, introduces the music of this ancient service of prayer

Vespers, from the Latin ‘vesper’ (evening) is a service of evening prayer. In Monastic communities all over the world, Vespers is sung as part of the daily rhythm of the Officium Divinum (Divine Office), a set of fixed daily services which has been revised over the years but traces its history back to the Rule of St Benedict.

The Rule of St Benedict decreed eight offices or ‘hours’, seven daytime hours and one night hour (Compline). Today, there are seven hours, three major hours and four minor hours. Vespers is one of the major hours.

Sundays and Solemnities (major feast days) have two Vespers. First Vespers is celebrated the evening before and Second Vespers on the evening of the day itself.

Vespers is often followed by the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, in which the Eucharist is taken from the tabernacle and placed in a monstrance on the altar to be adored by those present.

The Format of Vespers

There are spoken and sung components of Vespers. Spoken parts include a reading and, on some occasions, a homily. Sung parts include responses and antiphons, a hymn, psalms, the Magnificat and, optionally, a motet.

 

Gregorian Chant

Much of the music (e.g. the psalms and the antiphons) is sung to Gregorian Chant. Although it is named after the 6th-century Pope Gregory I, the earliest chant notation comes from the 10th century. Before this, it was transmitted orally, and so its exact origin is unknown. In its simplest form it is sung unaccompanied in unison, but many organists accompany the chant in services, particularly if supporting a congregation. Chant has its own notation with no set metre, and so its recitation is led by the text. Singers use the rhythm of the spoken words to guide their performance and learn to move from note to note ‘as one’.

 

Psalms

The recitation of the psalms is an integral part of sung vespers. At Vespers the psalmody consists of two psalms (or two parts of a longer psalm) and a canticle (or hymn) taken from the Epistles or the Book of Revelation. They are sung using a ‘psalm tone’, which is a pattern of notes to which the verses of the psalms are chanted.

Each verse in the psalm is divided into two. The psalm tone begins with a decorative melodic figure (the intonation), which is followed by the reciting tone – a note to which most of the syllables of the first half of the psalm are sung. The second half begins (usually) on the same reciting note and has a decorative cadential figure at the end. Subsequent verses follow the same pattern, but omit the intonation.

During Vespers, each psalm is preceded by an antiphon, which is repeated at the close of the psalm. The tone of the antiphon will often correspond to the tone to which the psalm is sung.

Psalms are not always sung to Gregorian chant and can be sung in Latin or English.

Magnificat

Preceded by the Magnificat antiphon of that day, the Magnificat is sung after the short responsory and is often the main choral setting used at Vespers. Taken from Luke’s Gospel, the Magnificat is the Song of Mary, on the occasion of her visit to her cousin Elizabeth. This is most commonly sung in Latin.

 

Motet

Motets are choral pieces which are chosen to reflect the reading or a particular time in the liturgical year. Many use antiphons or biblical texts and can be in Latin or the vernacular. Some motets are based on Gregorian Chant melodies.

Come to Vespers

While Vespers isn’t part of the weekly liturgical worship in most parishes, Catholic monasteries are excellent places to attend vespers any day of the week. The music can vary from place to place, and in many the service is sung by the monks themselves, or a smaller subset of them, rather than a dedicated choir. Many cathedrals and larger parishes also offer Vespers on a weekly, and in some cases daily, basis. Occasionally, the BBC Radio 3 Choral Evensong broadcast is actually a service of Vespers, rather than evensong.

Photographs on this page © Marcin Mazur/cbew.org.uk