Evensong is a peculiar Anglican creature. It is the liturgy that has become the most distinctively Anglican, and has become a treasured bulwark of tradition. This article is a little, geeky exploration of what is Evensong and its sub-species.
The word ‘Evensong’ is first documented by the OED in the Old English of the Canons of Ælfric (c. 1000) as æfen-sang. Until the Reformation, this English word was used to describe the office of Vespers, the seventh of the round of eight daily offices, said just before sunset.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer produced two drafts of how the reformed Church of England should pray each day. The first, more radical plan was to consolidate the eight offices down to two. When, eventually, Henry Tudor junior died, Cranmer was free to produce the first Book of Common Prayer, published 1549. Its two daily offices were named ‘Matins’ and ‘Evensong’ (the former being the name of the first of the pre-Reformation offices, which also had the colourful Old English name uht-sang, which persisted as ‘Oughtensong’ in Middle English). With Cranmer’s revised Prayer Book of 1552, the quaint (or poetic) names of the two offices were officially replaced with the more robust (or prosaic) ‘Morning and Evening Prayer’. Yet the old names continued to live on, to the extent that it is rather daft to speak of ‘Choral Evening Prayer’.
Because of the pressures on Sunday mornings, especially with the restoration of the Parish Eucharist as the main Sunday mid-morning service, major celebrations of Matins have become rather few and far between. However, in twilight isolation Evensong has remained strong. In the nineteenth century, the ‘Fully Choral Service’ became a sign of aspirational excellence in neo-gothic, middle-class churches, aping cathedrals with their processions and besurpliced choirs. I believe that movement has skewed our understanding of Evensong to assume that only a proper Choral Evensong will do, when we have forgotten how to do a good — liturgically and musically — Evensong that is suited to a church that cannot really cope with the demanding choral repertoire.
What about those sub-species?
Choral Evensong is the old ‘Fully Choral Service’. Through most of church history in England, something like it has existed. Minimally, it requires there to be a choir, and that the choir sings music of sufficient complexity that it requires some training and rehearsal. You would expect the choir to sing through-composed music for the responses (what were called ‘festal responses’ by their Renaissance composers) and canticles, with psalm(s) in Anglican chant and a choral anthem. The grey area is where a choir, perhaps for Lent, tones down the musical offering with plainsong or Anglican chant replacing through-composed items.
It is frequently slandered that Choral Evensong is a self-indulgent concert dressed up as Christian worship. It would be wrong not to admit that can be true. Yet many do find deep meditation and worship at Choral Evensong, whether we are clergy, choir or congregants. Passivity does not indicate lack of worship.
One response is to say that worship is about God, and not ourselves. The service booklet at King’s College, Cambridge, states
Some, finding limited opportunities for organised congregational participation, imagine these are not so much services as liturgical concerts. But each service is an act of worship addressed, as worship must be, not to you but to God, the Father of Christ and our Father; an act of thanksgiving for the love He has shown towards man, an act of intercession for all men. As Henry VI intended when he established the Chapel and the Choir, this worship goes on daily, whether people come or not, because the love of God is a continuing, living and unconditional reality.
We are, however, psychologically, politically and theologically aware of the role and presence of the worshipping laity, in a way that cannot simply be shunted to sidings by well-meaning God-centrism. I see it as an exchange: the congregation comes to worship, and places its thank-offering into the hands of clergy and choir that they may offer a more pleasing fragrance. Or, more bluntly, if the congregation are rendered passive while a choir sings poorly, or ‘performs’ in such a way as to exclude the congregation, the exchange is a bad one.
This may sound like a tautology — a sung song — but see the next bit for why it is not. It is too simplistic to say that Sung Evensong is a Choral Evensong with easier music, but that is the rough territory. Actually, I have experienced good Sung Evensongs that move me as much as the finest Choral Evensong. They were good because congregational participation, sometimes with a choir to lead, was the key element.
There is quite some scope for recovering ways to sing Evensong without having to wrestle with fully-choral musical tradition. At its best, it requires a congregation that wants to sing and is willing to learn some simple chants, alongside church musicians who are happy to share the music more democratically. The responses, psalm(s) and canticles can all be sung to simple chants, entirely or mostly monodic (just a melody line), perhaps with a few stronger singers (who need not be ‘up front’) filling out a harmony or three. The so-called ‘Ferial Responses’ fit this bill admirably, and can be varied by being in unison or harmony, accompanied or not. Plainsong, Anglican chant (perhaps just using simpler, seven-bar single chants instead of the usual double chants) or more modern chant species (Gelineau etc.) can be used by a congregation to sing the psalm(s) and canticles. After some practice, this arrangement can be quite edifying for a congregation. An anthem is not required, but that might be a choral piece, for a choir that still wants to prepare and offer a little something. Or it might be an instrumental piece — a small-church organist might be delighted to be offered the chance to perform a musical meditation on the organ without people moving or talking over it. Or we could sing a hymn: it is OK to do that!
I do not think that it is the best solution, but one imaginative approach is to look for hymns that are metrical versions of the psalm(s) and canticles, and sing them instead of the unmetrical texts. Timothy Dudley-Smith’s ‘Tell out, my soul’ and ‘Faithful vigil ended’ can do duty for Magnificat and Nunc dimittis respectively, and his ‘We believe in God the Father’ can replace the Apostles’ Creed. Rory Cooney’s Canticle of the Turning, to the tune Star of the County Down, is a wonderful, fresh, metrical paraphrase of Magnificat. As for the alternative canticles, Cantate Domino (Psalm 98) has been set as ‘New songs of celebration render’ by Erik Routley, or Michael Baughen’s ‘Sing to God new songs of worship’ to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and Deus misereatur (Psalm 67) has been set as ‘God of mercy, God of grace’ by Henry Francis Lyte.
Seeing as ‘Evensong’ is the name, or nickname, of the evening office, it is not entirely daft to speak of a ‘Said Evensong’. To counter this potential for appearing daft (an enterprise not entirely thoroughgoing in the church), many simply label this as ‘Evening Prayer’, leaving all who pass by to work out for themselves that it is a said, and perhaps minimalist, office.
Said Evensong might be the poor relation here, but let us be bidden to remembrance that the offices are daily prayer, not just for Sunday best, and the cleric’s cold be-hassocking mid-week (and that of a few faithful) is of valiant mention.
Solemn Evensong is of a slightly different category. Basically, it is Evensong with Catholic ritual added. Characteristically, it requires the use of incense, used to cense the altar during Magnificat. Whereas clergy usually officiate at Evensong from stalls in the choir (the ‘accustomed Place’ of peculiar rubrical direction), they are more likely to sit in the sanctuary for Solemn Evensong. Servers processing with candles and cross are also to be expected at Solemn Evensong. The clergy are also more likely to wear stoles and copes at Solemn Evensong. A Solemn Evensong is almost always a Choral Evensong, with those ritual elements added, but that need not be the case. As it is an Anglican Catholic take on Evensong, following the anthem with a service of Benediction (showing a reserved eucharistic host, meditation and prayer, and being blessed with it) is a popular combination.
Festal Evensong is another slightly overlapping category. A Festal Evensong is most likely to be a Choral Evensong, and, if the church is known to be quite High, a Solemn Evensong. The title means different things in different churches. It could be an Evensong done on a feast day, or just what the church magazine says when a ‘Big’ Evensong is offered. So, guess, ask at the pub across the road, or adventurously go and find out.
Michael Perham gave some interesting directions for how a cathedral or church that regularly offers Choral Evensong can ‘pimp’ it up on special occasions to become a Festal Evensong (‘The Festal Office’. The Cathedrals’ Liturgy and Music Group Occasional Papers 12. 2003). However, most advertised Festal Evensongs are not this big and experimental.
This article first appeared in my personal blog Ad Fontes: christhum.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/liturgy-bits-a-spotters-guide-to-evensong/.