Choral Evensong is a contemplative service of music, readings, and prayers that takes place in the late afternoon or early evening. It allows listeners time to meditate and transition from the busyness of the day to the peace and quiet of the evening. Evensong’s distinguishing feature is that it consists primarily of music. Come join us for these beautiful, restorative services.
The service has its roots in the Canonical Hours: the tradition of daily services eight(!) times per day in the Roman Catholic monastic tradition. When the Anglican Church published the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, these eight services were reduced to a more manageable two: Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, also called Matins and Evensong. Evensong is a conflation of the final two of these eight daily services: Vespers and Compline.
Evensong’s roots in Vespers and Compline are most evident in the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, the two songs of praise which are always sung or spoken at Evensong. The Magnificat is always said or sung at Vespers, and the Nunc dimittis is always recited or sung at Compline, so at Evensong, we do both. This combination of texts has inspired a huge and extremely rich body of works often informally referred to as “Mags and Nuncs” which extends from the Renaissance to the present day.
In Great Britain, it is not uncommon for churches to offer weekly Choral Evensongs; many cathedrals and collegiate chapels even offer this service several times per week or daily. In North America, however, this is extremely rare. Many Episcopal churches in America offer Evensongs periodically, but fewer than a dozen do so weekly or more. This is mainly because of the great time and expense that go into preparing the music for these services.
- An organ prelude
- Opening sentences: These are read by the officiant (usually a clergyperson, but not always) and are taken from scripture.
- Preces: These are sung responses between the officiant and the choir.
- Psalms: The choir chants the appointed psalms for the day.
- First reading: This is taken from the Old Testament.
- Office Hymn: sung by all
- Magnificat: sung by the choir
- Second reading: This is taken from the New Testament.
- Nunc dimittis: sung by the choir
- Apostle’s Creed: sung by all to a monotone
- Responses: This is the second set of sung responses between the officiant and the choir.
- Choral anthem
- Concluding sentences, blessing, and/or dismissal
- Final hymn: sung by all
- Organ postlude
As one can see, the only non-musical parts of the service are the two lessons and the opening and concluding sentences (and even these latter parts can be sung). As Evensongs are so full of music – a prelude and postlude, hymns, psalms, canticles, preces and responses, and an anthem – it is a tremendous undertaking for the musicians who participate, but well worth the effort. I encourage everyone to attend these services: to hear beautiful music, readings, and prayers; to participate in a tradition that extends back nearly 500 years; and to experience one of the unique offerings of the Anglican church.