As an English language service, Evensong dates back to Evening Prayer at the time of the Reformation, using elements of the old monastic Offices of Vespers and Compline. The liturgy that the Church of England uses to this day was laid out in Archbishop Cranmer’s “Book of Common Prayer”, the first version of which appeared in 1549. This contained the form of prayers, originally spoken out loud, to be used in all Anglican parish churches across the land.
Music to accompany this worship only took shape later, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, with great composers like William Byrd and Thomas Tallis developing exquisite polyphonic choral music specifically for this new service. Each subsequent generation of new composers has continued to add great music to the repertoire of what we now call Choral Evensong. This has inspired a unique unbroken tradition of choir school foundations across Britain and Ireland that has been responsible for the particularly high standard and characteristic style of Anglican choral singing, maintained to this day.
Parish Evensong, usually led by a choir, includes the congregation in singing the psalms and canticles, using exactly the same order of service, Evening Prayer.
Thomas Cranmer created the liturgy of Evensong with the general public in mind, motivated by the fact that it would condense more services than people could be expected to attend into one short service:
the people of his day were not well-versed in Scripture;
the public services had previously been said in Latin;
the services were too elaborate for the general public to follow.
The place of music in this service
After confession, Cranmer’s Evening Prayers start with the chanting of Old Testament Psalms. Their mantra-like repetition often helps create a peaceful atmosphere, but one that is soon interrupted by the exuberant burst of the ‘Magnificat’ – the song of a young woman, Mary, rejoicing at the prospect of the birth of her child, Jesus – and then made solemn by the New Testament’s ‘Nunc Dimittis’ – the song of an old man, Simeon, gently facing his death, eye-to-eye, now his life has been fulfilled by meeting Jesus. A significant aspect to the genius of the service is the balance between female and male, young and old, and Old and New Testament in these ‘Canticles’. An anthem follows that fits the mood of the day, with various prayers and the service concludes with the singing of a community hymn. Afterwards the church resonates with the playing of the organ, sometimes one of the great organ works of Bach.
The interspersing of these varied musical forms, amidst passages of scripture, beautiful spoken liturgy and moments of contemplative silence, lends a balance, completeness and complex psychology to the human response to this form of the service.
(Adapted, with permission, from Guy Hayward, Choral Evensong)
We hold a mid-week choral evensong service once a month at St Andrew’s. In addition, every autumn, the choir sings evening prayer at the historic Predigerkirche as part of their Vespers series. For details, see our Calendar of services.