The Service and Music of Choral Evensong
Choral Evensong – or “sung evening prayer” – has roots deep in the Roman Catholic tradition of Compline and Vespers; indeed it is a conflation of those two ancient rites. Created out of the tumultuous establishment of the Anglican Church in mid-sixteenth-century England, it has survived and flourished over the past half-millennium in the music composed for and sung by cathedral and collegiate choirs both in Britain and throughout the Anglican Communion worldwide.
King Henry VIII, founder and first Head of the Church of England, hardly had disinterested motives for nullifying Catholicism in his kingdom and embracing the Protestantism of Martin Luther: he wished to divorce his first wife, the dull, pious Queen Catherine of Aragon, to marry his frisky, impious mistress, Anne Boleyn. When the pontiff refused to grant a divorce, the king both declared his first marriage annulled in order to marry the winsome Anne (of whom he soon tired and had beheaded while wooing Number Three), and ordered up a radically different faith for his kingdom. And on these less than glorious goals was founded a new church.
Yet much more would prove to be at stake than the gratification of a king’s lust: the Church of England, so conceived, has expanded across time and space because Luther’s egalitarian principles behind its establishment were legitimate and universal. And the very proposition that God’s people should enjoy more direct access, with less priestly mediation, to their Creator has informed the liturgy of the English Church, and the music of its composers, from that day to this.
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The Anglican Singers, an independently organized choral ensemble who are artists-in-residence at St. James Episcopal Church, have for over a dozen years led the service of Choral Evensong both at St. James and in other venues throughout the Northeast and Canada. Today’s program is different in that it is a concert rather than a service, yet similar in that Director Simon Holt and the choir endeavor to convey to listeners the structure, meaning, and nuances of the sung evening service.
The rudiments of Evensong, as evolved over the centuries, were formulated in the conventions of the Book of Common Prayer of 1549. After an Introit, the opening sung Responses between precentor (called cantor in the Catholic rite) and choir are followed by the singing of one or more Psalms. The reading of the Old and New Testament lessons precede and follow what is known as the Service music, consisting of a Magnificat (“Song of Mary”) and a Nunc dimittis (“Song of Simeon”). The Creed is then intoned by choir and congregation, after which ensue prayers of petition called Suffrages, sung responsively between precentor and choir. The musical portion of the service generally concludes with one or more anthems.
Encompassing the format and range of Evensong offerings, this afternoon’s program includes examples of motets, Preces (prayers) and Responses, service music, and anthems.
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The four Introits consist of motets (unaccompanied part-singing): two of them composed during the English Reformation and the English Baroque period, two of them contemporary and American. William Byrd (1543-1623) wrote the six-part “Sing joyfully,” whose text is based on the first four verses of Psalm 81. Ned Rorem (b. 1923) arranged his four-part song to the old hymn text “Sing my soul, His wondrous love.” The eight-voice motet of Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is set to verse 1 of Psalm 102. Robert W. Lehman (b.1960) wrote a lyrical setting of the ancient Greek evening canticle Phos hilaron (“O gracious Light”).
H. Steven Houser (b. 1945), who wrote another setting of the Preces and Responses, was for a number of years organist with the Anglican Singers, as well as choir director and organist at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Old Lyme, before his retirement and relocation to Florida. Bernard Rose (1916-1996), who wrote his Versicles and Responses in D major, was a historian as well as a composer and organist, his specialty being the 17th-century musical legend Thomas Tomkins whose ornamental style certainly influenced Rose’s work.
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), father of the 19th-century renaissance of English sacred choral music, composed a number of Services during his long and distinguished career. His glorious Service in G major is one of his most popular. Robert Powell (b. 1932), whose buoyant, light-filled Service in G minor the Anglican Singers first performed on February 11, 2007, has written a companion canticle, “Benedictus es, Domine,” which he dedicated to the Singers’ founding director Marianna Wilcox on the occasion of her retirement in 2007, and which the ensemble is premiering this afternoon. Like his Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, Powell’s “Benedictus es” is memorably effervescent and spirited. Herbert Murrill (1909-1952), who wrote a setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in the key of E, was endowed with eclectic musical gifts that found expression in a number of genres.
The next three pieces are the creation of the abovementioned C.V. Stanford: the texts of “Justorum animae” and “Beati quorum via” are from the Book of Solomon and the Book of Psalms respectively; “Coelos ascendit hodie” is an Easter hymn, textually and musically.
The three Anglican anthems are works of the 19th-20th centuries as well as the 17th century. H. Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950) was a worthy successor to his predecessors C.V. Stanford and Edward Elgar. His sonorous “Evening Hymn” is a rich merging of organ and choir, each enjoying, together and separately, its full measure of grandeur. Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), a luminary of the music of the nascent English Church, wrote “This is the record of John,” a mini-oratorio comprising a dialogue between soloist (John the Baptist) and chorus (the Jews and Levites). Charles Wood (1866-1926), who like Gardiner donned the mantle of Stanford and Elgar, created “Hail, gladdening light” – an unaccompanied anthem for double choir in which the very notes seem to jump from the page, so energetic and exuberant is it.
The final two selections are the familiar and beloved spirituals “Deep river” and “Ezekiel saw de wheel,” arranged respectively by Gerre Hancock (b. 1934), for many years organist and Master of Choristers at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City, and William L. Dawson (1899-1990), the eminent African-American composer and arranger.
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While the service of Choral Evensong is bound by certain formalities and rubrics, its music is available out of a variety of sources: from the traditional anthems, psalms and canticles of the Anglican Church to the works of European composers like Estonia’s Arvo Pärt to the African-American spirituals that emerged from the horror and lingering sadness of slavery.
And as seems clear from the following that the Anglican Singers have gained over the years, Choral Evensong touches something deep within the soul: some wellspring of longed-for serenity and centeredness. It is the Singers’ hope that through the annotated selection of music in today’s program, the meaning and custom of Evensong in its spiritual dimension will be revealed against the backdrop of a historical and cultural tapestry that illumines a beloved and enduring tradition.
Anne Carr Bingham