Anglican Choral Evensong

Something that definitely needs to be included in any Museum of Things Heather Loves is choral music; specifically early choral music (ie before Bach) and even more specifically (because let’s drill down further, shall we?) early Anglican choral music.

One of the reasons I consider myself Episcopalian (the American version of Church of England-you couldn’t really belong to the Church of England after the Revolution…) is because of the history of music and sung services.  When I lived in London I worked off the Strand by Trafalgar Square, about a 10 minute walk from Westminster Abbey.  Every evening at 5pm I walked down to the Abbey for Choral Evensong.  Because it was normally not a very crowded service, and the Abbey wasn’t open to visitors during services, I would get to sit in the choir stalls, right up close to the  choir, sitting on the old wood, looking at the throne on which all the Kings (and Queens) of England had been crowned since 1066 when William the Conqueror was crowned there.  In the winter it would be dark outside, and practically dark inside, and the lights would be flickering, and I’d look up at the little passageways and the shadows, and wonder what ghosts were wandering around there.

I love the fact that in the Anglican liturgy there is a complete service that is sung.  Evensong in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer is a combination of Vespers and Compline, the two evening services in the Roman Catholic Church.  The evening prayer, like the morning prayer (and in contrast to the Eucharist) may be led by a layperson.  If the church has a choir, it will most likely be sung.

In the true spirit of synchronicity at work, the formation of the Anglican church (when Henry VIII essentially decided that he wasn’t going to be bullied around by the Pope, and created himself head of the Church of England) coincided with a Renaissance in English music and composition.  There were all these new services – with the words already written since they follow the same prayers – that needed music to be set to the text.  People like Thomas Tallis, William Byrd,  John Taverner, and others were able to create a body of church music that reflects the polyphonic style of the Renaissance, and which is still looked back upon as a Golden Age of English music (though that may have changed since the Beatles!).

BBC Radio 3 regularly broadcasts Evensong services from around the country.  Below is a youtube recording of a service from Westminster Abbey from 2011.  It takes about an hour to listen through, but is worth it to experience a new type of music.  This is the link to listen to the broadcasts directly: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006tp7r/episodes/player

BBC Radio 3 Choral Evensong from Westminster Abbey, 12th October 2011

Introit: Os justi meditabitur (Bruckner)
Responses: Matthew Martin
Psalms: 98, 99 (Elvey, Morley)
First Lesson: Ecclesiasticus 2 vv7-18
Canticles: The Second Service (Leighton)
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 1 vv18-end
Anthem: Give unto the Lord (Elgar)
Hymn: Christ is the King (Vulpius)
Organ Voluntary: Prelude and Fugue in B flat Op 35 no 6 (Mendelssohn)

James O’Donnell (Organist and Master of the Choristers)
Robert Quinney (Sub Organist)

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