by Morwenna Brett
Whether you experience it as a spiritual event or a free concert of the highest quality, the service of Choral Evensong is one of England’s richest traditions, and it comes as no surprise to organists and choral directors that every now and again the mainstream media discover this.
Tom Service wrote in the Guardian of Evensong at Lincoln Cathedral a few years ago: ‘…the mysteries of the responses and rituals of when you’re supposed to stand up and sit down again somewhat escaped me, but the choir’s performance of a Stanford anthem and their sensitive singing of the Psalms were minor musical miracles in the cathedral’s gigantic space.’
More recently in the Gramophone, comedian and actor Alexander Armstrong recalled his days as a chorister: ‘I’m devoted to Choral Evensong. I find the liturgy so beautiful…the sound of a Precentor singing ‘Lighten our darkness we beseech the O Lord’ at that lovely shadowy time of the day, with the sound of distant traffic, where an inner-city cathedral becomes a wonderful sanctum within a busy town or city…’
This month in the Telegraph, John Bingham notes that evenings in Oxbridge colleges are not necessarily given over to drunken hedonism, but that the chapels are reporting ‘… a steady but noticeable increase in attendances at Choral Evensong, as Christians, Muslims and atheists alike seek solace in choral music and the Prayer Book.’
I’m grateful to Ralph Allwood (@ralphallwood) for tweeting a link to a podcast on Rupert Sheldrake’s website Science Set Free: a discussion of the heritage, philosophy, and spiritual benefits of Choral Evensong, between Rupert and psychotherapist Mark Vernon. ‘A lot of people don’t know this extraordinary cultural tradition is happening,’ says Rupert. ‘But tradition, beauty and idiosyncracy don’t just happen in Harry Potter books. It’s going on in a totally unpretentious way every day.’
Rupert was one of the guiding forces behind choralevensong.org, a website with a searchable map to find a Choral Evensong near you. Churches can upload their own details -read more on iRCO here. (The launch of the website, appropriately on St Cecilia’s Day last year, involved the extraordinary blessing of a laptop in churches and cathedrals across the nation.)
The team behind choralevensong.org is looking for volunteers to help it go global. At the moment the site covers services in the UK and Ireland, but Rupert would like to spread it out over the English-speaking world – the US and Canada for example.
Performing Choral Evensong on a regular basis is beyond the resources of many of us, but many choirs specialise in liturgical performance, and could help mark a special event and bring the glories of this simple, accessible service back to more parishes. If you are one of these choirs, could you let us know, via the comments box below?