90 years of Choral Evensong: Thank God for the BBC’s longest running show!

Fifteen years ago, on November 21st 2001, the anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell (and also incidentally my birthday!), squeezed at the bottom of the Media page of the London Evening Standard page was the headline: ‘Thank God for the BBC’s longest running show.’ And what was it? – not Desert Island Discs, not The Archers, not The Week in Westminster, but Choral Evensong. ‘Nearly as old as God himself,’ said the article and ‘like God, it’s never taken a holiday or been off the air!’.

Well, the article wasn’t quite correct, because actually the longest running programme is This Week’s Good Cause, but Choral Evensong is the longest running outside broadcast in history.  So, as the present Strand Producer, editorially responsible for the programme’s content, I think I can be allowed a little pride….

In many ways, it’s a minor miracle Choral Evensong has survived, especially in an age when budgets are being ever more closely monitored and the BBC’s brief is rightly to reflect the ecumenical and multi-faith nature of Britain's changing religious landscape. This year it celebrates its 90th birthday, and like the very first transmission on Thursday 7th October 1926, it will be returning to Westminster Abbey. On that first occasion, it seems that only the back rows of the choir stalls were allowed to grace the airwaves: Byrd Fauxbourdons and Boyce ‘O sing unto the Lord’. For the broadcast in this 90th anniversary year, the repertoire includes music by Palestrina, Howells and Finzi and will be sung by the full choir!

And just to fill in the rest of the history of the programme. After ten years regularly at Westminster Abbey, Choral Evensong broadcasts moved to St Paul’s Cathedral as well; and then, in September 1938, the first relay came from York Minster during Sir Edward Bairstow’s time as Master of Music. For a time the three cathedrals alternated, although the then Director of Religious Programmes, a certain Dr Frederick Iremonger (appointed by Lord Reith after an interview and bible reading audition!) was unhappy with the standard at York and told Sir Edward so. According to Francis Jackson’s biography of Bairstow, ‘Blessed City’, he was very offended but he had to take note, otherwise he would have lost the broadcasts. And in a sense, that’s still the case. Radio 3 gives us the money to broadcast from the cathedrals and college chapels of the land with the proviso that the musical standard within the worship is kept as high as possible. After all, we may be following a recorded concert from the Proms, say, by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle. If the music in the service sounds untidy, under rehearsed or over ambitious, Radio 3 will quite rightly want to know the reason. And that’s why we have to keep an ear continually to what’s going on in the country’s choral establishments – and why we may need to steer clear of certain places until things improve…

Choral Evensong stayed on the National Programme (which became the Home Service and then Radio 4) until 1970. There was a brief blip that year when for three months there was only one broadcast a month. 2500 letters of complaint were received by the Controller of Radio 4, and the weekly Wednesday afternoon slot was restored – on Radio 3!

The first stereo transmission was from Gloucester Cathedral in 1971, and there was a period of five years from 1981-1986 when we broadcast Evensong twice a week. Quite frankly it didn’t really work because the second transmission was more often than not recorded, and it caused a problem for cathedrals particularly, with their daily sung services. You’d do a live broadcast on a sunny June afternoon and then the following day, record one, say, for the third week in Advent, asking for a very different repertoire and feel to a service which would be transmitted in the penitential season approaching Christmas. And the prayers, of course, could not be at all specific. 

More recently, there was a period when the Wednesday broadcast was repeated after midnight on a Thursday night. Although we did get a surprising amount of appreciative correspondence, the listening figures were tiny. Another experiment was to move the live transmission from Wednesday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. Not surprisingly that decision wasn’t greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm - especially from cathedral staff who already had to prepare for at least three services on a Sunday. Rigging microphones and running cables on a day when the cathedral was very busy put pressure on everybody and there was considerable relief when, after eighteen months, the decision was reversed and we went back to Wednesday broadcasts.  An unexpected bonus though was to retain the Sunday slot for a repeat of the previous week’s service – a scheduling move which has been much appreciated. Together with the Listen Again facility for 30 days after transmission via the Radio 3 website, it’s reckoned the number of listeners regularly approaches a quarter of a million.

So what is the special appeal of Choral Evensong? To quote the BBC website, there’s ‘an atmosphere of great stillness when people are uplifted by the sheer beauty of choral singing.  The heritage of the English choral tradition is unique and it’s greatly valued. Throughout weekly broadcasts, hundreds of thousands can share this unparalleled experience.’ 

But there are occasions when I get those words thrown back at me. The first time we broadcast a jazz service, Choral Vespers with the Big Buzzard Boogie Band from Clifton Cathedral in 2002, one listener e-mailed me quoting that description from the website and adding angrily, “So what in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost were you up to broadcasting what you did today?” What he’d heard was some of the music composed by Duke Ellington in the last years of his life, exploring the spiritual side of his extraordinary gifts. Between 1965 and 1973, Ellington wrote three massive works that combined elements of jazz, classical music, choral music, spirituals, gospel, blues and dance.  He called them his ‘Sacred Concerts’ and they were performed in churches and cathedrals around the world.  Ellington said it was the most important music he'd ever written, and for this broadcast, we’d incorporated a number of those pieces in a liturgical context.  We had nine calls to the Duty Office at Broadcasting House London during that transmission. Five were strongly in favour. They thought the programme was ‘excellent, absolutely wonderful, thoroughly enjoyed it, wished to express huge gratitude.’  And the others said they didn’t tune in to listen to a pop concert; they were concerned the programme had lost its way; it wasn’t up to its usual standard. And one left a message hoping that the ghost of Lord Reith would haunt me for the rest of my days! The interesting thing though was that of the four clergy who contacted us, it was the younger ones who were uncomfortable. One retired archdeacon was full of praise and congratulations!

That broadcast was of course an exception, although we did relay four years later another jazz service, a ‘Blues Evensong’ from the University Church in Oxford, brilliantly conceived and composed by the renowned singer, Roderick Williams. That too attracted a certain amount of feedback including a rather nasty message on the website which said starkly: “It was rubbish. I can't believe I listened to that happy clappy nonsense; it was awful. It was neither jazz nor blues. It was crap!” Thankfully, there was also a lot more affirming response but it proves what strong views people hold about our broadcasts and how readily they are prepared to express them. 

And sometimes those critical comments are directed towards the amount of first performances we include in Choral Evensong, despite the fact that the BBC’s policy is to promote and encourage new music whenever it can. Indeed, how important it is to demonstrate that the tradition of composing for the Church’s liturgies is still alive. That has been well established in the regular broadcasts from the annual Festival of Music within the Liturgy at Edington Priory, and for many years now we’ve also visited the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music in St Pancras Church for some excellent services where the music was sung with real flair and precision and the worship was led with care and sensitivity. Yes, occasionally it has to be said that the complexity of some modern music does not enhance the worship, especially if the spoken parts of the liturgy have not been carefully prepared. But a challenging anthem, which may be criticised for just being a piece to show off the virtuosity of the choir, can be integrated into the worship so much more effectively if the prayers that follow it pick up both its mood and its text. Sadly, there are occasions when we go to venues for the Wednesday afternoon broadcasts only to find that the presiding clergy have not thought enough about the prayers or the way they introduce an anthem or an obscure bible reading. Although the speech may only be a small proportion of the whole transmission, it should still receive the same amount of attention as the music. When it does, there’s no doubt the sense of worship is deepened – and that is so much appreciated by the listeners.

And this raises the age-old issue of the quality of the working relationship between church musicians and clergy. Far be it for me to comment extensively on this, but I do know from my years as a Cathedral Precentor how important it is for there to be a creative and equal partnership between those who plan worship. It alarms me when, arriving at a cathedral or college chapel, I’m told that there has been little if any consultation between those who are about to lead worship which will be shared by a quarter of a million people. There may even be resentment expressed. Too often clergy can feel threatened by the amount of praise and appreciation heaped upon the musicians but they can also feel neglected when those musicians are not prepared to make time to work alongside them and discuss with them their ideas. Much tension and unease could be avoided if there was more communication - not only in the preparation of a broadcast but also in the day-to-day life of a place of worship.

And it’s those places of worship with their different characters, musical styles and architectural ambience that give the weekly broadcast of Choral Evensong such variety. Over the years we’ve visited over eighty different cathedrals, abbeys, monasteries, churches and college chapels in this country. Indeed the large number means that it’s impossible to return to many places within twelve months, let alone broadcast both their boy and girl choristers in turn (although some cathedrals choose to field both together which can provoke some interesting comment!). Though we do try to achieve both a geographical spread and a balance between cathedral and collegiate choirs. 

Every year we’ve also aimed to go abroad – most memorably, to St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town where Archbishop Tutu gave a stirring homily in an Advent Evensong, and four times to St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York to sample the glories of the worship there under its inspiring Director of Music, John Scott, who died last August at the age of only 59. We’ve broadcast a service of Choral Vespers from Montserrat Abbey in Spain with the Pilgrim Consort, a group of young singers who first sang together on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. They also sang an Easter Vespers in the Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls in Rome. And that was followed by another recording by the RSCM’s Millennium Youth Choir in San Rufino Cathedral in Assisi. We’ve broadcast from the cathedrals in Montreal and Pietermaritzburg, and twice in Russia - Orthodox Vespers from the Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg during the city’s 300th anniversary in 2003 and Moscow’s Danilov Monastery (the headquarters of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church) on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross in 2005. But I suppose the most momentous overseas Choral Evensong transmission was on 11th September 2002, exactly a year after the terrible events of 9/11, when we broadcast live from Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York City, the nearest church to Ground Zero – at 11 am East Coast time.

Whatever the novelty of going abroad though – or broadcasting a service with full symphony orchestra, a consort of viols or jazz trio (all of which have provoked both hearty praise and strong criticism), the essence of Choral Evensong must always be its spiritual dimension. It must sit within the tradition of regular worship which goes on day by day in so many cathedrals, churches and chapels all over the country. And it should have the flexibility to live and breathe and change according to what’s happening in the world for which it prays.

I quoted at the beginning from one article published on the occasion of the 75th anniversary.  Here to finish with is a more serious comment from The Times:

‘I turned on Choral Evensong by accident one afternoon a year or so ago and I’ve been listening ever since. The music is beautiful, but the special quality of Evensong lies in other places too, in the paradoxical contrast between the sinewy intricacy of 16th century language, and the simplicity of the thoughts it expresses: prayers for courage, for grace, for protection from the dark, for a good death. These are things to which our minds have particularly lately turned in the aftermath of recent terrible events, but they were there all the time in the psalms and collects of Evensong. For almost 500 years the same words have been repeated by people in times of trouble or of triumph. The presence of that cloud of unseen witnesses lends an intangible quality to Choral Evensong. You could call it calm or spirituality. You could call it holiness. But it’s very precious.’


Stephen Shipley

(written for Cathedral Music magazine)

After reading music at Durham, where Stephen was organ scholar at University College, he joined the BBC producing music programmes for Radio 3 and documentaries for Radio 4.  He then trained for ordination at Westcott House, Cambridge, serving a curacy at St Margaret’s Church, Ipswich, followed by five years as Precentor of Ely Cathedral.  He now lives in Buxton in the Peak District where he is licensed under seal as a priest in the Diocese of Derby.  He was installed as an Honorary Canon in 2009 and combines his duties with producing and presenting programmes for BBC Religion and Ethics. He is particularly responsible for arranging a number of radio pilgrimages and looking after the Choral Evensong strand on Radio 3.  His two sons have been choristers at Ely and Lichfield Cathedrals.  For thirty-eight years he conducted the Tunstall Choir which visited a different cathedral every summer for a week’s singing.



Subscribe to newsletter

If you have any additions or amendments, please contact us

© Copyright Choral Evensong

Website : beachshore