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About This Website

This website aims to promote Choral Evensong by making it easy to search for services across Britain and Ireland. Using just a place name or postcode one can find relevant information about cathedrals, churches, the type of choir, weekly service schedules, music lists, and contact details.

Many people love the music of choral evensong services. Evensong is arguably one of the glories of Britain, and it is also free of charge. We think this wonderful tradition deserves to be better known.

We have also included Roman Catholic churches that do the service of Choral Vespers, because it was the precursor to Choral Evensong.

We are fortunate to be supported by the Royal School of Church Music, the Friends of Cathedral Music Trust, and sponsored by the Hampstead Church Music Trust and several individual supporters.

 

About Choral Evensong

Choral Evensong is a 45-min long peace-inducing church service in which the ‘song’ of voices sounding together in harmony is heard at the ‘even’ point between the active day and restful night, allowing listeners time for restful contemplation – Church members, agnostics and atheists alike. It is both free of charge and free of religious commitment, and its 470-year-old choral music tradition - established around 1549 -  is performed live and often to a very high standard.

A wide appeal

BBC Radio 3’s “Choral Evensong” is the longest continuously running outside broadcast in history, begun in 1926 and currently broadcast live on Wednesdays and repeated on Sundays from locations across the UK every week. Perhaps this is because there is something extraordinary about the sound of choral music within the stone-walled acoustics of cathedrals, churches and chapels, and the opportunity it affords us for pause in our busy lives.

And for those who wrestle with the complexities or truth of theological arguments, Evensong does not demand belief or any kind of affiliation to the Church. Indeed, atheist Richard Dawkins has been quoted as saying "I have a certain love for Evensong". The service allows an individual to engage with it in his or her own way. Indeed, there is very little for the congregation to do – one need only join in the Apostles’ Creed (if one wants to), sing some hymns, and perhaps a few Amens. 

This may be one reason why attendances at cathedrals for midweek services, primarily evensong, have increased by over 60% in the last 10 years.

A deep history

The origins of Evensong can be found in the services that Jesus himself led with his disciples that later evolved into Christian scripture, poetry and doctrine. The service thus has a direct lineage back to the very beginning of Christianity, and even beyond that to the older Judaic tradition. Perhaps one of the reasons Evensong is so effective is that packs so much of this deep history into 45 minutes, in an elegantly simple form.

An English history

As an English language service, Evensong dates back to the time of the Reformation, using elements of the old monastic Offices of Vespers and Compline. The liturgy (a fixed set of words and ceremonial features) that the Church uses to this day was was laid out in Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, the first version of which appeared in 1549. The music took shape a few decades 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, and in each subsequent generation new composers have continued to add masterworks of classical choral music to the repertoire of Evensong. This has inspired a unique 500-year-old unbroken tradition of choir school foundations across Britain and Ireland that has been responsible for the very high standard of choral singing maintained to this day.

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 were in Latin; and they were too elaborate for simple people to follow.

A community-binding ritual

The fact that Evensong has had such a long evolution means that one has a powerful sense of connecting present with past, of tapping into something much greater than ourselves. As we come together in a church at the end of the day we join a vast community enduring both through time and in the same place, by acting in the same way as countless people have done before us for over a thousand years.

Enchanting our land

Evensong may also literally "en-chant" our land through chant. The concept of perpetual choirs has been around for millennia, and some choirs in Britain come close to this ideal by singing Evensong each day of the week, throughout the year, every year. Thinking another way, the global choral evensong tradition may function as one large perpetual choir, "enchanting" the world.

The music

Cranmer’s Evensong starts with the chanting of the 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 major aspect of 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, and the service finishes after a second hymn. Afterwards the church resonates with the playing of the organ, often one of the great organ works of Bach.

The interspersing of these varied musical forms amongst passages of beautiful spoken liturgy and moments of contemplative silence lends a balance, completeness, and complex psychology to the form of the service.

The high proportion of music in the Evensong service is arguably what distinguishes it from other church services. As mentioned above, it is free to come to hear its choral music, performed live and often to a high standard. And music is very good at carrying us beyond the limitations of human words towards those things we cannot articulate. The Magnificat is a joyful song, the Nunc Dimittis a sung plea, the Psalms pure praise. Music's communication of these feelings is immediate.

Final thought

Whatever we may believe, choral evensong is a beautiful tradition just waiting to be witnessed that can give respite and inspiration during our busy modern lives.

Best wishes,
Guy Hayward
Website Editor

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