Lighten Our Darkness – in Praise of Choral Evensong
It is referred to by Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare; it is mentioned in Louis Stevenson, Dickens, and Trollope; it is present in Plath, Wilde and Auden, yet one is invariably met with looks of bewilderment and flabbergast when declining a friend’s invitation with the words, “I’m sorry I can’t make it – I’ll be attending Choral Evensong”. The dialogue
proceeds in this guise: “Well, what kind of song is Evensong anyway? I didn’t realise you were (..awkward pause..) religious.” Before being able to muster a conflated response integrating the nuances of 17th century politics, compositional techniques, architecture andpoetry, the assumption is made, the stereotype is formed, “It’s just church, I suppose.”
In reality, Evensong is something of an eccentric dark horse, the joker in the pack, when it comes to preconceived notions about “just church”. For starters, unlike the sacramental liturgies of Eucharist, or Baptism, it doesn’t require any clergy for it to take place. It is an example of ‘Divine Office’ (an oxymoron, surely?) which has been passed down through the centuries from the Apostles, and daily Jewish prayers before them. These prayers were adopted and adapted by monastic institutions and reached something resembling their current format just under half a millennium ago following a domestic
dispute involving an Englishman, a Roman and a Spaniard. The choral rendering of Anglican Evening Prayer is also peculiar in that it has, amongst Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and even hardened atheists, a burgeoning popularity. Richard Dawkins has been quoted as saying, “I have a certain love of Evensong”. The Guardian, the Telegraph and the Economist all report a 35% increase in attendance for the service since 2000, all of this taking place within a church that its own primate once declared as “one generation away from extinction.” With my own eyes I have seen people camp out in tents to participate in
the service, people have queued in the freezing rain waiting for a seat, I have even seen a fully regaled, robed and professional choir sing Evensong to a congregation of zero. How can this be explained?
Evensong’s zealous appeal grows from a curious combination of ingredients. The order in which they are presented is crucial. You enter the Cathedral to the sound of music. It takes a moment to recognise that the organ is located all around the building, creating a ‘surround-sound’ effect that is practically unique in Toronto. The organist is playing on not four, but five different keyboards, one of which is being played with their feet. As the bells toll to signal a service is about the begin, the music gradually quietens and we hear the immortal sound of the human voice. The choir, not yet visible, sing a short prayer, or introit, to focus the mind away from the frenzy of King Street. As the procession enters the space, it’s hard not to notice the dazzling white surplices, the elaborate copes, the academic hoods as the slowly gliding company of women and men make their way up to the ornately neo-gothic high altar. The service begins, as it has on this very patch of earth for over two-hundred years, with the chanted words: “O Lord, open thou our lips.” We begin from a position of penitence, of weakness, of ignorance. We plead, “make haste to help us, make speed to save us.”
The choir, singing on our behalf, begin chanting a Psalm appointed for the day. Did they really say, “I am become like a pelican in the wilderness”? Who is Og the King of Basan, and why does he have fat bulls? Was throwing a shoe at Edom a common thing to do, or to describe Moab as a washpot? What of earthquakes, pescacide, unicorns, lions, delightful legs, leery drunks, olfactory malfunction, culinary adventures, gnashing teeth, and herb for the use of men? Did the lyrics to Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust really come from Psalm 72?
The Old Testament reading begins, and it’s far from soporific. In the course of a month one can guarantee an airing of tales that deal with jealousy, betrayal, murder, family feud, sea monsters, erotica, the list goes on: eat your heart out Game of Thrones. Jesus Christ ‘meek and mild’ doesn’t enter the picture until the Magnificat, or Song of Mary, is sung. Even then he has not yet been born. This great declaration of the Incarnation, God stooping so low, launches us perfectly into the Second Lesson which fixes our minds on the ground-breaking acts of Christ and the Apostles before we join the aged Simeon in his hymn of praise: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” We now pause and see how far we’ve come. We stand and say the Creed together. This is the Church’s summary of the truths we have been learning about. Another, more substantial, piece of music is offered as a meditation, followed by prayers reflecting on the day, as the shadows lengthen, the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over.
Evensong grapples with so many dramatic, and yet universal themes that it is no wonder that those who encounter it, experience it on such a viscerally stimulating level. It has at its core the fundamental tribulations of the human condition, which, in combination with Thomas Cranmer’s gorgeous command of language, has an enduring charm and resonance. This is all to say nothing of the staggeringly high quality, and constant variety of music written for it. Even composers who were avowed atheists such as Vaughan Williams, Tippett, Maxwell Davies, Rorem, and Britten, composed some of our most treasured church music for the service because of its fertile landscape for creativity and inspiration. It is not for me to comment on the quality of the music on offer at St. James, but I think that everyone who can hear has something to glean from this crowning jewel within our rich tapestry of a tradition. Should you know someone to come away from the plush musical banquet of Evensong (every Sunday at 4.30pm, entirely free) not feeling uplifted or spiritually nourished then you might consider the advice of Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice:
“The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.”