Sermon 4

The Rough Guide to Evensong

Evensong on Sunday 9 October 2011, was presented as a ‘guided Evensong’ during which the Chaplain and the Director of Music gave several short talks during the course of the service.  The full text is given below. 

Introduction:  Chaplain

Welcome to the first Choral Evensong of Full Term.  It is very good to with us many people have just joined us here at Corpus.  You are especially welcome.  We are taking the opportunity this evening to explore Choral Evensong.  The shear persistence of this particular service in College chapels, and Anglican churches and cathedrals is a remarkable thing.  A great deal of our worship here at Corpus, now and over the past 450 years has used these very words that we use tonight.  So Nick Danks, our Director of music and I intend to intervene four times during the service this evening, and offer some information, insights and guidance about how to use it.   

With apologies to those who know evensong like the back of their hands, and who will find some of what we say to be going over old ground.  And there is a serious health warning tonight!  Because we are guiding you through it, there is more talking this evening than usual, and other elements in the service have been trimmed to take account of this. 

Even so, we haven’t by any means tried to say everything we could say… but we hope tonight will spark your interest, and perhaps some further questions and conversations. 

Though we do not have room to say much about it this evening, our readings and hymns reflect the theme of St Michael and All Angels, the feast day which falls at the end of September, giving its name to this first term in the academic year.  Michael-mass or as we say Michaelmas Term.    

So we begin with the wonderful Michaelmas Hymn ‘Christ the fair glory of the holy angels’

Hymn NEH 190

Talk 1:  Chaplain

Firstly a little historical background.  This chapel was built in about 1825, which means that the service of Evensong was already very old when the chapel was built. Thomas Cranmer, Fellow of Jesus College, and Archbishop under King Henry VIII, composed this service in 1547, just under 200 years AFTER this college was founded.   But of maths there.

 The 16th century was a tumultuous and chaotic time in Church and state.  Cranmer was a reformer and was involved in all the great changes of that time.  These included the break with Rome, and the dissolution of the monasteries, and the complete re-writing of the services of the Church, which he undertook to do.  Cranmer produced a hugely simplified liturgy called the Book of Common Prayer (here it is), with all the services of the Church now in English rather than in Latin, and the whole lot between two covers.    

It just so happened that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, was one of the greatest prose-writers of the English language.  It was not and is not a requirement for the clergy to be any good at writing (believe me!), it was just a very happy coincidence.  Cranmer’s prose, his translations and his prayers are beautifully put, and they never seem to get tired or worn out.  He had a way of writing that somehow managed to be ordinary and sacred, all at the same time.   The Book of Common Prayer – like Shakespeare’s works, and the KJV of the Bible (which our readings are from this evening)  had a huge effect on the evolution of modern English.   

That is all a matter of style.  But what about the structure?  What you have before you in your booklets is Evensong almost exactly as Cranmer wrote it.  We like to keep things as they are here at Corpus!  He created it out of the Latin services sung in the afternoon and late evening in a monastery – services called Vespers and Compline.  He literally edited these two and cobbled them together to form a new service.  The basic pattern of psalms, bible readings and special prayers for the day comes directly from this source.

Cranmer had a vision that the worship of the monasteries which by the time of writing had just been destroyed in England (a tragic loss incidentally), would be somehow released into the population at large.  Cranmer longed for the whole community – not just a select few to have the opportunity to pray these words day by day – and in the common language of the people.   

As Christian services have done since the earliest times, Evensong begins with confession and the promise of God’s forgiveness.  These are wonderful pieces of prose which we are about to say.

 However, to the modern mind, beginning with confession may seem strange.   I would like to suggest however that confession is not really supposed to be about rubbing our noses in our wrong-doing,  it should be about taking a realistic look at our own lives, and our part in what goes wrong in the world at large, where the awful consequences of selfishness, greed, and prejudice are all too obvious.

Communities like our own are wonderful places, but that doesn’t mean that we are free of the same problems which affect the world outside. 

And it turns out – and this is what Cranmer seeks to show us – that in the love of God, we are not stuck with things just as they are, but that we can put aside the things we have done wrong, ask for forgiveness and be given the power to do better. 

By the way, the word miserable comes as a bit of a shock, in Cranmer’s introduction.  In his use of English, this does not mean gloomy and sad, as we would use it, but something more like ‘pitiable’ or ‘worthy of mercy’, and that is something to be very glad about. 

After Cranmer’s introduction to the service, we hear the opening responses and the choir will sing the psalm, then we come to the first reading. 

But now I shall recite Cranmer’s introduction to the service. 

Introduction to Confession

Confession and Absolution

Responses (Aylward)

Psalm 103: 19-22

Old Testament Reading Genesis 28: 10-17

Talk 2:  Director of Music

At the heart of Choral Evensong are the two canticles: the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, the two great biblical songs of Mary and Simeon respectively. From the very first instance that these two canticles were brought together in the new liturgy of Evening Prayer, composers usually have set them as a pair- referred to as an Evening Service. The one by William Byrd heard tonight is no exception. Later editions of the Prayer Book make provision for an anthem, after the three collects. As James has said, the Reformation was a traumatic time, this was the case for the church musicians as well. Think of your favourite piece of Latin polyphony and then think of a straightforward hymn tune such as the Old Hundredth. The composers of the Reformation were, practically overnight, required by the Bishops of the new church, to change their compositional style from the former to the latter. Musically, the required ethos was strict: the text of the English rite, when set to music, must be clear enough for the congregations to hear and understand. Only one note per syllable and the same words sung simlutaneously in all parts. This is exemplified in the full chorus sections of the setting of the Magnificat used by William Byrd this evening- mostly chordal, like a hymn tune. The psalms were sung to what was basically very simple harmonised plainsong, likewise the responses. But they did it, not only with good grace, but with such dedication and creativity that they gave birth to a world famous phenomenon- the Anglican Choral Tradition. From their earliest, simplest pieces evolved the rich and diverse body of repertoire heard in Anglican Cathedrals, Chapels, Churches every day and, indeed, often in Concert Halls around the world.

The tradition of who sung what has remained basically unchanged since the Reformation. In establishments which have resident choir, the canticles are sung to a specially composed musical setting. The psalms and responses are sung to Anglican Chant which the wider congregation may or may not join in, depending on the tradition of the establishment. For the early Anglican Church, it was not so much who sang what which was important, but that the text of whatever was being sung should be clear and intelligable to the wider congregation. Listen to the anthem later on in the service- one of the first pieces Tallis composed for the new Anglican Church, it was written exactly so that the text should be clear to the listener- we have deliberately not printed the text in the service sheet.

As with all creative traditions, the Anglican Church Music tradition has evolved. It has drawn influences not only from the Western Classical Music tradition but from folk, jazz and music from other cultures. In tonight’s setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, you will hear sections for solo voice alternating with sections for the whole choir. This is evidence of the influence of the secular lute song- the pop music of the sixteenth and seventeenth century if you like- being incorporated into the church music of the time.

But with such a diverse body of repertoire and musical styles, does it matter that today’s Anglican Choral Tradition is now as musically complex as the music of the Roman Rite? Church Music with Latin texts is widely mixed into Choral Evensong. Does this matter? I shall explore these questions in my next talk, later in the service.

Magnificat (Byrd)

Talk 3:  Chaplain

We have now heard three chunks of scripture.  The psalm, the reading from the Old Testament, and the Canticle, known as the Magnificat, Mary’s song.  Next we shall hear the reading from the New Testament, and the canticle known as Nunc Dimitis or, the song of Simeon.  If you have been to a synagogue you will immediately recognize this pattern of readings and psalms and special texts.  It came straight out of the prayer life of ancient Israel, and into Christianity at a very early date.    

Think of the canticles as bridges, linking the themes and ideas of the Hebrew scriptures with those of the New Testament.  Linking the world of the Jewish Temple and the Prophets, to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and his first followers.

The Psalms are the ancient hymns and poetry of the Jewish Temple, and the synagogue, and have a central place in Christian worship too.  In every age they have been an inspiration and guide to countless millions of worshippers.  Among other things, they help us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, and to rejoice in the bountiful goodness of God.   

There is always a reading form the OT and the New.  The Old Testament is the Bible as Jesus knew it.  The stories, laws poetry and prophecies which formed his understanding and his imagination.  It is also the story of the Jewish people and their relationship with God.  It is helpful to think of the NT as the story of Jesus –  and the writings of some of his earliest followers, like St Luke and St Paul, who came to understand him as the centre of their lives.

As you may have noticed, I have skated over the whole of the Bible in a few sentences – which really won’t do.  This is one reason why our Evensong sermons this term (shameless plug coming up – please see the chapel card) aim to give a really helpful introduction to the different voices and kinds of literature found in the Bible, so I shall not attempt any more of that right now.

We hear the NT in a moment, and then we continue uninterrupted through the later part of Evensong, with the nunc dimitis, the creed, more responses, and the special sung prayers for the day called the Collects, gathered by Cranmer from various ancient sources or composed by himself.    

New Testament Reading John 1: 47-51

Nunc Dimittis




Hymn NEH 456 Teach me my God and King

Talk 4:  Director of Music

Why, when it could seem a bit exclusive (a choir doing most of the participation, tucked away at one end of a church for example), is Choral Evensong such a treasured and important piece of Anglican Liturgy? One basic reason why the Choir sing the responses, psalms, canticles and anthems to specially composed musical setting whilst everyone else listens is that the Choir are offering these parts of the service to God on behalf of the rest of the congregation: the very best of what they can offer to God using their musical skills. I asked earlier in the service: Does it matter that the music these days is so diverse, often complex and far removed from the original ethos of the Anglican Church? My answer would be ‘no’, it does not matter. This rich musical heritage IS what we have to offer to God, through the musical and creative skills we have been blessed with through the ages. This is summed up in words of Francis Pott in the hymn Angel voices ever singing:

Yea, we know that thou rejoicest

O’er each work of thine;

Thou didst ears and hands and voices

For thy praise design;

Craftsman’s art and music’s measure

For thy pleasure

All combine.

Or in the hymn we have just sung: Teach me, my God and King, in all things thee to see- in ALL things thee to see: to see God in the architecture of this Chapel, in the beauty of Cranmer’s liturgy, in the inspiration of the composers represented and in the skills, offered for the service of God, by the Choir.

Listening to the mystical lyricism of Herbert Howells is, for many people, a ‘religious’ experience, especially the settings of the Evening Canticles he composed for particular buildings: that really is combining craftsmens art with music measure. For others it is the beautiful simplicity of the gentle polyphony of Tallis and Byrd, heard in an ancient building by the light of candles. All of these are very valid experiences, but why so much effort to set the texts of the liturgy to music if beauty is all people are really wanting to achieve through the inclusion of music in a service. We could just have instrumental musical interludes in the service instead. Well, for example, over the weeks of Term you will hear many different styles of music in the settings of the Magnificat.. I wonder which settings of the Magnificat will convey to you the sheer sense of nervous joy which inspired Mary to sing this song? Composers often add a prominent upper voice solo to the text of the Magnificat- a very explicit way of hearing Mary’s voice in the musical setting. As mentioned: Tonight’s setting by Byrd had a few solo sections- did the text speak to you more during the solo sections than the fuller choral sections? Other composers follow the ebbs and flows of the text with their music style, rather than assigning solo ‘roles’- creating a more generalised canvas of sound to serve as an appropriate backdrop for us to contemplate the significance of Mary’s words.  Helping to provoke thoughts about how a particular text speaks to us or what it tells us about God is one way in which music play an integral role within the Liturgy. Sometimes your thoughts might be provoked because the music does not match your own understanding of the text- but that is still engaging with the words through music. I remember hearing the Precentor of Salisbury- Old member of this College Canon Jeremy Davies- preach a whole sermon on the hymn we have just sung and the marriage of that particular tune with George Herbert’s text. It frustrated him that the text was only ever sung to that rather foursquare tune. For Jeremy Davies it was not “TEACH ME MY GOD AND KING” but rather should be an impassioned plea:  “TEACH ME…….my God and King”. Try singing a very well known hymn to a completely new tune one day- it might shed a whole new light on what you thought was a very familiar text.

In a moment the choir will sing the anthem: Thomas Tallis’ “If ye love”. I won’t read the text out here because, as I said earlier, I want you to hear it with an ear for its historical context- the clarity of the text being paramount. But, it is not giving too much away to say that the text is words of Jesus from John’s gospel offering truth and comfort to those who follow in the way of Christ- themes of reassurance, a promise of a better life for those choose to follow. In listening to the anthem you may find that sense of reassurance in the beautiful simplicity of the music, affording a few minutes of peaceful contemplation or simply some space to relax at the end of a busy week. Or you may feel that reassurance in the warm key of F major and gentle lyricism and ebb and flow of the music- frequently coming to rest at carefully crafted cadences- carefully ordered, no sudden jolts- such is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Or you may find that the text makes sense because the music has highlighted a certain rhythm in the words which emphasises the meaning of the text to you. It is in such ways that we are able to discover Truth as well as Beauty in Choral Evensong.

Anthem: If ye love me, Tallis

Talk 5:  Chaplain

So, with all this beauty and all this history, how should we use Evensong? And why should we bother with it?  I think that there are three answers to this – for beauty, for peace and for truth.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with engaging with Evensong on the level of beauty.   Let me make that very clear. The architecture and the candlelight conspire together to create a wonderful atmosphere. The music is beautiful, and Nick has spoken about how it represents the genius of the English choral tradition. And yet it’s obviously not a concert.  The pieces here are used as they were intended, to be savoured between spoken words which are also of great beauty.

So Evensong brings you into contact with a tradition of artistic endeavour which is extraordinarily alive, changing but unchanged, over several centuries.

It is also a source of peace.  Whatever you believe, there is, at its best, a peacefulness and wholeness to what happens here, that is deeply consoling.  That is good for us.  We have busy lives, and are mostly trying to squeeze too much into them.  Times of peace and beauty like this refresh and resource us, and this in turn helps us to be more civilized and appreciative people.  We’re all very lucky to have this opportunity on our own doorstep.  What a gift!

I am convinced, however, that it is right and proper to engage with evensong on the level of Truth. And many of us come here as seekers.  People on a journey.  The beauty of the location, the music and the words should not disguise their intention. That intention is to speak of the reality of the intersection of Time and Eternity. We are only really seeing straight and thinking straight if we take that into account.

In the Christian understanding the nature of eternity is made known to us in Jesus Christ.  And He is – if you like – the golden chord running through Evensong and everything that happens in the chapel.  Everything we do here is an attempt to bear witness to him and to his truth.  The whole context of this place seeks to illuminate Him.  It is a bold claim, but I make it.  Evensong exists to help us to come closer to God and to know him in his Son Jesus Christ.  So we are here if you like, to reset our compasses, so that we can align our wills with God’s will and play our part in the building up of God’s Kingdom, where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen. 

Hymn NEH 475 Ye Holy Angels Bright


With thanks to Dr James Gardom (Dean of Pembroke College) for his guidance and the use of his excellent notes in preparing the Chaplain’s contributions. 

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