Prof Joyce Hill – Evensong
Choral Evensong is one of the glories of the English musical tradition, which many people enjoy, whether or not they are regular church-goers. These days it is the cathedrals, along with some major churches, which are the guardians of this tradition. But as recently as the early 1960s, Sung Evensong on Sundays, together with its...
September 30, 2023
Choral Evensong is one of the glories of the English musical tradition, which many people enjoy, whether or not they are regular church-goers. These days it is the cathedrals, along with some major churches, which are the guardians of this tradition. But as recently as the early 1960s, Sung Evensong on Sundays, together with its morning counterpart of Mattins, were services that figured more prominently than the Eucharist; they were the congregational services within the Church of England. In parish churches the Eucharist was often said quite early on Sunday morning, with maybe a mid-morning Sung Eucharist once a month. Now, by contrast, the Eucharist is commonly the main Sunday service and Evensong has all but disappeared — though not in cathedrals.
The prominence given to the Eucharist and the near-loss of Evensong within a parish setting was a development beginning in the 1960s, when modernised wording for services also began to be introduced. The speed and extent of the change was variable. But it was nevertheless a marked trend, and now it is fairly rare for the wording of the Book of Common Prayer to be used. Yet, despite the changes we have become used to, Evensong is resistant: in cathedrals, whether Evensong is said or sung we still use the language of Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury. The musical settings that we enjoy work well with Cranmer’s language, giving the service a rich and peaceful solemnity which is widely appreciated.
The term ‘evensong’ goes back to Anglo-Saxon times, when it was used as the vernacular name for the service of Vespers, one of the Hours or services within the monastic daily round of worship. The name ‘Vespers’ comes from the Latin for ‘evening’: liturgical books usually headed the service with the phrase ‘ad vesperum’, which means ‘at evening’, so it’s easy to see why the Anglo-Saxons came up with the name æfensang, ‘evensong’. Cranmer, when he was writing the new liturgy to characterise and define the Church of England, used Evensong as the name for the service that he created by amalgamating and building upon the pre-Reformation services of Vespers and Compline (the very last service of the monastic day). So his Evensong is highly traditional in its form. It was called Evensong in the 1549 BCP, was renamed as Evening Prayer in the 1552 edition, and was restored as Evensong in 1662.
We can see from this that the history of Evensong doesn’t simply tell us about changing practices in the twentieth century; tracking it through the various versions of the BCP also tells us about changes at the time of the Reformation and its aftermath. In the BCP of 1549, largely prepared under Henry VIII although issued in the reign of Edward VI, Evensong was not thought of as a congregational service, but rather as one of the services of devotion for the clergy, reflecting something of its ultimately monastic origins. The BCP of 1552, a product of Edward VI’s more rigorous Protestantism, changed that: the congregation was expected to attend on Sundays and to take part; there was to be no music — hence the renaming of the service as Evening Prayer; and, alongside this, vestments were simplified, wooden tables replaced stone ones, and church interiors were stripped and whitewashed with greater vigour than before. It was the Restoration of the Monarchy, the resulting 1662 BCP, and consequent further change to liturgical practice that put Evensong in the prominent position it held in parish life until the mid-twentieth century.