For many of us in the world, Choral Evensong is “a thing.” Actually, Evensong has been a thing in the Anglican tradition for centuries. Cathedrals, collegiate chapels and some parish churches in England sing Evensong daily or at least weekly, as do some Episcopal cathedrals and parishes in this country.
Choral Evensong has a bit of redundancy in its name. Choirs sing Evensong, thus making it automatically choral. Sometime Evensong is sung by a worshipping community, when it is usually then called Sung Evening Prayer. But for those who love the Anglican choral tradition, Evensong is Evensong and is sung by the choir.
The first prayer book of Edward VI, The 1549 Book of Common Prayer, is where Evensong first appeared by name: “The Ordre for Matins and Evensong throughout the yeare.” [sic] In the second prayer book under Edward VI, The 1552 Book of Common Prayer, the rites were renamed Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer: “The Order for Mornying Prayer and Eveninge Praier throughout the yere.” [sic]
(Don’t we love how the spellings of same old English words can change in the course of only two years/yeares/yeres?)
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, our present prayer book, has separate rites for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, along with the additional evening liturgical rite of Compline. However, when a choir sings Evening Prayer, we still usually call it Evensong.
Evensong has been called “one of England’s richest traditions” and “the gem of Anglican worship.” In our parish, we sing Evensong only three or four times a year - occasions when our 5:30 Sunday worshippers can participate in the hymns, prayers, lessons, creed and other spoken parts - while the music sung by the choir (canticles, anthem, other prayers) allows the worshippers to participate with their hearts, minds and spirits.
Perhaps a service leaflet from Coventry Cathedral best describes Evensong:
Evensong in an Anglican Cathedral is a magnificent act of worship. Sung daily in our church since the sixteenth century, this service is only a tiny fragment of the total worship of God offered by Christian people at every hour of the day and night in every part of the world. Evensong is drawn almost entirely from the Bible. Its primary purpose is to proclaim the wonderful works of God in history and in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Its secondary purpose is to evoke from the worshipper a response of praise, penitence, prayer and obedience.
The Motet Choir will sing our first Evensong of the season this Sunday (Oct. 2, 5:30 PM), singing early English literature of Ayleward, Tallis and Gibbons. The congregation will participate by singing favorite evening hymns: “All praise to thee my God this night,” “Come labor on,” and “Abide with me.”