Thursday, 23 October 2008

Choral Evensong

The more discerning amongst you will have noticed that the BBC's weekly broadcast of the Church of England's greatest contribution to world culture has reverted (after being 'mucked about' for years during which it appeared at one time - if at all - in the wee small hours of a Monday morning) to a weekday slot: Wednesday, at 4p.m. Of course, this cannot be other than 'good news'. For cathedral musicians, weekday evensong is the 'magnum opus' of their offering. True, Sunday morning Eucharist might liturgically be more important, but there is nothing to match the musicality of evensong nor - in my untrained opinion - the theology.

Consider the structure, dear reader: an opening plea to the Almighty to 'open Thou our lips' followed by the chanting of psalmody (a practice pre-dating Christianity) and a reading from the Old Testament of the Bible. Then, we get the news of Jesus's arrival in the form of Mary's hymn - magnificat - followed by a reading from the book inspired by His ministry, and the thanks of Simeon (set, of course, to music) for being thus enlilghtened, after which it is seemly to recite the Creed. Prayers follow, and an anthem, and the service ends in the glory of a mighty organ voluntary. It never fails to move, dear reader, even when the choir outnumbers the congregation by a ratio of two to one, or when the congregation on a winter's evening consists merely of a couple of drunkards sheltering from the elements and clanking empties every time they kneel to pray. For 'whenever two or three are gathered together...' and all that. And it is right for such a service, glorying as it does in some of the finest of this country's musical offerings, to be broadcast by the BBC, and on a weekday, too. I have no problem with that. Far from it, if I had my way I would insist that the service was once more broadcast on a Friday, too, as was the case not so very long ago.

These days, sadly, we only get one 'crack of the whip' so-to-speak. And that, as ill-fortune would decree, is on our dumb-day (our day off, in other words). So when the BBC descends with its miles of cabling and myriads of microphones (time was, you got one slung between the two sides of the choir and made the best of it) not only do we have to give up whatever ordinarily occupies our time in the middle of the week (in my case, teaching) but we have to go to the cathedral even earlier for rehearsals and for 'balance-testing' and then do the whole thing at four o'clock instead of the usual five-thirty. But worse, far worse, is the unworthy dross the DoM insists on bringing out of the music cupboard, the better to 'show off' his choir on the radio. Dear God, it is bad enough singing the stuff on the wireless, but we've already started to rehearse it and it's months before the BBC van will descend on the cathedral close. Vanitas, vanitatum (as the prophet said). Omnia vanitas.

14 comments:

having my cake said...

Well think yourself lucky it's not on the tele, it would be like that sketch out of Not the Nine O'Clock News or the Vicar of Dibley! Mind you, at least then we could all study the screen and try to work out which one is CanBass1 :)

Can Bass 1 said...

How right you are, Miss Cake. Indeed, when the 'morons from telly land' do descend they insist on filming several episodes of Songs of Praise at once. Last time the virger had to erect a Christmas tree in June, and the congregation were instructed to attend in outdoor coats. (Fortunately, the cathedral interior is like a fridge at all times of year). All to save themselves a bit of petrol money, after filming harvest festival (yes, in the middle of summer!).

Rob Clack said...

Choral Evensong is definitely my favourite service, closely followed by Mattins, but only because Mattins is just Evensong with a Jubilate and Te Deum instead of the Mag & Nunc.

Well, I could be over-simplifying, there, but that'd be because I don't actually listen.

Tenon_Saw said...

We are of like mind. You have summed up my views on Evensong perfectly.
The trouble with Holy Communion is that they shove in a sermon (though this can sadly be the case in some Evensongs) and one doesn't know what the quality of the item will be or how long it is going to be. With Evensong, you always know the order of the components, how long they are going to last each time - because one can see the psalms in the book - (presumably there is also a tradition that the said prayers tend to be the same length each day in most places) and one is familiar with the canticle texts.
Added to this one can wallow, and rejoice, in the way many composers have responded to Evensong texts, and listen to the organist as he portrays a juicy psalm verse.
Oh the thrill of being a chorister! (at any age)

Brother Tobias said...

Do you know when it's to be aired? (or have I missed something?).

I regret to say I have tagged you, but as I suspect you may be as fond of tagging as you are of Facebook and X Factor, you may ignore without chagrin.

scarlet-blue said...

"and the service ends in the glory of a mighty organ voluntary."
I should say so . . . everytime without fail.
Sx

susan s. said...

I was quite moved by the prayers for every clergy person who had died from the time of the establishment(is that the right word?) of the Diocese of Lincoln. There was a new list every day that we sang in the week we were there.

John France said...

At least you seem to have the wisdom, privelege, taste and luck to use the words from the BCP! How many so called Even-songs use some pedestiran Daily Mirror style liturgy that is supposed to appeal to the poor illiterate masses. Oh liturgy/ worship groups in churches can be so patronising...

Surely only a literary idiot would prefer Lord let your go to the incomparable Lord now lettest thou thy servent depart in peace...

Gadjo Dilo said...

This sounds so lovely and brings to mind images of Derek Nummo and a nice chaplain in Sheffield Cathedral (where I was sitting hunched in a pew on a cold weekday afternoon wondering why my life had all so gone wrong) putting his hand on my shoulder and asking if I was all right.

"four o'clock instead of the usual five-thirty" - is that in the afternoon? Rrrrock 'n' Roll!! ;-)

Gadjo Dilo said...

"Nimmo", sorry. (I suppose you are probably sick of references to him by now).

Kitty said...

My father, when he was alive, used to refer to his evening pub visits as 'evensong', as in 'I'm just off out to evensong'. x

Brother Tobias said...

Sorry - I see you've already been tagged for that one anyway. Consider yourself untagged. I'd still quite enjoy reading your answers though.

ChickPea said...

Evensong is also a great way to bring some sunshine into a wet Saturday afternoon ..... or any other afternoon, come to that - and a Wednesday, courtesy of the BBC, is certainly better than not at all......
(Oh yes - WHEN was it you told us that the finely honed and dulcet tones therein will be those of your esteemed selves ?)

Sir Monocle said...

This reminds me of a story once told by my good friend and former teacher who studied with George Guest. Following a beautiful Choral Evensong led Mr. Guest, a student asked the famous conductor if he was bothered by how few people were actually in the pews. He responded by saying , "This is not a concert. We're here for one purpose alone. To worship God."

I for one am glad the BBC broadcasts these services over the net. I never miss them.