"What Exactly is Evensong?"

by Derek Nickles, Director of Music

"What exactly is Evensong?" This is a simple yet logical question for those maybe not familiar with this service and its wide international appeal. In order to properly understand the mystical simplicity of this service, one must first go back to the earliest formal description of Compline which was written in the early 6th century by the founder of western monasticism, St. Benedict (c. 480-543). St. Benedict called the final hour of the day Compline, from the Latin complere: to complete. He described in fewer than thirty words the form Compline would take for the next thousand years. He wanted the prayer kept simple: Psalm, hymn, chapter, blessing, and dismissal. "After Compline," wrote St. Benedict, "no one may speak." 

When the Reformation swept across Europe in the early 16th century, the Anglican Church broke away from Rome. King Henry VIII dissolved all the monasteries, where for hundreds of years monks had measured their days according to the Hours, eight times during the day from dawn to darkness when a daily cycle of prayer was said or sung. (Matins - before daybreak; Lauds - at sunrise; Prime - c. 6am; Terce - c. 9am; Sext - c. noon; Nones - c. 3pm; Vespers - sunset; Compline - immediately after Vespers). In the 16h century, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), combined two daily monastic services (Vespers and Compline) and put them in a book to be used by both clergy and laity alike in the first Anglican The Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549. In many cathedrals and churches where evensong is sung, people gather to hear the singing of the final prayers of the day. Compline is a rite that is over a thousand years old, yet in our busy modern world, many flock to places of worship where these serene and beautiful evening rites are recited and sung as a much-needed respite from our hectic and busy lives. 

One of the beauties of Evensong is the flexibility found in its simple outline. While St. Benedict's Rule may have been elaborated to varying degrees (traditional Phos hilaron, and the Evening Canticles or Magnificat and Nunc dimittis), the five elements of psalter, hymn, reading, blessing, and dismissal remain as an integral part of this beautiful service. The Phos hilaron is the traditional opening hymn for Evening Prayer. Its origins are traced back to the early Greek church where it was used as a lamp-lighting hymn. This hymn calls our attention to the setting sun, the close of the day, and serves as a reflection and thanksgiving for all that happened that day. 

The Magnificat or "Song of Mary" is one of the three great Canticles of the New Testament. At Evensong, the Magnificat is traditionally sung following the First Lesson. The Nunc dimittis is the last in the historical sequence of the three great Canticles of the New Testament and is also found in the liturgy for the Purification of the Blessed Virgin (sometimes called the Feast of the Presentation of Christ) which is observed 2 February.  At Evensong, the Nunc dimittis is traditionally sung following the Second Lesson.

Our annual Lenten Evensong is fast approaching on Sunday, March 1st at 5:00 p.m. This year's service will include the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in B-flat by Henry Purcell, and George Frederic Handel's anthem As pants the hart, HWV 251, a setting of Psalm 42. The high point of 18th century English choral music was reached when George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), the German-born master of Italian opera, settled in London. He wrote eleven grandiose works based on the Psalms during his association with the Chapel Royal. The English Chapel Royal originated in Anglo-Saxon times, becoming a prestigious royal power by the end of the 13th century. The Chapel Royal consisted of a body of priests and laity who waited upon the monarch to perform the liturgical services in his or her presence. This meant only the best composers and singers were retained in this elite setting. The composers associated with the Chapel Royal include a "Who's Who" of English church music: Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Henry Purcell, William Croft, and Maurice Greene.

Handel's setting of Psalm 42, As pants the hart, HWV 251 is one of his earlier contributions to this elite collection. It appears in five different versions, each polished and refined by the composer to fit the occasion of its performance. We will hear the third version of this work, scored for oboe, strings, and continuo with choir and soloists.