We have been planning a wonderful Lenten Wednesday evening program beginning on Ash Wednesday, March 1st. (Yes, Easter will come early this year!) We hope all parish members and friends will make it part of their personal discipline for Lent to come to at least two of these programs which are being listed and discussed in detail elsewhere in this messenger. In my article, I want to stress one of the Wednesdays and explain the Anglican tradition behind it, so that we will have maximum attendance that Wednesday. I am talking about March 15th when we will present a service of Choral Evensong in the English Cathedral tradition.
As you will know, Manakin Church is blessed with ta wonderful choir and a fine organist, Rita Gulliksen. The music program she leads is quite extraordinary in its quality for a parish of the size (and I’ve been around to many churches during the last 60 years). We have dedicated, talented singers (and could always use more, if other wish to volunteer.) Our church building is acoustically splendid for music and the whole congregation seems enthusiastic in their offering of hymns and psalms to the Lord each Sunday.
So, let me talk about the beautiful and inspirational experience you will enjoy. First, let me remind you of a great theological principle behind all of our worship. We do not come to church services primarily to learn from the Bible or sermons; we do not come just to bewail our sins and pray for forgiveness or ask God to give us things we think we need. Jesus tests us, “God knows already what your true needs are!”
We do not even come to ensure that our children get a moral upbringing, and certainly not just to socialize and get the support of friends. The main purpose of worship is to offer praise and thanks to God for “All his goodness and loving kindness to us and to all mankind.” And each of us is expected to offer the best that she or he had in such praise and thanksgiving; “our time, talent and treasure.” We place beautiful silver and gold vessels on our altar! Many churches have magnificent art work, stained glass or intricate mosaics. We want to offer to God the best that we have. So likewise, the music we play and sing is not primarily for our enjoyment or entertainment, but is part of offering the highest quality of praise that we humans can offer. One famous physician/author said that what we should “beam out” into space in hopes of reaching other inhabited worlds, to let them know about us, should not be mathematical formulas or images of our great inventors, but rather “the music of J. S. Bach”, but then, he said, “We could be accused of boasting.” So, that is where the concepts of a worship service entirely sung by well prepared and dedicated musicians come from.
The early church sang psalms and new songs about Jesus. In the medieval church the music gradually developed from the great monastic tradition of sung praise seven times a day. As the church and the arts prospered together after the dark ages, the greatest composers and musicians of each generation offered their works to God through “antiphons” (anthems and settings of monastic praise at vespers, compline, etc. Song schools grew up in connection with major abbey and cathedral churches where the monastic voices were augmented by those of trained students, professional singers and skilled organists. Emperors and kings founded and funded choirs whose duty it was to offer the most beautiful music they could to God every day or the week, whether there was any congregation or not. Rulers took their choirs with them where they traveled through their realms. Some remnants of the medieval tradition remain in Europe in such organizations as the Sistine Chapel Choir and the Vienna Boys Choir (which provided the worship music of the Imperial Court of Holy Roman Empire.) The Royal Chapel Choir of Denmark is another survivor. In Germany, we still have the famous choir Cantata and Choral Tradition at Bach’s St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzip. In France at the time of the French Revolution, the religious choral foundations were virtually wiped out. In England, however, the medieval and renaissance tradition continued more than in any other nation. At the time of the Reformation Archbishop Cranmer consolidated the monastic ideal and custom of a daily round of praise into two “offices”, morning and evening prayer, in the English tongue not Latin. They were commonly called “Matins” and “Evensong,” as in the old English Christmas card, “Pray you dutifully prime your matin chivre ye singers; may you beautifully rhyme your eve-time song ye singers! Although Henry VIII abolished the monasteries and chantry chapels, the cathedral and college “foundations” and the endowments for this choir schools and singers were largely left intact, and some great monastic churches, like Peterborough, became cathedrals for their respective dioceses. The greatest composers of the Tudor and Stuart monarchies (Elizabeth I to James II) wrote for these choirs; Williams Bryd, Thomas Tallis, John Dowland, Thomas Tompkins, Orlando Gibbous, Thomas Weelkes, Henry Purcell, Williams Smith, John Merbeck, etc.
Many of the choirs they wrote for have lasted through the centuries such as the monarch’s choirs of St. George’s, Windsor and The Chapel Royal (St. James and Hampton Court), the singing boys at Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, those at Winchester, Your, Canterbury, etc. and of course the collegiate foundations at Kings College and St. Johns College, Cambridge and Christ Church, Magdalen College and new college Oxford. After the 18th century, Latitudinarian period, the Romantic/Victorian era saw another great blessing of great composers of service music for Matins and Evensong, including Samuel Wesley, Edward Elgar, Charles Stanford, John Staimer, Felix Mendelssohn and Charles Wood. This heritage has contained into our own tme with Benjamin Britton, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Bairsow, Hubert Parry and William Lloyd Webber, father of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Joanna Trollope’s popular book and TV movie (1995) “The Choir” depicts the present day trials, tribulations and glories of keeping this choral traditions alive and well.
The prayer book of 1662 (still the official English book) uses the rubric “In quires and place where they sing . . .” (and similar rubrics) giving service instructions pertaining to this ongoing choral tradition.
Essentially, Evensong is our 1928 service of evening Prayer completely set to music an chant, with the congregation participating verbally in the creed, intoning the Lord’s prayer and joining the choir in a hymn. Our choir and organist are putting much work into preparing this service for March 15th, and we hope it will inspire your hearts and minds to thank God for all of his wonderful gifts to you and yours, even in the midst of our penitential season of Lent. We know that some of you have been to England and heard Evensong there, and hope many more of you will have that rewarding religious opportunity in the future.
Yours in Christ,
The Rev. Dr. Tom Bauer