Evensong: Worship Through The Ages

Evensong - Evening Prayer - Vespers - Compline

Perhaps you've heard of these services before but you aren't sure what they are, or if you should attend. Here's the truth: Evensong is for everyone. When you attend Evensong you are engaging in a form of worship that has developed in the Anglican and Episcopal churches over the course of centuries. 

What is Evening Prayer?

Evening Prayer, a worship service devised by Thomas Cranmer for the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, brings together many elements of the older monastic offices of Vespers and Compline, particularly their respective canticles the Magnificat (Luke 1) and the Nunc dimittis (Luke 2). The word “Evensong” is a term first used in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. It refers to the service of Evening Prayer. Even a completely spoken service of Evening Prayer might be called “Evensong.”

What is Choral Evensong?

Choral Evensong is a service of prayer, lessons, and music that has been sung since the sixteenth century. We refer to our service as Choral Evensong because many parts are prepared by and sung by the Choir on behalf of all those gathered, while the People (the congregation) join in saying and singing other parts of the service. At San Jose, the framework for this service is drawn from Evening Prayer (Rite I) as found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.


Evensong at San Jose

  • The Entrance
    • In the half hour leading up to the service, those joining for worship (referred to as the People) gather quietly for a period of silent meditation and prayer. When the service begins you will hear the opening Voluntary (or prelude), often played by the organist as the Choir enters the church.
    • The choir may sing an Introit, a brief choral prelude to the liturgy.
    • The Officiant, the clergy or layperson leading the service, addresses the People with the Opening Acclamation. In penitent seasons, the Officiant may lead a Confession of Sin. 


  • The Invitatory/Preces and Psalter
    • The Choir and Officiant proceed with the Invitatory/Preces. Often, but not always, this music is intended to be sung as a set with the Prayers/Responses found later in the service. Composers have been creating musical settings of these elements since the 1662 Prayer Book. When composed as a set, they are often referred to as the Preces & Responses. Therefore, this is often the service element that does not strictly conform to the most recent 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP). This is because the liturgy has changed, but the historic musical compositions have not. 
    • The Choir will then sing the Psalm or Psalms appointed for the day. Many consider this portion of the liturgy to be the "meat and potatoes" of the service. This comes from the ancient monastic traditions in which a number of the Psalms were sung at both morning and evening prayer services every day so that over the course of a month all 150 were sung. Nowadays, the Psalms and Lessons are listed for every day of the liturgical year in the Daily Office section of the 1979 BCP.
    • Usually, the choir will sing the Psalm in the Anglican Chant style, a method of Psalm singing that is almost as old as Evensong itself! While the choir sings the modern translations of the Psalter as found in the 1979 BCP, we use the traditional language (Rite I) conclusion to the Psalter, the Gloria Patri:
      • Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, *and to the Holy Ghost: 
        As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, *
        world without end. Amen.


  • The Lessons
    • The First Lesson may come from the Old or New Testament. Usually just two lessons are read at our Evensong services. If three readings are used, then lessons from both Old and New Testaments are used. 
    • The Choir will then sing the Magnificat. The Magnificat is the Song of Mary from Luke 1:46-55.
    • Much like the Preces & Responses, composers have been creating musical settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for many centuries. Because of this, the settings used in any given Evensong service may be from the same set. The Choir may sing traditional or contemporary language settings of these canticles as a way of bridging the gap between contemporary theology and historic traditions. 
    • Historically, the People stood during the singing of the canticles to symbolize the participation of the People even if they aren't the ones singing. However, some settings of these are quite lengthy which may make standing difficult or distracting. Therefore, we invite the People to sit for this portion of the service. 
    • Next is the Second Lesson, always from one of the Gospels. Then the Nunc dimittis is sung by the Choir. This the Song of Simeon, which is taken from Luke 2:29-32.
    • At the conclusion of this portion of the service, the Apostles' Creed is monotoned (sung on a single pitch) by the entire congregation. 


  • The Prayers/Responses
    • Following the Lessons are the Prayers/Responses. These are often a musical response to the same musical setting used earlier in the service for the Preces, but that is not always the case. Though it is only the Choir and Officiant that sing this portion of the service, it is understood that all present pray these words together. This is the essence of the Choral Worship Tradition.
    • Some settings of this may use The Lord's Prayer. Sometimes this is sung by the choir, and other times it is intended to be sung by the congregation. 
    • This portion of the service is concluded with three Collects. The first is the Collect of the Day, then the Collect for Peace, and then the Collect for Protection. The collects are each followed by an Amen sung by the choir. These choral Amens range in style from direct monotones to elaborate music settings taken from the Preces and Responses. 


  • Following the Prayers, the Officiant or Clergy will often greet the People. 


  • Choral Anthem
    • Next, the Choir will sing an Anthem. Evensong Trivia: The service of Evensong is the first liturgy in which the term "anthem" was used. The text is either inspired by the Lessons used or composed specifically for the Evensong liturgy.


  • Closing Prayers
    • Following the Anthem, the Officiant leads the Closing Prayers. The Officiant may begin with a specific set of petitions relevant to our community, nation, or world. All gathered pray the General Thanksgiving, then the Prayer of St. Chrystosom is prayed by the Officiant. 
    • The service concludes with a Concluding Versicle and Response and the Grace. 


  • Concluding Hymn & Voluntary
    • All stand and sing a Hymn, then all are seated for the closing Voluntary.

Just as the musical settings used within the liturgy are offered to the Glory of God, so are the opening and closing voluntaries. It is therefore appropriate to observe a period of quiet meditation/prayer during these musical offerings. Those entering or exiting during the voluntaries are asked to do so quietly.  


Zeek Smith, Director of Music

April 2020.