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Evensong is a church service traditionally held near sunset focused on singing psalms and other biblical canticles. In origin, it is identical to the canonical hour of vespers. Old English speakers translated the Latin word vesperas as æfensang, which became 'evensong' in modern English. Typically used in reference to the Anglican daily office's evening liturgy, it can also refer to the pre-Reformation form of vespers or services of evening prayer from other denominations, particularly within the Anglican Use of the Catholic Church.
From Late Antiquity onwards, the office of vespers normally included psalms, the Magnificat, a hymn, and other prayers. By the Early Middle Ages, it became common for secular clergy to combine vespers and compline. By the sixteenth century, worshippers in western Europe conceived 'evensong' as vespers and compline performed without break. Modern Eastern Orthodox services advertised as 'vespers' often similarly conclude with compline, especially as part of the all-night vigil.
When the English reformation produced the Book of Common Prayer, it provided a version of evensong that abbreviated the secular version of vespers and compline, drawing on the Use of Sarum. Nearly all its elements are taken from medieval service books, with only minor changes to the order in which they appear:
|Secular vespers and compline||Book of Common Prayer evensong|
|Private preparatory prayer, Aperi Domine os meum||Invitation|
|Lord's Prayer, Ave Maria, Apostles' Creed||Lord's Prayer|
|O Lord open thou our lips|
|Deus in adiutorium||O God make speed to save us|
|Gloria Patri||Glory be to the Father|
|Alleluia||Praise ye the Lord|
|Psalmody (weekly cycle, 5 psalms with 1 or 5 antiphons)||Psalms (monthly cycle)|
|Chapter (seasonal, common, or proper) with response Deo gratias||Old Testament lesson (annual cycle)|
|[Respond (common or proper, on certain Sundays and feasts)]|
|Hymn (seasonal, common, or proper)|
|Versicle and response (seasonal, common, or proper)|
|Magnificat with antiphon (most often proper; Temporale text frequently from Gospel at Mass)||My soul doth magnify|
|[Kyrie, Pater noster, Preces on specified ferias and vigils; sequence often as at Lauds]|
|Collect of the day or week|
|[Additional memorials and suffrages, possibly including Deus a quo sancta desideria (Give peace in our time), for peace]|
|Converte nos Deus salutaris noster|
|Deus in adiutorium|
|Psalms 4, 30.1–6, 90, 133, with one antiphon (ferial or seasonal)|
|Chapter: Tu autem in nobis es Domine (with response Deo gratias)||New Testament Lesson (annual cycle)|
|Short Respond (ferial or seasonal text; recited only in Lent in some Uses)|
|Hymn (ferial or seasonal, most often Te lucis ante terminum)|
|Custodi nos Domine|
|Nunc dimittis with antiphon (ferial or seasonal, most often Salva nos)||Lord now lettest thou|
|Apostles’ Creed (I believe in God)|
|Kyrie||Lord have mercy upon us|
|Pater noster||Lord’s Prayer|
|Apostles’ Creed (Credo in Deum)|
|Preces||Preces (O Lord show thy mercy, etc.)|
|Collect of the day or week|
|Collect for peace (O God from whom all holy desires)|
|Collect of the hour (Illumina quaesumus Domine)||Collect for aid against perils (Lighten our darkness)|
|[Additional prayers added in 1662 prayer book]|
Evensong was initially sung entirely to plainsong. Musicians gradually created polyphonic settings of its music, especially of the Magnificat.
The first musical setting of the Book of Common Prayer, by John Marbeck, provided a simplified version of traditional chant settings. It remains unclear whether plainsong remained a common feature of evensong in the Church of England after the sixteenth century. Metrical psalms and Anglican Chant were also developed as alternate methods of singing the psalms and canticles.
In choral evensong, all of the service is sung or chanted by the officiating minister and a choir. In cathedrals, or on particularly important days in the church calendar, the canticles are performed in elaborate settings. In churches where a choir is not present, simpler versions of the psalms and canticles are usually sung by the congregation, sometimes with responses and collects spoken rather than sung. Said evening prayer services with the musical setting omitted are also sometimes referred to as evensong.
A number of composers have contributed settings of the canticles. These range from late Renaissance composers such as Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, through Victorian composers such as Charles Villiers Stanford, Thomas Attwood Walmisley to later masters of the form such as Herbert Murrill, Basil Harwood, Herbert Howells, Michael Tippett, Giles Swayne, and Arvo Pärt (who composed a Magnificat and Nunc dimittis at different times).
In High Church parishes, the service may conclude with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament (or a modified form of "Devotions to the Blessed Sacrament") and the carrying of the reserved sacrament under a humeral veil from the high altar to an altar of repose, to the accompaniment of music.
The service may also include hymns. The first of these may be called the Office Hymn, and will usually be particularly closely tied to the liturgical theme of the day, and may be an ancient plainchant setting. This will usually be sung just before the psalm(s) or immediately before the first canticle and may be sung by the choir alone. Otherwise any hymns normally come toward the end of the service, maybe one either side of the sermon (if there is one), or following the anthem. These hymns will generally be congregational.
Most cathedrals of the Church of England, where the service originates, and a number of university college chapels (e.g. in the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, the University of St Andrews, the University of Durham and King's College London) offer this service regularly, often daily. Most of the cathedrals of the Church in Wales and the Scottish Episcopal Church also offer choral evensong. Choral evensong is usually sung during term time; at other times, it is most often replaced with said Evening Prayer.
Aside from the cathedrals and collegiate chapels, evensong is also sung in many parish churches around England where there is a choral tradition. There may be a choral service each Sunday or less frequently, such as on a monthly basis or only on feast days in the liturgical calendar. Many churches in central London have a professional choir and have a weekly service of choral evensong, among them All Saints, Margaret Street, Holy Trinity Sloane Square, St Bartholomew the Great and St Bride's, Fleet Street.
Most of the larger churches and cathedrals of the Church of Ireland offer evensong. It is sung six times a week at St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, twice at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and once at Trinity College, Dublin. Additionally, although rarely, some parish churches hold evensong; however, this is most often replaced with Evening Prayer.
Most of the larger cathedrals and large parishes of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada offer choral evensong. During the school year, Washington National Cathedral offers Evensong not only on Sunday afternoon, but also from Monday to Thursday, with the Girl Choristers and the Boy Choristers alternating. Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City offers Evensong from Tuesday to Thursday during the school year, in addition to Sundays.
Evensong is also often offered at Episcopal seminaries as part of a chapel program. For example, General Theological Seminary currently offers Evensong.
Throughout the countries of Africa with a large Anglican presence, evensong is also offered, for instance in the Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos, Nigeria, St George's Cathedral, Cape Town, South Africa and every Sunday at the Cathedral Church of St Cyprian, Kimberley, South Africa
Most of the cathedrals of the Anglican Church of Australia offer choral evensong at least weekly, with St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne offering daily evensong. Likewise in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, evensong is offered at the cathedrals in Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, and Wellington.
The popularity of evensong has spread to other churches, particularly churches of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Methodist churches which use a formal liturgical worship style. Examples in the Presbyterian Church include Fourth Presbyterian Church (Chicago) and Independent Presbyterian Church (Birmingham, Alabama) both of which offer evensong services on a seasonal basis, as does Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
There are some Roman Catholic churches and abbeys in England offering choral evensong: These include Ampleforth Abbey, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, the Birmingham Oratory, Ealing Abbey, Leeds Cathedral, Downside Abbey, the London Oratory, and Westminster Cathedral.
Loyola University Maryland, a Jesuit Catholic university in Baltimore, Maryland, celebrates a half-hour evensong on Thursday evenings, although this has been temporarily suspended.
In Scotland, some larger churches (and former cathedrals belonging to the Church of Scotland) hold evensong, including Glasgow Cathedral, Paisley Abbey (2nd Sunday of each month), and Edinburgh Cathedral.
The Basilica of St. Nicholas in Amsterdam holds choral evensong on Saturdays.
Main article: Choral Evensong (BBC)
The BBC has, since 1926, broadcast a weekly service of Choral Evensong. It is broadcast (usually live) on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesdays at 15:30 and often repeated on the following Sunday. Between February 2007 and September 2008, the service was broadcast on Sunday only. The service comes live from an English cathedral or collegiate institution. However, it is occasionally a recording or is replaced by a different form of service or a service from a church elsewhere in the world or of another denomination. The most recent broadcast is available on the BBC iPlayer for up to a week after the original broadcast. There is also an archive available.
In response to the Covid-19 Pandemic, St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Pasadena has expanded its Chorus blog to include daily recordings of its virtual choir. The Chant Scores are all public domain, and the scriptures used under a less restrictive MIT License, so all materials can be legally distributed and used by any group or church as part of their online liturgy, without performance or publishing rights concerns.