More Evensong please! Musical opportunities abound.
Having played just shy of 600 Evensong services in the past 6 years, I couldn't agree more that, whether religious or on-religious, more people should be enjoying and experiencing the office of Evensong! In a ferociously busy, neo-Darwinian modern society, we need more than ever a means of escape from the technology and media dominated world around us. Why aren't more people out there joining in with this beautiful and ancient office of the Christian Church? Personally, I revel in peaceful ambience of the light beaming through the windows of a church, the sound of an organ accompanying chant, and the dulcet tones of the choir singing a setting of Stanford's canticles. This article says it beautifully!
As a choral conductor and organist I've found that one of the most satisfying elements of Evensong is the level of musicianship that it demands from the musicians. There are so many subtle and effective ways to enhance the musical quality of a service. Keeping the musical items in related keys is one way to engineer a more satisfying musical structure. It is somewhat jarring to hear the office hymn, for example, in D major and then the Magnificat in an unrelated flat key.
Then there are the hymns themselves, which provide opportunity to create further musical interest. They really provide exercises in variation - I often challenge myself to find something different to do in each verse (although one should be wary of over-indulgence). This can range from simple tricks such as inverting the sop and alto parts to create a descant - which also works effectively in verses sung in harmony by the choir. How about unison verses? There are lots of simple tricks for spicing them up. Dominant pedals create a build-up of energy and excitement, and all diatonic notes can be harmonised using chords I, IV and V, so these devices combined will take care of a system or two. In a separate and later blog I plan to explore this subject in more depth and give examples from my own experience, so I don't want to spoil all of the surprises here. However, anyone interested in the subject will find a great introduction in Gerry Hancock's 'Improvisng: How to master the art' [OUP].
And obviously there's plenty of opportunity for the choir to create variety. Many hymns provide beautiful tenor parts that sound equally pleasing when exposed. Why not give the tenors a verse where they sing words on their part whilst the other parts sing to 'ah.? Or maybe a sop/alto-only verse for a gentler effect. It goes without saying, of course, that any organ or choir related variations should always serve and reflect the meaning of the text. These devices are intended to highlight the meaning and spiritual depth of the poetry.
I have wandered slightly from topic. It's supposed to be a about Evensong! But whether it's chanting or hymn singing, the opportunity for enhancing the service is ever-present. And my fondest memories of Evensong will always be a combination of finding these musical challenges - or perhaps a better word is opportunities - and using them to lift people's hearts and minds alongside what is already one of the most prayerful and peaceful services in Christendom.