ON 7 OCTOBER 1926, the male members of the choir assembled to sing choral evensong in Westminster Abbey as usual.
What was not usual, however, was the presence of microphones, cables, and BBC sound engineers. For the first time ever, the service would be broadcast live on the National Service. The audience at home, or “listeners-in” as they were then dubbed, switched on their wireless sets, fiddled with the cat’s whisker for tuning, put on their headphones, and shared in that act of Anglican worship.
The “wireless”, as it was always called, was, in fact, a mass of wires, but crucially — and unlike the familiar telephone — there was no connection to an outside source. Wireless was widely regarded as miraculous: “Mr Marconi’s wonderful invention”, as one early broadcaster described it. Those first listeners could not have envisaged that, 90 years later, the same service would still have a regular place in the BBC schedules.
The choice of the Abbey was not accidental. Given the available technology, Westminster was conveniently near to the BBC studios at Savoy Hill, on the Strand, about a mile away. Choral Evensong became the first outside broadcast to have a regular place in the schedules of the BBC, itself then just four years old.
Westminster Abbey continued to be the home of the Choral Evensong broadcasts for another eight years, before York Minster was added as a venue, reflecting the rapid advance in outside-broadcast techniques and equipment.
St Paul’s Cathedral replaced the Abbey while the Abbey’s organ was being rebuilt, which took more than a decade. During the war, the venue of Choral Evensong — always “live”, of course — was not disclosed; it was described as coming from “a cathedral or church in Britain”.
THE home of the Choral Evensong broadcast for the first 44 years of its existence was the National Service, which became the Home Service, and then Radio 4. On the latter, it tended to sit rather awkwardly among the chat shows, soap operas, serious drama, and news, sometimes seeming to be not entirely welcome there. Indeed, for a short period it disappeared from the airwaves, until a storm of protest from its influential supporters — including the atheist Marghanita Laski — forced a quick rethink.
Help was at hand, however. The project “Broadcasting for the Seventies” had given birth, from the womb of the old Third Programme, to Radio 3, and it became obvious that this was the most appropriate home for Choral Evensong — although even that decision was not universally welcomed.
Radio 3 was the designated home of high-quality, serious music (no problem there), and speech content dealing with matters of culture, the arts, and science. It had never been envisaged that this would include an act of Christian worship, no matter how impressive its musical content. This was, in truth, an argument about channel identity rather than religious content: anyone listening to Choral Evensong, whether a lover of choral music or devout Christian, could see that it met Radio 3’s criteria precisely.
IN THE ensuing 46 years, Choral Evensong has held its place in the schedules of the world’s most demanding channel of broadcast music. It has done this, as its series producer, Stephen Shipley, points out, chiefly by offering music of the highest possible quality: “Nothing untidy, under-rehearsed, or over-ambitious”.
Such musical content, however, requires spoken content that matches it, and that has sometimes been a problem — not the actual words of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, but the way in which they are presented. I know, from personal experience, what it is like to arrive at a cathedral to find that the choir has been working on the music for weeks, until every chord and note has been honed to perfection, while a residentiary canon is scrabbling through the Prayer Book to check on the readings and prayers 15 minutes before the broadcast.
Happily, things have greatly improved in this respect. As Mr Shipley (himself a former cathedral precentor) puts it: “It is important for there to be a creative and equal partnership between those who plan worship.” Tensions between vicars and organists are part of the comic history of the Church of England, but when the planning is good, and the ultimate vision shared, the result — whether in a church or in a broadcast heard by millions — can satisfy both the musical heart and the hungry soul.
That, at least, is the testimony
of many of the quarter-of-a-million people who regularly listen to Choral Evensong. In November 2001, the London Evening Standard posted a headline on its media page, “Thank God for the BBC’s longest running show!” It was referring to Choral Evensong, then a mere 75 years old (and not actually the “longest-running” either — that’s The Week’s Good Cause — but the longest-running outside broadcast). “Nearly as old as God himself”, the paper observed, “and, like God, it’s never taken a holiday or been off the air.”
Nowadays, Choral Evensong comes from one of about 80 different cathedrals and collegiate choirs. It is broadcast live on Wednesday afternoons, and then repeated on Sunday afternoons: a happy conclusion to a long-running search for the right times and days.
A brief experiment with a repeat at midnight on Sunday pleased a handful of insomniac fans of choral music, but drew a spectacularly small audience.
Week by week, Choral Evensong attracts an audience of more than 250,000, which is roughly a quarter of the number of people who regularly attend Sunday worship in the Church of England. The listeners are not, of course, all signed-up Christians, but they find something in the words and music which brings them back, time and again.
IN THE 90-year history of Choral Evensong there have been a number of particularly memorable moments. One, in 2002, was a jazz service of choral vespers from Clifton Cathedral, with the Big Buzzard Boogie Band and music by Duke Ellington. The complaints log makes colourful reading: by no means all were against it, although one outraged complainant prayed that the producer would be haunted by the ghost of Lord Reith.
More unanimously approved was a service from St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, with a stirring Advent homily from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The programme has been broadcast four times from St Thomas’s, Fifth Avenue, in New York, and twice from Russia for Orthodox vespers. The most memorable overseas broadcast, however, was Choral Evensong from Trinity Church, Wall Street — the nearest church to Ground Zero — on 11 September 2002, exactly a year after 9/11.
Choral Evensong, though, is not principally about big events; rather, it is a regular source of profound joy, reflection, and spirituality. A writer in The Times caught it exactly: “The music is beautiful, but the special quality of Evensong lies in other places, too, in the paradoxical contrast between the sinewy intricacy of the 16th-century language and the simplicity of the thoughts it expresses: prayers for courage, for grace, for protection from the dark, for a good death. . . [There is] an intangible quality to Choral Evensong. You could call it calm or spirituality. You could call it holiness. But it’s very precious.”