CHORAL evensong has been in my blood since I first experienced it as a boy chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral, where I spent five of the happiest years of my life. The daily routine of practice and then going into the cathedral to sing psalms, canticles, and anthems in one of England’s greatest buildings will never leave me.
Years later, as director of music at Salisbury Cathedral, I realised again that choral evensong was the heartbeat of the cathedral. The daily reciting of the Office — always aspiring to the highest musical standards — was a comforting and reassuring framework for living. It was wonderful to think that we were continuing a tradition that was centuries old, as, every day, people came to that holy place to recite the beautiful language of the Prayer Book in a perfect form of devotion.
The priest and poet George Herbert, who lived near Salisbury, famously walked to the cathedral most days to attend choral evensong — something that he described as his “heaven on earth”. That sentiment certainly resonated with me during my time there: choral evensong is just that. The daily singing of the psalms, with their glorious language — particularly when sung to Anglican chant — is something that I always treasure. The beauty of the settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, which have inspired composers over the centuries, never ceases to move me — and I can’t begin to tell you which is my favourite anthem out of thousands. (Well, maybe I can. . .) Together with readings from the Bible and daily devotions, they create what, to me, is the perfect form of service.
THESE days, after nearly 40 years of working as director of music in parishes and cathedrals, I spend my weekends very happily in semi-retirement, playing the organ in Swanage on Dorset’s beautiful Jurassic coast. St Mary’s Parish Church in Swanage is a lovely building in which to make music. We have a fine organ and a healthy number of singers in the choir.
I realised early on in my tenure there that I needed to run a “squad system” of singers, as some people are available in the morning and others only in the evening — and often people are away with family. This works pretty well, and we manage a choral eucharist and a choral evensong each week. But, like most parish choirs, we are always looking for new singers; so fresh initiatives are always welcome.
Chris PhillipsChris Phillips
Purbeck is alive with choirs — almost too much so — and I soon realised that there were a lot of singers who, for a myriad of differing reasons, could not make a regular commitment to a church choir, but who loved singing choral evensong. This led me to think that perhaps we should exploit this by establishing a regular “Come and Sing” evensong. Even parish churches that have choirs don’t usually sing evensong; so why not give singers the chance to do something that they love but don’t get generally get the opportunity to do?
So, over the past nine months, that is exactly what we have done. On the first Sunday of the month, we invite anybody of any musical ability to come along and join our choir and experience our own “Heaven on Earth” — and it has been both great fun and a great success, attracting a good number of singers from across the area.
HOW does it work, and what are the key elements? In my view, happy singers make better singers; so tea and cake are the most fundamental parts of the proceedings, and the tea lady is crucial. We meet at 4 p.m. Music is provided; so singers simply pick up a set and are ready to go.
I make sure that the music is demanding enough to be challenging and interesting, but of a standard that most singers can attain to without draining them of confidence; and thus the end result is both pleasing and enjoyable. Encouragement and good humour are essential throughout the rehearsal, and it is amazing what can be achieved in a short time.
I have tried to vary the repertoire each month, to give singers an introduction to different styles of music. I also try to ensure that we have a couple of good, well-known hymns; and, if the canticles settings are a little tricky, that the anthem is easier. We rehearse until 5.45 p.m., when the tea lady comes to the fore and it’s time for a social half-hour before we prepare for the service.
NOW that we are quite well established, I have decided to try to broaden the appeal further by bringing in some guest conductors. We have been very fortunate to secure the services of Dr Barry Rose, Dr Peter Nardone, and the new director of the RSCM, Hugh Morris (Interview, 16 November), each of whom will lead a service for us in the coming months, starting with Dr Rose on Sunday 5 May.
It has been a very worthwhile venture for us in Swanage, bringing many new faces into the church. Why not try it for yourselves?
Simon Lole is Director of Music at St Mary’s, Swanage.
To think about
- Decide on the frequency of your event and advertise accordingly.
- Choose repertoire carefully — the music needs to be challenging and interesting, but within the capabilities of most singers.
- Make sure that you have enough copies of each piece that you are singing, and that everything is ready when singers arrive. Please check copyright position if using photocopies.
- It is very helpful to have a good accompanist on the organ, if possible.
- Plan your rehearsal carefully, and keep up the energy and momentum throughout. Good humour and encouragement are essential.
- Make sure that refreshments are provided between rehearsal and service.