Vespers or Evensong – Traditional is Best

Driving around the countryside on a rare sunny day I noticed church bill board proclaiming GOOD FRIDAY – JAZZ VESPERS 7 PM. Came as a bit of a shock because my memories of Vespers as a boy soprano 80-years ago were built on the solemn but joyful recitation and singing of psalms and hymns without the faintest hint of “propulsive syncopated rhythms” of jazz.
My scholarly quote is from the Merriam-Webster dictionary which provides a simple definition:”A type of American music with lively rhythms and melodies that are often made up by musicians as they play.” For people like me with limited knowledge, and even less appreciation, of the modern “beat” it adds a “Full definition of “Jazz: (A) American music developed especially from ragtime and blues and characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre. (B) Popular dance music influenced by jazz and played in a loud rhythmic manner.”
I could only think as I drove along that Vespers in that country church was going to sound a lot different on Good Friday evening to a similar service called Evensong sung 80-years earlier in a small town in England’s industrial Midlands.
There will I am sure be strong arguments that if any church is to survive today it must cater to changing values if it wishes to attract and hold younger generations. But it seems to me that if the appeal to the young among us means the abandonment of the richest of traditions of worship the church loses far more than it gains.
Tom Service, writing in The Guardian seven years ago said he didn’t like the austerity of Evensong (Vespers) until the cold rainy day he walked into Lincoln Cathedral to listen to the girls’ choir singing Evensong “ (and) the way the sounds of their few voices carried in Lincoln’s transcendent architecture and massive acoustic was miraculous, every note shimmered with a halo resonance..The choir’s performance of a Stanford anthem and their sensitive singing of the Psalms, were minor musical miracles in the cathedral’s gigantic space.”
Somewhat sadly he added “Only a handful of Lincolners were in the audience – a few of the girls’ parents mostly – but there was a moving sense of the service being part of the centuries-old musical traditions of the Cathedral….If I lived in Lincoln…I reckon Evensong could become a regular musical ritual It’s one of (our) richest heritages – a living tradition that costs precisely nothing to experience live.”
I can’t imagine Tom Service being so moved by my old church choir at St. Mary’s but we must have done fairly well. In the 1930’s there were never many empty pews for Evensong, probably because we sang with greater feeling than we did on other occasions. Can’t think why – unless maybe because Vespers had been the service for sunset. I remember the shadows deepening, the hush in the congregation as the traditional evening Psalm 141 was read. I can still recite fragments “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips, do not incline my heart to any evil thing, to practice wicked works with men who work iniquity….”
And I can still remember walking home down gas-lamp lit streets with fellow chorister my older brother Tom, all of 14, explaining to his 10-year-old sibling “it means you have to watch what you say and think before you speak, and steer clear of the bad guys at school.” Over the years I did fairly well steering clear of the bad guys – but keeping a guard on my mouth and watching over the door of my lips has been a much more difficult challenge.
And I am sure it remains a difficult challenge for those who cherish the calming of Evensong or Vespers as recited and sung since 400 AD, or those who need a little jazz (first heard in 1915) and appreciate the music but never hear or pay attention to the words.

3 comments

  1. If jazz and rock and other popular attractions were filling the churches you would be wrong about traditional themes. In the event, such efforts seem to have little effect and only drive away former patrons; so your sentiment is correct on several levels.

  2. Mr Hume:

    While I am unfamiliar with the particular church where you noticed the sign “Jazz Vespers” I believe that you will find that the Jazz referred to is music from the “Great American Songbook” preformed by a small group of musicians, say a trio or perhaps a quartet.

    You will also find that the audience is mostly made up of older folks who grew up with this wonderful music. While what is played is certainly is not religious music, churches in my experience provide their buildings as a community service. This gives musicians and their audiences a place to both play and hear this music in what is generally speaking a building that is acousiticly good and is not excessively expensive for the patrons.

    Please take in one of these performances in sometime and you maybe pleasantly surprised.

  3. With regard to Mr. Nelson’s comment “while what is played is not religious music, churches provide their buildings as a community service”… many wonderful concerts are preformed at churches such as Oak Bay United Church, St. Aidan’s United Church, St. John the Divine, Christ Church Cathedral and others. Beautiful music in a serene setting.

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