Listening: BBC Choral Evensong/Vespers

by James M. Potter

Listening to online broadcasts of sung services might seem like something of a busman’s holiday for someone who regularly sings eight of them a week. However there’s a peculiar pleasure to sitting down with a cup of tea on a Monday morning (don’t be alarmed – it’s the church musician’s day off) and catching up with the BBC’s weekly broadcast, laconically reclining at one’s desk and asymptotically idling towards Inbox Zero.

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BBC Choral Evensong has a large regular listenership, not to mention a devoted if slightly crazed following on the unofficial Radio 3 message board – warning: don’t browse for too long, or you might be tempted to end it all with an organ pipe to the skull (“Which one? 4ft?” “Reiger, Klais?” “I’ve always preferred the French sound…” *thunk*). Broadcast weekly from one of Britain’s colleges or cathedrals, it’s a chance for church musicians to share approaches and repertoire, and to make a case for their particular style of music-led worship. It can be rather odd for the musicians – intended as a snapshot of liturgical life it naturally ends up a bit of a showcase, a feast day in its own right with extra hymns or anthems to make up the time (not to mention the slightly unusual spectacle of everyone sitting in complete silence during the organ voluntary – a more authentic representation would surely include congregational shuffling, which perhaps the Radiophonic Workshop could add in post-production).

The most recent broadcast (available for another 6 days) is, a little unusually, from a Catholic church, the Brompton Oratory in London (and is accordingly retitled Choral Vespers). It makes a refreshing change to the familiar pattern of Anglican chant and responses, especially for those of us not brought up in that tradition. It requires a different set of skills for the musicians – reading chant notation, for one, and a much greater emphasis on improvisation for the organist. It’s also a different experience for the listener or congregant. The psalmody is always the thing that strikes me first – chant psalms seem less dramatically involved than their Anglican counterparts. It’s analogous for me to the difference between directional tonal harmony and minimalism built out of repeating structures. Chant psalmody almost flows through the mind, leaving behind the hieratic imprint of half-familiar Latin, seeming to point to something mysterious yet important. The Latin puts it at a further remove from immediate comprehension, at least for the majority of listeners. It seems to evolve slowly over time, encouraging a meditative spirit in the listener which is similar to and yet rather different from the act of experiencing Anglican evensong (itself partially built from the more ancient Vespers service). It’s like listening to Reich or another of the great minimalists in that it has to be approached in a different spirit, not expecting movement in the traditional sense, but rather a sort of stasis – like being suspended in a gently swirling cloud. Familiar patterns come and go, the rise and fall of chant intonations, the occasional surge of a psalm-bracketing antiphon, the emergence into polyphony.

The recent broadcast from the Oratory has this quality. It’s unhurried but not stagnant, and just when you might begin to tire of chant (!), it’s spiced up with an alternating falso bordone or a through-composed verse in the hymn. We’re fortunate that Auntie still broadcasts things like this, and it’s rather pleasing that next week’s offering will be completely different in location, style, and music, but I’m sure just as satisfying to listen to on a Monday morning with a cup of tea.

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