Have you heard the organ at King's College, Cambridge since its recent restoration? Well, now you can.
Listen to their webcast of Evensong from Saturday, September 24, 2016.
I have been taking my toddler to Evensong.
He's a good sport about it. Mostly.
The very first Evensong we attended together must have been at St. James's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. It was a full house that day, and I had to carry him through the gallery in his infant carseat. It was crowded. People made room. I was the weird dad who was bringing his baby to Evensong. He could only have been three months old, tops.
He had heard me sing before. Heck, I did it the day he was born. But that was the first time he heard me sing in a room full of other people singing.
His whole face lit up.
I could read the joyful relief on his face. It was like, "hey, dad's not crazy! He's just doing this thing that other people do!"
“There's probably not any childcare because, I mean, come on, who brings a baby to Evensong?”
It was a pretty great first outing.
Other services were not so glamorous, or well-attended. And often on these occasions he was more unruly. He was noticeably unimpressed with my singing and would sometimes sabotage my efforts to manage a hymnal.
But that's okay with me, though. It's easy just to sit in the back, close to the door. Sometimes we need to wander out into the narthex or portico during the Nunc dimittis. It's alright. The ushers understand, and sometimes they'll even grab the door for us. (After a short break we have always been able to sneak back in.)
I mean it's not like Sunday morning where someone is going to very helpfully let you know about the nursery (sometimes with transparent motives). It's Evensong. There's probably not any childcare because, I mean, come on, who brings a baby to Evensong?
As it turns out, we've actually been doing this fairly regularly for a couple years at this point.
So I was pretty excited when I asked him if he wanted to go to Evensong this past weekend, and he said the word back to me in response:
"Evensong!" He likes the word. He was proud to say it. He knows what it's about.
I don't know about you, but it's pretty easy to get to Evensong where we live. Here in St. Louis if it's the first or third Sunday of the month we can head over to the Church of St. Michael & St. George. If it's the fourth Sunday of the month we can go the Cathedral downtown. And this has the added excitement of seeing the Gateway Arch through the front windshield now that his carseat faces forward. ("Arch!" I hear from the back, the first time it slides into view.) Other parishes in town have Evensong services on occasion, and we try to take those in too. And, heck, he can even come to my place (but his mom has to sit with him) if it happens to be the second Sunday of the month.
Christ Church Cathedral,
St. Louis, Mo.
And I thought this was all just in good fun until this last time. But something changed for us. It became real.
I should have known something was different when he said "Evensong." He has more and more to say these days, and it was exciting to hear him say this word.
But there we were in the service, and we got to the prayers. And that's when it happened.
This little person next to me started singing the Lord's Prayer. All the words, and with his very best preschool elocution. And a big Amen. And I think even an extra Amen. (Or two!)
Now, mind you, we say the Lord's Prayer at home. Or, more accurately, I say it while he listens. But it's part of the bedtime routine, just like brushing teeth, and you can't really be sure how much of that is sinking in. But we say it at home; we don't sing it. And it never really occurred to me that this little person on the kneeler to my right would remember all these words so clearly in a gothic cathedral downtown, recognize what was going on, and spontaneously join in on a monotone with the rest of the congregation.
“God's very being draws praise from our lips”
There's a phrase I use a lot, and I am quite sure that I stole it from someone, but I can't remember who. And Google is no help here at all. So maybe I made it up, but I don't think so.
And that phrase is this: "God's very being draws praise from our lips".
I really believe that.
After all, what is it that causes people everywhere, from the countryside to the big city, to get up early in the morning, gather again in the afternoon, and even late in the evening in some places to sing praise to God?
If the morning church service still bears the cultural residue of institutionalized/secular religion – a service of "duty" if you will – Evensong has long enjoyed freedom from this – a service of "delight".
At Evensong there is no Baptism or Communion. In most places there's no sermon either. The liturgy and the music are the order of the day. They stand alone, without "ulterior motive". They are their own sacrament, in a way.
This is an incredible place – physical, temporal, spiritual – in which to be. Evensong is a real gift to our harried age.
And so I hope that if you see us or your friendly neighborhood toddler mishandling a prayer book at Evensong you will remember that "Christ doth call / one and all", even the tiny and small.
And if you love Evensong maybe you'll be inspired to invite a young (or any-age) person to go with you (there are often snacks afterward). Or maybe you'll simply consider going yourself if you haven't already made a habit of it.
Obviously I don't know if my son will still find Evensong interesting next week, let alone next year. I sort of hope he does as he grows older, but mostly I hope that he finds something like this that he genuinely loves and that feeds his spirit.
Here is what I do know.
I know that I have really valued these times I have spent in worship with him in the late afternoon. For us, the primary reason is one of logistics: since I am a professional church musician, we don't have the opportunity to share the same pew on Sunday mornings very often.
And I know that, yes, God's very being draws praise from our lips, but it certainly helps if someone will teach us some words.
Maybe some music, too.
The descant is a high line for the trebles of the choir that soars above the melody of a hymn – a melody that everyone has already sung three, four, five, or even seven times in a row already.
In writing a descant, sometimes you need to leave a word or two out for the music to flow. The work of the descant is done by the notes, and the words can be an unnecessary encumbrance. If you do use words, you might not necessarily use all of them. Or you might use just "alleluia", or even "ah".
So it is no surprise that the great composer Herbert Howells takes some liberties with texting his own descant to his glorious hymn tune MICHAEL.
Here is a spectacular recording of this hymn sung by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. It's an arrangement brass, percussion, and organ by Christopher Palmer, but the harmonization and descant are Howells's own. Hear the whole thing below, or just go straight to the final stanza to hear Howells's descant.
It's really lovely, I think. And not every church musician seems to be aware that this is out there!
A couple points: the descant seems especially strong because it begins as a modified canon at the fourth. It's a highly effective way to draw the ear, and it staggers the descant away from the beginning of the melody. It's almost a surprise when it comes in. As in, "Oh, a descant too!". This technique is probably not used often enough in our hymn singing.
Furthermore, Howells does something rather interesting with the words. The descant is initially texted with the first stanza of Robert Bridges poem:
All my hope on God is founded; he doth still my trust renew, me through change and chance he guideth, only good and only true. God unknown, he alone calls my heart to be his own.
While the choir and congregation have progressed to the final stanza:
Still from man to God eternal sacrifice of praise be done, high above all praises praising for the gift of Christ, his Son. Christ doth call one and all: ye who follow shall not fall.
But it should be said that the descanters sing only an abbreviated version of the first stanza. After the first two verses they skip to the fifth and then to the first part of the seventh for the peculiar turn of phrase: "God unknown calls my heart."
This really jumped out at me this last time I read it. I suppose it's not all that strange given that the only missing phrase here is "he alone". But it got me thinking about our unknown God.
What is it to say that God is "unknown"? We know him to a degree in the person of Jesus Christ. And so isn't it fascinating that these words about "God unknown" are paired with praise "for the gift of Christ his son"?
And the arrival of the descanters to the words of the final stanza pack a particular punch as they pivot on the word "call".
In the first stanza God "calls my heart to be his own". In the final, "Christ doth call" – and it should be noted that it is the same Christ for whom we praise the unknown God.
The cascading spirals of ascending praise are already rapturous at this point, and Howells's text setting makes them even more so.
But does it help us know God any better? Are we supposed to? Or is the person of God to be mysterious, and known, as his Christ, by his "call"?
We also often sing of "love unknown", as it is in the beginning of the anonymous 18th century hymn "Come, thou almighty king":
Come, thou almighty King, help us thy Name to sing, help us to praise. Father whose love unknown all things created own, build in our hearts thy throne, Ancient of Days.
And in the famous Samuel Crossman hymn that bears the phrase in the first line:
My song is love unknown, my Savior's love to me, love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.
"Pop" Music Tangent: See also: Coldplay: "A Message" - relation to "My Song is Love Unknown"
And again in Charlotte Elliott's beautiful hymn "Just as I am, without one plea"
Just as I am, thy love unknown has broken every barrier down; now to be thine, yea, thine alone, O Lamb of God, I come.
But one of the most fascinating "unknowns" in Christian hymnody is that of the unknown Traveler. Charles Wesley's hymn picks up on the anonymity of Jacob's wrestling partner in the hymn he called "Wrestling Jacob".
Come, O thou Traveler unknown, whom still I hold, but cannot see; my company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee. With thee all night I mean to stay, and wrestle till the break of day.
And so it is that Jacob does engage in a prolonged stalemate with the Traveler, despite injury, and then the sun rises on the scene. It is the Traveler who asks to be let go in the story from Genesis, "for day is breaking". (I suppose that the rising sun would "shine too much light" on this conflict!)
And then there is the great ordeal of naming and identity. Jacob demands a blessing. The Traveler asks his name. Jacob gives it. The Traveler says, "now you shall be called Israel".
Then, in the Genesis story, remarkably, Jacob asks the Traveler's name. He seems to have forgotten for a moment that he really just wanted a blessing. Or, maybe he thinks knowing God in this way would be a greater blessing?
The Traveler responds, "why is it that you ask my name"?
In the story, we never get a name for the Traveler, but in Charles Wesley's hymn, there is a profound poetic resolution to all this wrestling.
... Speak, or thou never hence shalt move, and tell me if thy name is Love. 'Tis Love, 'tis Love! Thou diedst for me! I hear thy whisper in my heart: the morning breaks, the shadows flee. Pure Universal Love thou art; thy mercies never shall remove, thy nature and thy name is Love.
God may be "unknown", but we know enough.
"God is love", or even better, "Pure Universal Love".
And what about us, called by God? How are we known?
If the spiritual has it right, and we do too, "they'll know we are Christians by our love".
Something about the Very Rev. Neal Michell's easy dismissal of traditional sacred music in "A call to common prayer" is troubling, especially when held in tension with his points about a common rite. Music, I think, cannot be fully separated from the rite.
Music, of course, should not be uniform, but neither should liturgy. Context is important.
I'm being naïve, surely. And yet I wonder if there isn't a double standard here.
My expereince leads me to believe there are probably just as many (if not more?) violations against "common music" than there are against "common prayer".
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