And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise
October 17, 2017
A significant aspect of my time here in Cambridge has been singing with the choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge. Selwyn is one of the 31 constituent colleges that make up the University of Cambridge. Founded in 1882, it is not one of the “old” colleges—those 16 founded before the year 1600—but it nevertheless maintains a rather traditional sense of identity and custom. That means that students are encouraged to wear academic gowns around campus (and are required to do so at certain functions), that “Formal Hall” meals are still held where a grace in Latin is read from the High Table, and so on. It also means a rather active life for the college chapel in the Anglican / Church of England tradition.
The choir is highly-involved in this life, primarily by singing the service known as “Choral Evensong” multiple times a week: Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. This is definitely at higher end of activity, as only two colleges (Kings and St John’s) do Choral Evensong daily, one (Jesus College) does it four times a week, and Selwyn is joined only by three others (Trinity, Clare, and Queens) at a schedule of three times a week. Notably, Selwyn is the only one among the colleges I’ve listed that is one of Cambridge’s “new” colleges (those founded since 1800); it is also the only one among the group with a woman as Director of Music.
In addition to the Choral Evensong services, the choir typically does a Choral Compline service a couple of times each term; one of these happened last week.
What is choral evensong?
Choral Evensong is a particular type of musical embodiment of the liturgy for “The Order for Evening Prayer : Daily Throughout the Year” found in the Church of England’s historic Book of Common Prayer. The “Order for Evening Prayer” found there is itself one of the numerous variations on the common pattern of worship for a daily evening service found in many denominational and liturgical traditions, variously called “Vespers” or “Evening Prayer.” These services all draw on the patterns of the ancient Liturgy of the Hours inherited from the monastic traditions. In fact, if you look in the front section of The New Century Hymnal (the black hymnal in our pews), you will find an order for evening prayer that shares this common structure. When I was at the ecumenical Benedictine women’s community in Madison, Wisconsin, in September, the daily Evening Prayer service there also followed a variation on this same basic structure.
In the case of the version contained in the Church of England’s historic Book of Common Prayer, the structure of the service goes like this:
- Opening responses (like a ‘call to worship’) and Gloria Patri
- One or more Psalm selections
- First scripture reading, followed by the Magnificat (the ‘Song of Mary’ from Luke 1:46-55)
- Second scripture reading, followed by the Nunc Dimittis (the ‘Song of Simeon’ found in Luke 2:29-32
- The Apostles’ Creed
- A series of responsive prayers, which includes the Lord’s Prayer within
- Concluding prayers and blessing
What turns the Evening Prayer service into a “Choral Evensong” is that significant portions of the service are sung rather than spoken, and sung to musical settings for choir. Namely, these pieces get sung:
- Opening responses and Gloria Patri
- The psalm(s)
- The Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis — typically coming in a pair by the same composer
- The responsive prayers — typically part of the same musical setting as the opening responses
In addition, there’s often a hymn inserted, and then near the end of the service in The Book of Common Prayer, there is a rubric (an instruction) that states “In Quires and Places where they sing here followeth the Anthem.” And so a choral anthem is included in the service, and it is this rubric that largely can be credited with the significant outpouring of choral anthems composed in the English choral tradition over the last 400+ years.
An interesting result of the significant amount of the service being sung by the choir is that for service attendees not part of the choir, the explicit spoken participation in the liturgy becomes fairly small (even though it would be pretty significant in the spoken version of the Evening Prayer service). In Choral Evensong, the non-choir congregation’s out-loud participation ends up being limited to the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, singing the congregational hymn that is inserted, and potentially some “Amens” at the end of certain prayers near the end (although even many of these get sung by the choir). The congregation may or may not also join in singing the psalm, depending on the musical setting used.
My own experience
Ok, all of that background aside… it’s really been quite an amazing experience being a part of this choir and this schedule of worship services for the last two-and-a-half weeks! I’ve never had to learn so much new music so quickly—with services happening so often, you’re on to the next thing just after you’ve barely mastered the last piece. And while it’s been plenty challenging, it’s been challenging in a good way, and plenty of fun besides!
There’s also just a significantly high standard of excellence and competence that’s expected and needed. With the rapid schedule of services, it’s up to us singers ourselves to learn the notes of the music outside of rehearsal time, on our own. There simply isn’t enough time to spend choir rehearsals on banging out the notes. On a given day, we’ll have a one-hour rehearsal slot during which we need to go over the hymn(s), practice the psalm chant (often using what’s called Anglican chant), rehearse the anthem, rehearse the anthem-like setting of the Magnificat, rehearse the anthem-like setting of the Nunc Dimittis, and—hopefully, if there’s enough time—go over the choral settings of the responsive prayers. Then, there’s a 15-minute break for us to get into our robes and line up, and then we do the actual service with all those pieces. Two days later, it all repeats with an entirely different set of music for everything.
Needless to say, sight-reading ability is quite necessary for all this, in a way that it is not for a concert choir or even a church choir that’s only singing on Sunday. I think (hope) across these weeks that my sight-reading skills have been improving.
What’s some of the music like?
So that you can get a taste of some of the music we’ve been doing, I’m going to share some links so you can have a listen. Note that these links are to recordings from other choirs that I could find easily available on YouTube… unfortunately not the Selwyn choir.
“God Be In My Head” by contemporary composer Ben Ponniah (note that this video is only a partial recording of the piece):
“Magnificat” from Evening Service in D by A. Herbert Brewer (1865 – 1928):
“Nunc Dimittis” from Evening Service in D by A. Herbert Brewer (1865 – 1928):
“Sing Joyfully” by William Byrd (c. 1540 – 1623):
“Magnificat” from Evening Service in G by Herbert Sumsion (1899 – 1995):
“Sanctus” from Missa brevis by contemporary composer James MacMillan:
“Magnificat” from Evening Service: Collegium Magdalenae Oxoniense by Kenneth Leighton (1929 – 1988):
“Laudate Dominum” Op. 133, Nr. 3, by Josef Gabriel Rheinberger (1839 – 1901):
“Blessed City, Heavenly Salem” by Edward Bairstow (1874 – 1946):
Ok, but what’s the Selwyn choir sound like?
There are a few videos of Selwyn College Choir singing Christmas selections, part of the college’s annual “Happy Christmas” greetings. Here are some of them…
“Huron Carol” arr. Sarah E. A. MacDonald:
“Santa Claus is Coming to Town”:
“Once in Royal David’s City”:
And… as a special teaser… there could just happen to be some of the forthcoming couple of years’ Christmas videos that include someone you know among the choir members 😉
 I’ve only begun to quite get my mind around how the University of Cambridge structure works, which is very different from how most American university are structured. According to the Fount-Of-All-Knowledge (i.e. Wikipedia), “Cambridge is a collegiate university, meaning that it is made up of self-governing and independent colleges, each with its own property and income. Most colleges bring together academics and students from a broad range of disciplines, and within each faculty, school or department within the university, academics from many different colleges will be found. The faculties are responsible for ensuring that lectures are given, arranging seminars, performing research and determining the syllabi for teaching. … The colleges are self-governing institutions with their own endowments and property, founded as integral parts of the university. All students and most academics are attached to a college. Their importance lies in the housing, welfare, social functions, and undergraduate teaching they provide. All faculties, departments, research centres, and laboratories belong to the university, which arranges lectures and awards degrees, but undergraduates receive their supervisions—small-group teaching sessions, often with just one student—within the colleges. Each college appoints its own teaching staff and fellows, who are also members of a university department. The colleges also decide which undergraduates to admit to the university, in accordance with university regulations.”