In praise of Evensong

It’s fair to say there’s a hell of a lot on offer to music lovers in Oxford. The city’s clubs (which, granted, range from the sublime to the ridiculous) are packed to the rafters on a daily basis; gig culture is thriving, with an eclectic range of acts playing in larger venues like the O2 Academy, as well as alternative gems such as The Jericho. Classical concerts ranging from the most traditional to the most contemporary hold claim to an avid following, as does the jazz scene and countless other musical institutions within our vibrant city.

But there’s a musical tradition in Oxford more powerful than all those aforementioned; it’s one that’s older, cheaper and world renowned, but rarely spoken about outside the smallest of Oxford social circles. I’m talking about Evensong. For those of you who know little about this institution, I’ll back up slightly and begin with the basics. It’s a service held in our colleges’ chapels which is strung together by choral music (if you ever wondered what our organ and choral scholars do, this is largely it). Although it’s essentially a religious service, atheists needn’t be deterred; it seems the bulk of observers (and partakers) are in it for the music, which constitutes the majority of the hour-or-so running time.

This musical wonder came about long, long before the days of Eclectric, Park End or even Radiohead for that matter. I’m talking old – sixteenth century old. Basically, Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury) along with his good chum who was called something like King Henry VIII, condensed the liturgical day (which at the time was all a bit intense, and left very little time for fun and frolicks) into two, daily services – one in the morning and one in the evening (you guessed it – Evensong). Evidently, Cranmer’s efforts to shake things up a bit weren’t really appreciated at the time, and despite leaving us with one of England’s oldest musical traditions, he was burnt at the stake on Broad Street of all places. Harsh.

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Whether you’re someone trained in the art of harmony and counterpoint or someone whose last musical interest was S Club Juniors, it’s hard not to be mesmerised by the aural experience that comes at precisely zero cost. Without wishing to be pretentious and hyperbolic, there’s something strangely hypnotic about listening to these choirs in the surroundings that were used for the same thing many centuries ago.

The ornate design of buildings like Christ Church Cathedral combined with light emitted solely from candles, and the expansive, ethereal acoustics add to the general sense of meditative and overwhelming beauty that the daily offering provides. So I’ve strayed into pretentious hyperbole, but you get my point.

It seems there’s a vogue for choral music at the moment, largely brought about by a (admittedly entertaining) BBC series in which a guy tried to solve the world’s problems by kick-starting a few choirs in disadvantaged areas, and another which was a truly cringeworthy X Factor style choir stand-off. Although serving some sort of purpose, these shows belie the fact that truly brilliant choirs exist ­- the sheer quality of some of those in Oxford, whose practise schedules rival the rowers’, can’t be understated. Take New College or Christ Church choir for example; as well as having an impressive CD back catalogue, people travel from far and wide just to come and see them. They pack out venues on European tours most vacations, and if all this isn’t enough, and if my research is correct, it was none other than New College Choir whose music was played on Emmerdale when Mark Wylde was shot. ‘Nuff said.

Of course, I’m not suggesting you give up your other musical vices in favour of a daily trip to your college’s chapel. However, it’s certainly worth trying at least once. There’s something about seeing this ritual up close and in person which is different to that offered by any other musical activity in Oxford. Evensong may not be your new Radiohead or Foals, but it might be an experience you remember. As far as I’m aware, you won’t get burned on the stake for going.