Do make sure you check out my disclaimer!
Right now, it’s a sad thought that Choral Evensong is not taking place anywhere. It’s even sadder that it might be quite a while before choral singing is allowed and/or sensible. But the hope is that one day Choral Evensong will return; I’m wondering whether now is the time (for some places at least) to take a step back and decide that Choral Evensong should attempt to follow the order and (to some extent) language of Common Worship Daily Prayer instead of the Book of Common Prayer.
This is clearly a controversial idea, but here are some reasons why I think it might be the right choice.
- For spoken services, CW Daily Prayer is increasingly used—the live-streamed spoken services from several (but not all) Cathedrals demonstrate this. It makes sense to me to use the same order whether the service is sung or said. Using different orders depending on whether or not the music department is involved only increases the apparent (to me) division between clergy and musicians; using the same order in all cases might help unite them.
- CW Daily Prayer is a brilliant book with lots of well-crafted liturgy. I’ll probably write another blog post about it one day, but, some important points:
- There are several different orders—for Ordinary time there are different orders for each day of the week; there are 9 different orders for Seasonal time. This provides different texts to colour the seasons or days, but at the core is the same service, with various elements that are compulsory (e.g. the Magnificat). In the book, these are indicated with vertical lines in the left margin.
- There is a huge amount of optional material: prayers, responses, canticles. Some of this is crying out to be set to music and sung.
- There are clear guidelines which set out the “rules” but overall there’s a huge amount of flexibility such that it wouldn’t be too hard to fit music from a BCP Evensong into the CW service.
- (One argument against all this variety is that it is quite overwhelming to a newcomer: there are so many choices to make and, if you use the book, you really need to know your way around it.)
- By moving to CW, BCP settings would still be possible, but it opens the door to the option of setting music to new texts—either the new translations of the Mag and Nunc, or new responses.
- Common Worship will be 20 years old this Advent (although Daily Prayer came a little bit later), and thus is the longest-serving alternative to BCP; for the Eucharist, it has generally been accepted as the norm.
- To a newcomer, the language of BCP Evensong is archaic. Although we consider this part of its beauty, it wasn’t designed to be this way—it was translated so that it could be easily understood. [Update: Some on Twitter have pointed out that BCP was designed to sound antiquated from the start]
In order to be embraced by church leadership as a core part of the church’s worship (rather than a sort of museum piece upholding a tradition), I think choral foundations would benefit from embracing the modern church liturgy and be part of what the church wants to be nowadays.
Obviously, a large number of people will read this and wonder if I’ve gone mad, or wonder if I’m serious. I did a Twitter poll a few weeks ago, and 81% of the respondents wanted to stick to BCP. I respect that my opinion may be an unpopular one—but of that 81%, I wonder how many chose BCP because they’ve experienced CW and prefer BCP, and how many chose BCP because they simply don’t want to change.
I'm aware that this idea has flaws:
- With the number of seasonal variants, things could get quite confusing. This is easy if you’re using the Daily Prayer book, and even easier if you are using the app or website. But, for the musicians, using the book or app isn’t going to be as easy (after all, for BCP, most of us just do the order from memory).
- If we go down this route, it’s unlikely that all Cathedrals will adopt the same order and options—this variety would make things harder for visiting choirs and organists.
- I know several people will feel strongly that the language in BCP is much better than CW. For some reason, singing in modern English can sound more crass (for want of a better word) than more traditional translations.
- If we lose traditional Choral Evensong, will we lose traditional choirs?
- BCP is the only permanent authorised liturgical resource—Common Worship is only temporary, so perhaps it isn’t worth the effort of moving to it.
What’s wrong with BCP?
Much as I love BCP Evensong, in my opinion I believe that it has one flaw: the anthem is in the wrong place! After the creed, the (sung) responses start off a time of prayer. There are spoken prayers after this, but these two prayer sections are split up by the anthem. If the anthem is prayerful, that’s fine, but most are not, and they interrupt the time of prayer. I often feel that the spoken prayers are too long (4 minutes is perfect for me; I often experience over double this length), and I think this is because those leading the prayers don’t consider the preceding responses (which last about 6 minutes) as part of the time of prayer.
What’s different with CW?
With CW Evening Prayer, the service is restructured so that the first canticle is optional and can vary, but the second canticle is fixed and is the Magnificat. The Magnificat is the climax of the service, after which there are prayers, ending with the Lord’s Prayer. There isn’t a specific place for the anthem, but several options as to where it could be placed.
Putting the Mag as the second canticle is problematic for the existing Mag and Nunc settings, which in most cases wouldn’t work in reverse order! There’s a solution to that (which also solves my problem about BCP), which is to put the Anthem as the first “Canticle”, then have the Mag as the second “Canticle”. The Nunc then can follow the prayers, just before the closing words. One reason this solution may not be perfect is that some may choose to sing responses etc. during the prayers, which will musically break up the Mag and Nunc.
There’s also a discussion to be had about the responses, both those at the start, and those during the prayers. The BCP ones would presumably be allowed within the flexibility of CW, but there’s also an opportunity for new settings of a variety of texts. In CW there are a series of responsories that are used just before the Magnificat which would work well set to music, potentially sung by the choir and congregation.
This post isn’t too concerned about the language of CW vs BCP—I have no problem with BCP psalms and canticles being sung in the context of a CW service; but I should note that I would be equally happy to hear the CW translations set to music.
Where to go from here
Thank you if you have read this far. If you think my opinions are worth sharing, do please feel free to do so. In addition, comments for or against are welcome below. I have no power to actually enact any of these thoughts, but I’m writing them down just in case there are others who think the same.
Below is a table summary of the order of BCP, compared with CW, with just a few options on how you might fit BCP settings into a CW order. It may be that some places will do different variants on different days, maybe based on which settings are in use; it may be that some will keep BCP on Sundays and introduce CW on weekdays. If you are interested in more detail on my thoughts, please see this document.
|BCP||CW with BCP||CW|
|“O Lord, open thou our lips”
“The Lord's Name be praised.”
|“O Lord, open thou our lips”
“The Lord's Name be praised.”
|“O God, make speed to save us”
Prayer of thanksgiving
“Blessed be God for ever”
|Spoken prayer (“That this evening may be holy…”)|
|¶ The Word of God|
|Magnificat||Anthem, or Magnificat|
|Nunc Dimittis||Magnificat, or Nunc Dimittis|
“The Lord be with you”
The Lord’s Prayer
“O Lord, shew thy mercy upon us.”
“The Lord be with you”
The Lord’s Prayer
“O Lord, shew thy mercy upon us.”
The Lord’s Prayer
|¶ The Conclusion|
|Nunc Dimittis, or Anthem|
|Closing spoken responses|
New musical settings
Here are some of the things that could be set to music:
- Canticles: There are 87 of these: see here. Some of these are suggested for certain seasons (e.g. in Easter, Canticles 60, 65 or 74 are suggested).
- Responsories: There are several different versions of this. These short responsories precede the second canticle (Magnificat). These have a similar feel to the Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit which you may have sung in Compline. Here are two examples. I had a go at setting these to some chant-like music: you can see these here.
- Opening responses: Whilst in BCP there are 4 responses, in CW there’s only a single response, which is supplemented by a further one in seasonal time (e.g. this one for Christmas). Even with 2 responses, this makes it hard to have a musical balance. I’d like to suggest that the Thanksgiving prayers which can optionally follow could also be set to music—they all contain a phrase like “To you be praise and glory for ever” which could be set to music, and end with “Blessed be God for ever” which could likewise. I’ve put together a sample on how the opening responses could be performed here. This sample uses a few hymn tunes as the base.
- Second set of responses: These don’t actually exist in CW, and many will feel that you could go without them. But there are a set of “litanies” which may be used as responses which could be used here. These are numbered 31 to 36, and 32 is clearly the modern equivalent of the BCP responses. The Lord’s Prayer and collect could be included here, or just spoken.
- Refrains: One of the liturgical items I was glad to be part of introducing at St Edmundsbury Cathedral was a set of Magnificat Antiphons to be sung on feasts. The music for these was based on plainsong in Liber Usualis, and the words were all taken from the Refrains in CW Daily Prayer. There’s a whole host of these refrains for Magnificats, all the canticles, all the Psalms, for a whole range of feasts. (Here are a few samples of the antiphon settings we did at St Edmundsbury.)
- Psalm prayers: Every psalm has a companion prayer (e.g. see Psalm 1). These could be set to music and sung after the psalm — perhaps on certain days or in certain seasons?
I don’t have an exciting conclusion, but maybe some suggestions:
- If you are a composer, consider looking at these new texts and thinking about setting them to music.
- If you are a precentor, or in charge of the church’s liturgy, and you’d like to do this, start the conversation with your musicians.
- If you are a musician, give CW a chance!
- Category: Blog
I’ve decided to write up as I progress on a new project. This is something that I’ve had in mind for quite a while, but I’m not sure it will ever become a product.
I’m writing it up as a way of keeping track for my own sake, but also to give you a glimpse into my thoughts, and the technologies I’m using.
I’m not planning to try to teach you anything through this — think of it as just a development journal.
One of my first projects was Pointed Psalms (pointedpsalms.co.uk). No sooner had I finished the first working version of this (in about 2006) did I decide that it required a complete rewrite! This has had a few false starts, and never really got there. A couple of people have logins to this original (and only) system, but it’s not very good (the user interface is rubbish, and the way the data is stored has several flaws).
The closest I got to the “new” version was in Summer 2015 while on holiday in Whitby, but unfortunately that didn’t reach completion.
One of my ideas for the new version was to give the user a way of customising the pointing of a psalm by dragging the barlines around, and that’s what I’ve decided to work on. For this to work, the system would need to know where all the syllables are. It would need to know if a barline was in a middle of a word so that a hyphen could be added. There are many little things like that that need thinking about.
I’m a fan of both Angular and React, so the first decision was between those two. After comparing drag-drop libraries, I decided to go for Angular — because the drag-drop library is part of the official Angular CDK so unlikely to fall out of use. In my limited experience, I’ve found it easier to keep performance high with Angular than with React.
So I got myself a blank Angular template, installed
@angular/cdk and added the
DragDropModule to my
For now, I’ve structured the app into two Components:
WordComponent. Already these are clearly badly named: the
WordsComponent deals with a line of text. The
WordComponent deals with a syllable (this includes any pointing symbols).
What it does so far
WordsComponentreceives a line of text.
- Then it splits it into words.
- For each word, it checks if there are more than one syllable (for now this is hard-coded), and if so, splits into those syllables.
- Each Syllable has a
SyllableTypewhich (for now) can be either a
- We just put a single barline at the end of each line. Obviously in the future, we’ll need to add the correct number of barlines, and try to guess the best place for them.
Depending on the
SyllableType (and depending on the type of previous and next syllables), the
WordComponent adds spaces or hyphens.
DragDropModule, we make each
WordComponent a drag item (
cdkDrag), but only the
Barline type is draggable. You can drag the barline around, and when you let go, the
drop() function is called. In that, we re-arrange the array and this recalculates whether or not spaces/hyphens should be shown.
That’s where I am. For now, I just hard-coded in one verse of Psalm 122. Have a look and play, but don't get too excited just yet.
- Category: Blog
Having been an Assistant Director of Music for nearly 5 years at both Rochester and St Edmundsbury Cathedrals, as well as Organ Scholar at Chelmsford, chorister at Canterbury, and an assistant at The Pilgrims’ School, Winchester, I do have some insight into how Cathedrals work. But my opinions are clearly only based on a small part of the big picture, and in some cases my take on things may not be the popular opinion. I welcome comments in agreement and disagreement and welcome corrections to any incorrect facts.
While I was in the Cathedral Music world, I did get annoyed by external people expressing opinions about how things were done, and I’m aware I’ve now unfortunately become one of those people! Sorry to those annoyed by my opinions.
- Category: Cathedrals
Do please ensure you read my disclaimer.
Yesterday, Rochester Cathedral announced their intention to introduce a mixed treble line in the Cathedral Choir. This immediately fired up a lot of emotions. After some reflection, I responded with the following tweet:
The latest iteration of @RochesterCathed’s music department moves further away from the structure I spent hours helping to put together. This saddens me, though I can see that it’s an inevitable extension of what we did in 2008.— Dan Soper (@dansoper) November 18, 2019
...and then followed up with the following thought about my change of career choice in 2016:
This is one of many reasons why I had to leave Cathedral Music: the constant sea of change brought about by changes in staff/Chapter, who all think they have a great new idea. https://t.co/4YpfHe5nPL— Dan Soper (@dansoper) November 18, 2019
You can read more about my change of career here.
The Cathedral responded to my first tweet with some encouragement:
Hi Dan. This is perhaps more an inevitable extension of the groundbreaking decision to include girl choristers (in 1995) and @Kings_Rochester becoming co-ed. Thanks for all you did during your time here - we still use your Psalm cycle!— Rochester Cathedral (@RochesterCathed) November 18, 2019
Much later in the day, they decided to reply to my second tweet, as follows:
Hi Dan. I don’t think we would claim equality as a new idea. It’s just that we’ve taken a bit of time to catch up.— Rochester Cathedral (@RochesterCathed) November 18, 2019
Completely ignoring the fact that after years of training I had to change career because I couldn’t cope with the working environment of a Cathedral, this tweet sought instead to defend further their decision. I was not happy with this reply, and gave them the opportunity to delete it—which they declined. I decided to explore all the things I was thinking and write a post.
The Cathedral was quite early to the Girls’ Choir scene, founding theirs in 1995. By the time I started at Rochester as Assistant Director of Music in 2006, an extra choir, the Senior Girls’ Choir had been founded, for the Girls’ Choir leavers who wished to continue singing. At this stage, the Girls sang a weekend or two each term, alongside a weekly weekday evensong. The Senior Girls sang every now and then. At this point, the Girls’ Choir was overshadowed by both the Cathedral Choir of Boys, and the Senior Girls. For the sake of equality, it was decided to increase the age range of the Girls’ Choir, disband the Senior Girls’ Choir, and increase the commitment for the Girls, so that they did roughly half the number of services that the Boys did. Consideration was given to breaking the link with King’s and have the boys and girls both recruited on equal terms from any local school, but this was considered too much of a risk. It was out of the question to force the girls to all go to King’s, and it was also considered that too much would be lost by merging into a single treble line.
Alongside these decisions, the Cathedral decided to solve the problem of lack of lay clerks by establishing a Choral Scholar scheme, and a system of Deputy Lay Clerks.
I wasn’t responsible for any of these decisions (I was a mere Assistant DofM) but I was heavily involved in drawing up budgets on how to manage the transition, and creating systems. So I was considerably invested, and a keen supporter of the changes made in 2008.
Once the 2008 changes had settled in, things seemed to be going pretty well—both choirs went through a very strong period, and the new lay clerk system meant that choristers were supported by a wide variety of excellent singers.
But even then it was clear that the itch hadn’t gone away:
- There was at least one boy chorister who we had to reject because they could (or would) not attend King’s.
- Although the Girls now had a much stronger identity, there were still some feelings of being second-class citizens—starting with the fact they were directed by the Assistant, not the Director of Music.
- Choosing which choir sang, and communicating this to the choir parents, was a significant administrative burden. I sometimes enjoyed this challenge, but not always (especially when things had to change at the last minute).
- Now all boys and girls will be required to go to King’s.
- Presumably the size of the single treble line will be c.20, so overall the number of opportunities is halved.
- Treating boys and girls 100% equally ignores the fact that they aren’t 100% equal and (generally) girls reach vocal maturity at about the same time that boys lose their treble voices.
- The new schedule will require a significant step up in commitment from the choristers—and their families transporting them to and from the Cathedral each day.
- Some say that boys are more likely to lose interest in a mixed environment than one geared to them. So will this be mostly girls in 10 years’ time? The answer for now is probably “No, because we will safeguard 50% of all spaces for boys”. But, given the choice of breaking this, or surviving with half a choir, it’s likely that in the future girls will be recruited to fill the gaps if no boys are available.
There are clear advantages, some of which are detailed in their press release.
- The quality of singing is likely to improve from the extra commitment. From what I understand, some rebuilding is currently required.
- A single treble line will be able to enjoy the full repertoire, rather than have gaps because it’s in the other choir’s repertoire.
- With all choristers coming from King’s, this enables a more consistent safeguarding approach. Despite best efforts, for some reason Rochester has not fared well with safeguarding over the last decade.
- The staffing levels required will be lower: both musically and administratively. Although making the third organist redundant in the last few years has probably offset some of this.
- Fewer choristers means less money on bursaries. I don’t believe Cathedrals are in a good place financially, and good efforts to raise funds have been received unfavourably by some, so cutting costs makes sense.
Overall, on the decision itself, I’m disappointed that the choir that I loved directing is effectively being disbanded, and I’m worried that (looking to save money) other Cathedrals will copy this decision without enough consideration. But I can see how this may well be the right next step for Rochester, and I’m sure Francesca is the right person to make it work.
So why was my first impression of the decision more negative than positive?
- The announcement is given a very positive spin, without any mention of the historical context, or the fact that there are risks involved, or the fact that this means disbanding a choir and reducing the number of opportunities. The first comments on the Facebook post were along the lines of “well done”, presumably because they had no idea that opportunities for girls were already there (and arguably more flexible).
- The extras in the announcement (youth choir and sixth-form choral scholars) are clearly there to add further weight to the positive spin—both of these things could be done without changing the treble lines. And there’s no mention of the fact that they’ve just axed a (different) choral scholar scheme.
- I invested a lot of time in the 2008 changes—they were the solution for that current Chapter to the problems of the time, and, within the confines, were a big move in the direction of equality. Having only experienced this system working well, my first impression is bound to be that changing it is a mistake. The fact that the announcement makes no mention of this work does a disservice to those involved at that time and implies that no consideration has been given to the reasons for the decisions made then.
- Francesca only started as Director of Music in September, so it seems too soon to be making changes. It’s likely that these changes were already in motion before her appointment (like the changes to the lay clerk system), which does seem unwise—and indicative of a Chapter who may not respect the opinions of the Music Department as much as it should. [Edit: I have since received clarification that Francesca is fully behind the proposals and is independently of the same mind as Chapter]
- The biggest problem for me, which is more a subject for a different post, is that Cathedrals seem to always be in a state of change. There’s always a new member of staff or Chapter who has a different solution to an existing problem, who believes that their way is better than what has gone before. The truth is that in 10 years, someone is likely to be regretting something in this decision, and another iteration will begin.
The changes we made in 2008 were quite revolutionary, and I’m sure there were many who were against them. Luckily there wasn’t such an opportunity for opinions on social media back then.
These new changes are again quite revolutionary, and just like in 2008 there are risks and compromises. The fact is that there is no way to run a Cathedral Choir in the 21st century without making compromises somewhere. I very much look forward to seeing the choir re-flourish under the new system.
- Category: Cathedrals