I think my very first exposure to Westminster Abbey was hearing my mom sing a song that mentioned it. Not until today did I go looking for the original of the song, which turns out to be by American Country singer Roger Miller. I’m sure his version was very popular,* but I have an understandable preference for the way my mom sang it.
Singing also featured in my recent formal introduction to Westminster Abbey itself, but it was singing of a very different kind. A choir of heavenly voices permeated the Evensong service that we attended. “Evensong” not only sounds nicer to me than “evening prayer service,” but is also a more accurate description for an event that is primarily singing.
The printed program provided a few introductory notes, including the fact that “Daily prayer has been offered in this place for over a thousand years,” and an explanation that most of the service would be sung by the choir “on our behalf,” and that “we participate through our presence and our listening, that the words and the music might become a prayer within us and lift us to contemplate God’s beauty and glory.”
With our participation primarily limited to being present and listening, the music was lovely, as opposed to typically congregational. I acknowledge that congregational singing is quite valuable, but often it’s something other than lovely.
In addition to unfamiliar vocabulary (“collect” used as a noun, “lesser litany,” etc.), prayers for the Royal Family and for the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, as well as a certain amount of standing & repeating, and sitting & listening to a psalm or a lesson, the “song” part of evensong included musical works by William Byrd (1540-1623), Henry Smart (1813-1879), Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599), and Vincent Coles (1845-1929.
I can’t convey to you exactly what the experience was like, nor can I show you what the interior looked like, as photography was forbidden during the service. But I have included a piece by William Byrd to give you a sense of what the music sounded like. It’s not the piece that we heard that day, but this is a better recording, and as long as everyone promises not to tell the robed officials at Westminster Abbey, we should escape formal censure.
*Someday perhaps I’ll persuade my mom to let me record her singing the song. In the meantime, this will have to do. In contrast to the British Museum director who can pronounce “British” as one syllable, Roger Miller can make “England” into three.
[Images: Wikipedia, yours truly, El Guapo]