It was with no small amount of trepidation that I approached a sung evensong service at St. Paul's Cathedral. I knew it would be big and traditional, and so I imagined the worst. Dull. We've all attended those services during which a tired congregation sighs through the words without any sort of passion - or harmony, so one might understand my hesitation.
Instead, evensong was shattering and utterly gorgeous.
I was lucky enough to have as my companion and guide to all-things-evensong, Mr. Tom Cameron. He is the Canon's verger at St Paul's Cathedral and also an ordained Deacon himself.
Mr. Cameron explained that evensong is the evening prayer, giving close to the day. It, along with morning prayer, is part of the Anglican clergy's daily devotion. It is the "bedrock," spoken or sung each evening in cathedrals across Britain. And the music of the choral evensong is the most important aspect of the service.
I had assumed that one would sing hymns during evensong. But Mr. Cameron corrected me. "Choral evensongs are not to be confused with hymns. A hymn is a particular piece of music, which is a melody. Hymns are really a new invention, only about 200 years old." I nodded, pretending that this was very modern indeed.
"Is this your favourite part of the day?" I asked before the service began, as he did seem awfully enthusiastic.
"Yes, because the cathedral comes alive with music."
"We do the evensong each day. Come rain or shine, hail, mist, or tube strikes, we will say or sing morning and evening prayer every day."
Every day? I challenged him. "What about the Blitz?"
"We did have to stop for five days when a high-explosive bomb was dropped outside and had to be defused," he conceded. The boys were evacuated to the country during the war, and the men served, so they relied upon an older generation to sing during those years. But they did not stop.
During the height of the tourist season, evensong can be very well attended. But on those cold winter nights, it is not unusual for nobody to show. "We shall still sing evensong." Mr. Cameron declared firmly, "And we will still be joyous."
He continued, "We are lucky as we have a choir that does it for us. Clergy aren't necessarily the best people to sing."
The choir consists of boys and men. For the adults, it is a professional position though not highly paid, thus their vocations include opera and the stage as well as teaching music.
The boys are from St. Paul's Cathedral School, which caters to boys and girls age 4 to 13. The choristers board and their schedule is rigorous and full. In addition to adhering to high academic standards, they sing each morning from 8:15 to 9, attend school all day, return to rehearsal from 4:15 until 5 and then perform evensong until 6. The boys sing on their own on Monday evenings, otherwise with the gentlemen. They get one day off a week, which is dedicated to sport. "We do work them very hard," Mr. Cameron admitted.
"It is character-building, giving them a sense of discipline and achievement. They begin in the choir when they are 7. They cry when they first come (to board), but they also cry five years later when they go."
It is highly competitive, with thirty boys maximum being chosen for the choir and six probationary. Not all of the boys at the school make the cut and, of course, none of the girls.
I wondered about the life of a chorister. Were they like other boys? What kind of music did they have on their ipods? Choral? Mr. Cameron looked at me blankly. Or did they listen the kind of music we hear on the radio? "Oh my! Yes. I would think so."
"Who is the most famous alumni of the choir?" I asked.
It was time for evensong to begin and we took our seats in the quire. Quire with a "q" is the structure and choir with a "c" refers to the body of people. Mr. Cameron really was a very patient teacher.
The choir filed in. The boys looked adorable, like angels in their white gowns with high collars.
And then they began. It was heavenly. The music transported, and I understood what Mr. Cameron meant when he had described evensong as the "heartbeat" of the cathedral. I closed my eyes and listened to the choir fill the space with song.
St. Paul's is ornate and magnificent. We were transported to another time as voices echoed off the splendid walls. What a lovely way to end each day, an elixir for the soul.
The boys were impressive, so young yet they sang like professionals with attentive concentration. When they weren't singing, they became boys again; fidgeting, picking their noses and ears, scratching at their stiff collars. I couldn't see the gentlemen from where I sat but for all I knew they were doing the same.
The music lifted us up and set us down gently. The selection that evening was Tudor, Mr. Cameron explained somewhat apologetically. It didn't have the "oomph" that Victorian music would have had. But I found plenty of oomph, and I left the service feeling renewed, and looking forward to coming back. As Mr. Cameron reminded me, "The show goes on every day."