Choral Evensong - More than just a song at twilight

Choral Evensong Near You
15th February 2019

Friends of Cathedral Music (FCM) member and musicologist Kathryn King writes about her research into a very pertinent subject:

Cathedrals are ‘booming’, sacred music sales are blooming, and enthusiasm for choral singing is burgeoning.

These trends, as FCM Chairman Peter Allwood noted in the last Cathedral Voice, are very encouraging for cathedral music.

Now new evidence is giving further grounds for optimism. Latest Church of England data, published at the end of 2018, confirmed that cathedral services are continuing a trend that began 20 years ago, and attracting greater numbers of people every year.

Cathedral Christmas congregations are bigger than at any time since records began in 2000, and in 2017 – the most recent year for which figures are available – adult attendance at ordinary weekday cathedral services had increased by 35 per cent since 2007. Today, 18,000 people attend ordinary weekday cathedral services every week.

Choral Evensong, in particular, appears to be experiencing a renaissance. Twenty-five years ago, a BBC Radio 4 documentary, Just a song at twilight, reported that anyone calling into one of London’s great cathedral churches at Evensong-time would find themselves ‘alone, practically, listening to this marvellous music’.

Today the marvellous music continues, but solitude is a distant memory.

At Westminster Abbey, five or six hundred people join the Choral Evensong congregation every weekday; it’s Sunday Evensong attendance routinely exceeds 1,500, even on ordinary Sundays.

At many Oxbridge colleges, queues around the quad as crowds await the Sunday evening service have become as much a part of college life as proctors and punting; to arrive late is to hear Evensong only as it echoes in the antechapel, if at all.

The listener data for BBC Radio 3’s Choral Evensong is another story of growth. In 2016, after many years of a stable, loyal audience, listener numbers leapt to more than 300,000, an annual increase of 34 per cent, and a larger audience than at any other time in the programme’s 92-year history.

Encouraging news indeed.

Encouraging, and in the context of wider societal trends, also quite unexpected. The same CofE statistics that reveal the growth of cathedral services also evidence the gradual yet persistent decline of non-cathedral church congregations.

The tourist organisation Visit England reports that visitor numbers at the nation’s religious buildings are falling. And the British Social Attitudes Survey has found that the proportion of people identifying as ‘no religion’ has increased by two-thirds in the last 30 years: ‘nones’, as they are known, now constitute more than half of the population.

What is going on?

Is it the high-quality repertoire and professional performance that account for Choral Evensong’s renewed appeal against this unpromising background? Is it the striking surroundings and affective atmosphere that are drawing new crowds? The evocative language and liturgy, the heritage and history? The rhythm and ritual, traditions and formality? The continuity and familiarity? The brevity? The spectacle? Or maybe it is the mystery and wisdom, the possibility of peace, meditation, and spiritual enrichment without commitment; a space for anonymity – a time to ‘lighten the darkness’?

These, and many other complementary and contradictory theories have been convincingly advanced.

For the next two years, my task, as a musicologist at the University of Oxford, is to find, gather, and analyse the evidence.

In particular, I want to find out: who is going to Choral Evensong? What does it mean to them? What does it do for them? What do they do for, to, and with it? And what can understanding these motives and experiences add to our understanding of the role of this music in the 21st century?

At the centre of my mixed-methods research are three ethnographic studies, involving the congregations of two cathedrals and an Oxford college; a programme of quantitative and qualitative surveys, interviews and focus groups; and an innovative real-time experience methodology, details of which should be published in an academic journal later this year.

These findings will, I hope, offer original insights into the lives and minds of today’s Choral Evensong-goers, shed new light on the real-time experience of listening to sacred music, and advance our understanding of the possibilities and potential of cathedral music, at twilight and beyond.

I would love to have your views, and to keep you informed.


What does cathedral music mean to you? What does it do to you? And what do you do to it, for it and with it? Would you like to help advance this research by taking part in the University of Oxford’s study? You can find a link at kathrynkingresearch.wordpress.com. For a paper copy, to contribute your experiences of Choral Evensong to the study, or to find out other ways to take part in the research, please follow the same link above, or write to kathryn.king@magd.ox.ac.uk or Kathryn King at Magdalen College, Oxford, OX1 4AU.