Organ Vespers: What



Vespers is the evening installment of the Christian Church’s eightfold daily round of services known as the Hours, the Office, or Divine Service. Recalling the Psalmist’s words – ‘seven times a day will I praise you’ (119.164) and ‘at midnight I rise to praise you’ (119.62) – the Office in its traditional Western form, established by St Benedict of Nursia, is built around the weekly recitation of the entire Psalter.

Vespers begins with the Psalmist’s cry ‘O God, hasten to deliver me!’ (70.1) followed by four or five Psalms, each bookended with an antiphon taken from the Psalm or other scripture and highlighting a theme of the Psalm and the season or feast being celebrated. This is followed by a short reading (capitulum, or Chapter), which on Sundays and Feasts is taken from the Epistle read at the Mass of the day; the Chapter is answered by a Responsory and followed by a Hymn assigned for the season or feast.

The service culminates in the singing of the Canticle of St Mary (Magnificat, Luke 1.46–55), also with an antiphon taken from the canticle itself, or from the Gospel at the Mass or one of the lessons at the Office of Readings (Vigils/Matins) of the day, or sometimes other sources. Beyond this the rite may vary, but generally speaking, various prayers, including the Collect said at the Mass of the day, are said, and lesser feasts overlapping with the primary occasion may be acknowledged with a short commemoration, the traditional ‘Marian antiphon’ at the end being a sort of special example of the latter.

Many elements of the classic Western Catholic Vespers (and its morning parallel, Lauds) were continued after the Reformation by Lutherans and Anglicans and are to be found today in the service-books of those and other traditions. The non-sacramental and essentially non-clerical nature of the Office gives it great potential as a place of ecumenical encounter and a rich resource for lay spirituality.

Organ Vespers

Alternation of musical forces – deriving from the natural distinctions between leader and group and between treble and men’s voices, and perhaps also from the couplet structure of Biblical Hebrew poetry – is a basic performance principle in traditional Christian liturgical music. In addition to the aforementioned kinds of dialogue, another kind of alternation is that between unadorned chant and its polyphonic elaboration by voices and/or instruments. Indeed, playing verses of the Ordinary of the Mass and the Hymn and Canticle of the Office (especially the Magnificat at Vespers) was one of the main tasks of the organist for several centuries, and much of the extant body of organ music up through the first third of the seventeenth century – culminating in several outstanding collections dating from that period – consists precisely of such verses. Nor was this exclusively a Roman Catholic phenomenon represented by the works of Frescobaldi, Titelouze, Cavazzoni, Cabezón, Coelho, and others; the Lutheran tradition also continued to value elaborate music even as it cultivated simpler congregational song, and the works of Hieronymus Praetorius, Samuel Scheidt, and Heinrich Scheidemann, among others, testify to the continuing use of traditional materials and styles, including the extensive use of Latin and the alternatim practice, in some Lutheran areas. From the same milieu come also solo organ works, then or now often called ‘fantasias’, based upon chant tunes, which we also feature in their original role as preludes and postludes to festal Vespers.

It may seem odd to us moderns (perhaps even to organists) that certain parts of a liturgical rite could be entrusted to the organ, and there is no doubt a certain amount of abstraction involved when texts are not pronounced and melodies are stretched into long cantus firmi, or broken up into component motives, around which were constructed elaborate contrapuntal edifices. In fact this concern is not only a modern one, as various regulations and exhortations of the period suggest: in some cases (e.g. Coelho) a solo voice was intended or allowed to sing the chant melody that appeared in an organ verse; in others, the choir and/or congregation were encouraged to sing or hum along with the organ verses; and at Hamburg, at least, it appears that no text of the Magnificat was omitted, but rather that organ verses were inserted as meditations into the singing of the complete text.

Many organ verses can also seem disproportionately long compared to the sung verses (and this concern is not only a modern one either, as e.g. Titelouze hints in his collection) – but it is also true that in the period under discussion, chant was, by our standards, sung quite slowly, so that there was a much closer connection than we might realize between chant and polyphonic verses (including vocal compositions) in terms of tempo, pulse, length, and even rhythmic differentiation of the melody.

In any case the practice persisted. In its defense it should be remembered that in a community that observes the full round of the liturgy, the parts of the service which may be taken by the organ are sung day in and day out, so that the text is well known, and thus the organ verses provide an opportunity for reflection upon the text. The ‘hiddenness’ of the melody when ‘sung’ by the organ might even be compared to the visual art in traditional churches that was sometimes made for the devotion or delight of it, never to be seen directly, but whose presence – and the realities it bespoke – was nevertheless felt by the faithful.

Our approach

Despite the extensive use of seventeenth-century music, Organ Vespers is not meant to be a historical-reconstruction performance. Sung in both Latin and the vernacular, partaking of both Roman Catholic and Protestant repertories from several countries, with both older and current styles of chant, and translations and adaptations from various sources, it is an eclectic, and cannot help but be a somewhat modern, undertaking. It is intended as real, living prayer using a repertory of liturgical organ music rarely heard otherwise, and may be likened to building a chapel to house, and then putting to use, some icons or other liturgical art objects that would otherwise languish in storage, or perhaps be displayed in a museum deprived of their living context. In the end the effort will not duplicate the original exactly and may not satisfy the purist – nor do we (though advocating a general return to the chant and a reconsideration of the roles of organ and choir in Christian worship) suggest that the alternatim practice or this particular repertory become the modern norm – but we pray that Organ Vespers will be beautiful and edifying, a worthy offering of praise according to our best art.