"Hear my law, O my people..."

"Hear my law, O my people..."

"Hear my law, O my people: incline your ears unto the words of my mouth."

So begins Psalm 78, the longest portion of psalm appointed for Morning or Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. 

It is sung on The Fifteenth Evening, and this trio of words inspires a strong reaction to any sacred choral singer who has ever sung the traditional psalmody. 

If you hear Evensong on the 15th evening of the month, and the choir is keeping to that traditional psalmody, make sure you haven’t booked a table at a restaurant too early, because the choir is about to gallop through 73 verses of high drama. The psalm tells the story – among other narratives – of the salvation of the Egyptian people thanks to Moses: the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the smiting of the first born. Good meaty content. There are caterpillars, grasshoppers, giants, and “hinder parts” being smote. Nobody can accuse all the psalms of being boring.

But those 73 verses, 1,333 words (1,363 if you include the Gloria) - they begin with the word "hear". Not, in this case, sing, as psalms often begin. 


This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. It falls on a week in which the 15th evening falls on a Wednesday, which means that this afternoon Exeter Cathedral sang the entirety of psalm 78 live on BBC Radio 3. (You can hear it on BBC Sounds here until around 16 June 2024.) It takes around 18-20 minutes (today it took Exeter a notch over 16 minutes...impressive). 

This website - and its associated social media pages - is run by and largely for sacred choral musicians. I make much of the nicheness of its content, and the particular world to which we belong. The joy we gain from singing the music. The sanctity, sanctuary, and safety we find in the quire. The benefits it brings to  musicians both musically and, more pertinently, mentally. 

Yet far more numerous than those singing the music, are those who hear it.

If you attend Evensong, rather than sing it, this blog post is for you. It's maybe why a musician sent it to you to read. Evensong is an auditory experience for the pilgrims and parents; the international tourists and the local traders. Whether the faithful are few or fill the cathedral or church, you are hearing Evensong, listening to its music, lost in a moment. 

But what is it you are hearing?

You hear rich psalmody that gallops through every emotion from fear, anger, praise, grief, joy...

You hear bible readings (often full of excellent Old Testament names to trip up unprepared priests) bookend Mary's song of joy and Simeon's song of acceptance, songs which have been sung for a thousand years, give or take, by countless composers from Morley to MacDonald. 

You hear anthems which span time, geography, and the human condition.

Evensong is musical nourishment for your very being. It is auditory awe.

There is a host of adjectives to descibe Evensong. Reassuring. Joyous. Exciting. Familiar. Fresh. Challenging. Wisdomous. Revelatory. Peaceful. It is not just one thing, and never has been. You will never hear the same Evensong twice. Psalm 78 shows that in microcosmic revelation. One moment, God is angry, smiting his people for their wayward ways. The next he is defending and forgiving. We do this. We smite, become overcome with anger not only with others, but with ourselves. 

Where can we find solace from the pestilence of politics or cast out the newscasts? Where can we awake like one out of sleep?

I - somewhat predictably at this point I feel - humbly suggest Evensong is this place. Around 45 minutes of mostly music, performed to a ridiculously high standard, even when it's not broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Everywhere. All across the country. I even hear they have it in other countries too. Find an Evensong. And, if you're not sure where, have a look at choralevensong.org to find one near you - or to find somewhere that streams it so you don't even need to get dressed.

There are many reports and articles that demonstrate the mental health benefits of singing. For those who perhaps can't sing, or don't have the time, or support network to do this, then surely there are benefits to being able to sit and hear that selfsame music. To allow oneself to sit and just be for a time, and hear. Hear magic in the Magnificat. Hear awe in the anthem. Hear solace in the psalms.

You never know: keep on going, keep on hearing, and you might become a regular.

To borrow a phrase I've used elsewhere, Evensong is for life, not just for Mental Health Awareness Week.

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