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The Office of Vespers

When St. Benedict established the first monastic order in Western Christendom in the sixth century A.D., he prescribed round-the-clock prayers for his monks consisting of eight separate services, one every three hours. These services, the primary texts of which were the Old Testament Psalms of David, comprised the Office Hours, and the most prominent became the evening Office, Vespers, from the Latin word for evening.

All of these Offices were sung throughout to music commonly known as Gregorian Chant—a large repertoire of single-line melodies that dates back to the earliest years of the Catholic Church.

At some unknown point in history it became a frequent practice to perform the Vespers service not only in monasteries and monastic churches, but also in public, so-called “secular” churches as well as in the private chapels of nobles and high clerics. Moreover, Vespers services came, in the 15th century, to be occasionally performed at least partly in polyphony rather than exclusively Gregorian Chant. The 15th century was a period of rapid expansion in the quantity of polyphony used in the central public service of the Catholic Church, the Mass, and by the end of the century, polyphony had become more prominent in Vespers services as well.

The advent of music printing in 1501 in Venice led by the middle of the century to Italian published collections of music for Vespers, which now could circulate widely to monasteries, churches and chapels. Indeed, the interest in polyphonic music for Vespers expanded so rapidly in the late 16th century that by the early 17th century more music was being published in Italy for Vespers than for the Mass itself. That trend continued throughout the century until the publishing of sacred music in Italy gradually died out in the early 18th century.

The liturgy of Vespers is somewhat complicated (see the Table below). The very first item in the service is an unchanging versicle and response asking for the help of the Lord. But the primary elements are five psalms, a hymn and the Magnificat—a song (canticle) from the Gospel according to Luke in which the Virgin Mary rejoices in the news that she will bear the Christ Child. The Magnificat is sung as the last major element in every Vespers service, but the five psalms and the hymn vary according to the category of feast (feasts of the Virgin, feasts of Martyrs, etc.) or the specific feast (Christmas, Feast of St. John the Baptist, etc.).

Early in the history of the Office Hours, the practice developed of singing a separate short text and melody in conjunction with each psalm, both before and after the psalm, and sometimes interpolated between psalm verses as well. These short chants are called antiphons, and each psalm and the Magnificat has its own antiphon, which like the psalms themselves, vary according to the category of feast or specific feast.

Main Elements of a Vespers Service

1. Versicle and Response: Deus in adiutorium meum invariable
2. First Psalm with Antiphon both variable
3. Second Psalm with Antiphon both variable
4. Third Psalm with Antiphon both variable
5. Fourth Psalm with Antiphon both variable
6. Fifth Psalm with Antiphon both variable
7. Hymn variable
8. Magnificat with Antiphon Magnificat invariable, Antiphon variable

Some of these main texts of the Vespers service were often still sung in Gregorian Chant in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially the versicle and response and the antiphons. In addition, there are a few other minor elements in the Vespers service that are either spoken or sung: the New Testament Chapter reading, which precedes the hymn, and a few further short versicles and responses, including a closing series after the Magnificat. Vespers is the penultimate Office Hour of the daily Hours, with Compline following three hours later. But if Compline is not sung and Vespers is the last Office performed in the day, then one of four seasonal prayers to the Virgin Mary, called Marian Antiphons, which normally follow Compline, is sung at the conclusion of Vespers.

By the 17th century antiphons were no longer sung between verses of the psalm and Magnificat, but only before and after. Moreover, it also became common practice to substitute a vocal motet or even an instrumental piece for the official antiphon text either before or after the psalm or Magnificat.

From its humble beginnings, the Vespers service had grown by the 17th century into a concert of polyphony, sometimes very elaborate polyphony with soloists, multiple choirs, instruments and the organ. It is such elaborate Vespers services that have been reconstructed and performed on numerous occasions by Warren Stewart and Magnificat.

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