One of the fixtures of larger parish churches prior to the last century was the singing of Vespers (evening prayer) on Sunday afternoons. Prior to the 1950s, Masses were not permitted to be celebrated after 12:00 noon and thus the concept of a Sunday (or Saturday) evening Mass was unknown. Some very beautiful music, indeed some of the greatest music of the Church, was composed for Sunday Vespers. Best known is the 1610 Vespers of Claudio Monteverdi (Vespro della Beata Vergine). Monteverdi (a Catholic priest and composer) also composed the Vespers settings found in the 1641 Selva Morale e Spirituale (a personal favorite of mine). Mozart, Vivaldi, and others also composed magnificent choral settings of the Vespers. The Liber Usualis (the collected Gregorian Chants of the Roman Church) also contains a setting of the Sunday Vespers to be chanted according to that ancient mode.
Including this in my “Lost Liturgies File” does not mean that Solemn Vespers is never celebrated anymore, just that it is rare. One should expect that in every diocese, in at least one major church (often the Cathedral), Solemn Vespers would be sung. Here in Washington, the singing of Solemn Vespers (usually chanted) takes place at St. Thomas Apostle Church each Sunday afternoon. In my own parish, we recently celebrated Solemn Vespers with Monteverdi’s full 1610 Vespers musical setting. It was a grand evening of worship; you can watch the video below and look through some pictures I took. Fr. James Bradley (who lives here) and two Dominicans were the officiants.
Since the antiphons for the new Office have never been fully developed, those who do sing Solemn Vespers generally use the old Office. The basic structure is as follows:
1. The devotional recitation of the Our Father and Hail Mary
2. The Incipit: “God come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.”
3. The Glory Be
4. Psalm 190 (110) Dixit Dominus (The Lord said to my lord)
5. Psalm 110 (111) Confitebor tibi (I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart)
6. Psalm 111 (112) Beatus Vir (Blessed is the man who fears the Lord)
7. Psalm 112 (113) Laudate pueri (Praise O children of the Lord, praise the Name of the Lord)
8. Psalm 113 (114) In Exitu Israel (When Israel went forth from Egypt)
9. Hymn Lucis Creator (Glorious Creator of the Light)
10. Incensing of the Altar and the Magnificat
11. Concluding acclamations (these vary by season)
12. Blessing: May the Divine assistance remain always with us.
Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament may also follow.
Usually there is a celebrant (always a priest) and two assistants (ideally deacons or seminarians of some rank); all three wear copes. There is also a bevy of servers with varying functions such as thurifer, torchbearer, or master of ceremonies. Depending on the musical settings used, Solemn Vespers can be sung in twenty minutes or may last nearly two hours!
If the length astonishes you, recall that prior to the modern age few distractions or amusements of a secular nature were available. People enjoyed the splendor of Church services and in large city parishes highly skilled choirs were able to worship the Lord with soaring glory and beauty. Indeed, so splendid was the music at times that bishops and even popes had to remind the faithful that God was the point, not the music!
In our day football, shopping malls, movies, and entertainment vie for the attention of the faithful on Sunday afternoons. Appreciation for the intricate beauty of polyphony and the glory of baroque music has waned. But for those whose tastes have been lifted (I would argue) to higher and more subtle things, the glory of solemn Vespers chanted, sung with polyphony, or shouted with baroque glory is hard to beat; it is surely better than football because God is our true goal not some earthly end zone!
If you live in Washington, consider coming to St. Thomas Apostle on Sunday afternoons.
In addition, this Sunday, the Institute of Catholic Culture will celebrate Solemn Vespers in Leesburg, Virginia. Here is the flyer (click for larger view):
Below is the video of the Monteverdi Vespers at my parish last month (celebrated liturgically). Some of the video is live footage; some of it features photo cutaways. Since the video is quite long, you might want to consider skipping around and sampling different aspects.