Evensong in King’s College Chapel
By James A. W. Rembert
Cambridge University, with the distinctive rise of the King's College Chapel towers. Image in the public domain.
From the huge reading room in the Cambridge University Library I could hear the deep, slowly delivered gong … gong … gong … of the bell at King’s College chiming at 5:25 p.m. for 5:30 evensong. Daily I would say to myself, “No, not today, I’m too deeply immersed in this postdoctoral research.” By Thursday I could stand it no longer. I hurried outside, straddled my bicycle and hurried the short distance to King’s Bridge over the River Cam. I leaned my bike against a wall of the chapel so it was unseen by tourists. Then I would enter the famous chapel built from 1446 to 1515, “this immense and glorious work of fine intelligence” as Wordsworth described it in 1820. King’s College Chapel is the most famous icon of Cambridge University.
The several King’s College functionaries inside the chapel would nod at me knowing I was a researcher from a Cambridge college and therefore a member of the university and therefore was allowed to walk through the massive screen separating the antechapel from the chapel. Walking through the enormous chapel screen I could see the carved, entwined initials of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, whom Henry executed before going on to marry four other women. The main structure of King’s College Chapel was not finished until nearly 70 years later in 1515, during the reign of Henry VIII. It was a King’s College Chapel indeed. It was built in stages by King Henry VI, King Edward IV (somewhat), King Richard III, King Henry VII and King Henry VIII.
King’s College Chapel
King’s College Chapel is regarded as one of the greatest examples of late Gothic English architecture. The chapel’s stained-glass windows and wooden chancel screen are considered some of the finest from their era. The building is seen as emblematic of Cambridge. The chapel’s choir, composed of male students at King’s and choristers from the nearby King’s College School, is one of the most accomplished and renowned in the world. Every year on Christmas Eve, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is broadcast from the chapel to millions of listeners worldwide.
Inside the chapel proper I would climb the stepped aisle to the left up several rows of pews, and shuffle down to the center of a pew. From there I could look directly across the broad center aisle to view the celebrated 16 choristers and 14 older choral scholars making up King’s College Choir. (Only a few people chose to be present to see and hear evensong on weekdays during the academic year, more in summer.) King Henry VI created this choir when he founded King’s College, Cambridge, in 1441. The primary duty of the choir, from 1441 to today, is to provide daily singing of services in the chapel. Other Cambridge colleges have choral evensong on Sundays, and some have evensong also on one or two or three weekdays.
In winter months listening to and viewing evensong in King’s College Chapel gives one a feeling of being transported back in time to the Middle Ages or the Renaissance enjoying late afternoon fare at a well-known Cambridge college when the time of day was nearly dark. Try to imagine the members of the King’s College Choir in their red cassocks and white surplices covering half of their cassocks. The chapel is close to completely dark; candles on the pews illuminate the singers. The glorious sounds of the choir’s singing pause in the chapel’s ceiling “where music dwells / Lingering — and wandering on as loth to die.” Such sights and sounds in that setting, in my beloved Cambridge, gave me a feeling of euphoria that words fail in describing. That experience time and again broadened my spirit in a way that nothing since then has done.
For me evensong was an interlude between putting my nose in various books immediately before and immediately after the service at King’s. My returning to the university library reaffirmed the postdoctoral researcher’s commitment to the research he came over to Cambridge to do.
Many times at services in King’s College in 1969 and in the early 1970s I sat absorbing the sight of the chapel’s interior and following the beauty of the harmonies of the King’s Chapel Choir. Wordsworth in his sonnet “Tax not the royal Saint” describes the distinctive style of King’s choir, their harmonies lingering among the intricacies of the famous fan vaulting of the chapel’s roof:
The choir’s voices lingering in the chapel’s roof
The “branching roof
Self-poised, and scooped into ten thousand cells
Where light and shade repose, where music dwells
Lingering — and wandering on as loth to die;
Like thoughts whose very sweetness yieldeth proof
That they were born for immortality.
—from Wordsworth’s sonnet “Tax not the royal Saint”
Because their distinctive King’s choral style is like no other, many times I said to myself almost out loud, “Remember this when you are not able to pedal a short distance every day to see and hear all this as often as you pleased.”
Sitting in that chapel my eyes often rose to the ceiling to study the intricacies of the design of the fan vaulting, which is the largest fan vault in the world, and the most beautiful comparing it with pictures of other fan vaults around Europe. I suppose I was also looking heavenward in gratitude for my winding up in a situation that allowed me to visit this chapel and its choir as often as I wanted for three or four years.
James A. W. Rembert, emeritus professor of English, The Citadel, has a PhD in English from UNC-Chapel Hill and a second PhD from Cambridge University in England. In the 1960s he was an infantry captain, paratrooper, Army Ranger and ODA (A-Team) Commander in the 11th Army Special Forces Group (Airborne), i.e. “Green Beret.”