Duke Chapel stands at the center of the university, and music stands at the center of the university’s worshipping community. As such, the Chapel offers over 200 opportunities for worship each year, and organ and sacred choral music remain as a pillar in the spiritual life of the Chapel. Along with worship on Sunday morning, the Chapel is home to a regular rotation of services of prayer and meditation throughout the week. In addition to the long tradition of Thursday Choral Vespers the Chapel this year adds Choral Evensong, held each Sunday afternoon, to its growing list of choral services.
Evensong derives from the medieval church and is offered at Duke in its classical form from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, which sought to harmonize Catholic and Protestant traditions. Most of the service is sung by the choir on behalf of those present and those gathered elsewhere around the world. Participation occurs through our presence and our listening so that the words and music might become a prayer within and lift us to contemplate God’s beauty and glory.
While many services at Duke focus on the preached word to convey the good news of the Gospel, Evensong is a liturgy that employs the sung word to illuminate God’s Word. Consequently, Evensong demands the most from organists as they strive to master the skills of service playing and choral accompaniment. Such skills are best acquired and honed only in the hands-on practicum that the liturgy of Evensong provides. As a result, Duke Chapel now supports two organ scholar positions to learn and master the craft of service playing. As the conductor of Evensong, I am excited that the two organ scholars for 2015–2016, Eric Surber and Jordan Prescott, join the team of Chapel musicians. These two-year positions embody the educational mission of the university by providing the hands-on practical experience and training in service playing that, for centuries, has proven critical for preparation in vocational sacred music.
Though new for Duke, organ scholar positions have existed for centuries in the cathedrals and collegiate chapels of England, after which the footprint and architecture of Duke Chapel is fashioned. The organ scholar program at Duke takes its model from the most prominent organ scholarships in existence today, notably those at King’s College and St. John’s College, Cambridge. In adopting this model, Duke Chapel is not only helping to secure the future of sacred music in America through organ scholarships and regular choral services, but is also joining in the great tradition of cathedrals and chapels around the world offering regular prayer and praise to God.
Recordings, too, have been a more regular venture at Duke, notably the choral discs from the Chapel Choir and most recently the Vespers ensemble of early Italian sacred music from Rome. Organ recordings featuring the magnificent instruments of Duke Chapel have been somewhat sparser. The Aeolian organ, one of the jewels of worship at the Chapel, forms the subject of the most recent organ recording from Duke. Beautifully restored in 2008, this instrument now stands as one of the finest organs in America, bringing to listeners today the now renowned orchestral sound world of the 1930’s. This new recording features music that showcase the kaleidoscopic depth of tone and color of the instrument. Of particular interest will be a transcription of Jean Sibelius’s great orchestral portrait “Finlandia,” Eugène Gigout’s “Grand Chœur Dialogue” featuring the Amalgam Brass Ensemble in this magnificent tour de force for organ and brass, as well as Marcel Dupré’s epic “Trois Préludes et Fugues, Opus 7.” The disc’s release is slated for early 2016.
Though the building of Duke Chapel is closed for restoration during this academic year for, the worship of God is very much alive and open to all. In addition to Sunday morning worship I encourage you to stop by Goodson Chapel in the Divinity School one week for 4:00 p.m. Evensong or 6:00 p.m. Vespers and let the beauty of word and music together become a quiet respite from the busyness of your week.
By Christopher Jacobson, Chapel Organist