Vesper Ensemble Offers a Place of Reflection

Duke’s Vespers Ensemble performs weekly by candlelight.

For thirty minutes each Thursday, just after the bells chime five, Duke Chapel falls under an enchanting spell. Between the looming limestone pillars and the oaken pews, a chorus begins to sing medieval hymns in foreign, ancient tongues. Wearing white surplices over red robes, they proceed in pairs down the dimly lit nave to the chancel. Each carries a small glowing candle and a songbook. The choir casts bright, reverberating notes to the stone saints, vibrant panes, and vaulted arches above—a sound at once ethereal and haunting.

Vespers, derived from the Latin word for evening, is a twilight prayer service that dates back to the Middle Ages. The Duke Vespers Ensemble showcases early music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, as well as modern pieces. “It’s like a living museum,” says Vespers conductor Brian A. Schmidt, who is also assistant conductor and administrative coordinator of Chapel Music at Duke. The group sings in myriad languages, including Latin, German, Polish, Russian, and Swedish. New to Duke as of 2012, Schmidt plans to diversify the ensemble’s repertoire to make the service accessible to people of all spiritual and musical backgrounds. When choosing pieces for the group, he always considers, “Where is the beauty in each piece, and why is it beautiful to anyone?”

The service offers a departure from the harried commotion of classes and cursory exchanges on the quad. “It allows for people to come and enjoy singing hymns but also just time to reflect and be quiet with oneself,” says Schmidt. “That’s what beautiful buildings like the chapel were built for. A place where people could come and hear God and hear themselves.” With its grand ceilings and elaborate detail, the chapel provides a venue both blissfully resonant and fittingly sacred. The music is interspersed with liturgical readings and followed by an intricate, spontaneous organ postlude.

“I think it’s a very restful place for people to come,” says fourth-year choir member and bass Mike Lyle. “I feel most at home when I’m singing. Even if it’s a heavy piece, part of me is just filled with joy just being able to sing.” 

Established in 1986, the Vespers Ensemble comprises roughly twenty volunteer singers from Duke and the Durham community. They perform concerts on campus each year and have toured locally and internationally. At the Boston Early Music Festival last year, they performed Membra Jesu Nostri, a seven-cantata oratorio composed by Dieterich Buxtehude in 1680. Schmidt commissioned visual artist Robyn Sand Anderson to depict the seven movements, each featuring a part of Christ’s body. Anderson’s vivid acrylic paintings convey both suffering and hope and will hang in the chapel this Easter.

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