Prior to the Reformation, prayer in the early evening or late afternoon was known as the office of Vespers, one of the eight Canonical Hours of the divine office of the Western church. However, in 1549, a prayer book known as the Book of Common Prayer was adopted in the context of the English Reformation. Bishop Thomas Cranmer established the office of Evensong using elements taken from both Vespers and Compline, generally to be conducted in the English language, as was the case with the entire liturgy.
After a series of slight modifications, the office of Evensong took its modern form in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, a form that is followed very closely throughout the whole of the Anglican and Episcopal Church throughout the world.
Evensong, like all forms of liturgical worship, has elements of drama and ritual that nourish the spiritual life of all of us. It is based entirely on elements of Holy Scripture and it is scripted according to a long history, originating in Judaic and early Christian evening worship. Evensong is traditionally mostly sung by a choir, with the full congregation participating throughout in thoughtful prayer, allowing the music to soothe us and to draw us closer to the presence of God. The congregation also joins in the spoken parts of the liturgy: the reciting of the Confession and the Creed, as well as singing the hymns. As a part of the daily office, it is intended to be part of a regular discipline of worship.
The structure of Evensong has three basic components: preparation, lessons, and prayer. Preparation occurs through an invitatory, the confession and absolution. Lessons are from a prescribed lectionary, including a psalm and readings from the Old and New Testaments, and always including the Canticles of Mary (the Magnificat) and Simeon (the Nunc Dimittis). These canticles are particularly powerful because, while taken from the gospels, they mark the transition from the Old to the New Testament and the redemption that the coming of Christ brings to us. Finally, the rubric concludes with prescribed prayers and collects, followed by an anthem appropriate for the day or liturgical season. Because most of the service is sung, there is an abundance of music composed specifically for Evensong from the 16th through to the 21st century.