I always cherish the time around the first week of February — true midwinter in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Pacific Northwest, with its mild climate, little green shoots start to appear, even as snow flurries come and go. This midpoint between December 21 and March 21 has for millenia been marked by special celebrations honoring the transition from darkness to light, death to birth, or hibernation to emergence. Events to honor this transition include the pagan Imbolc, the Icelandinc Þorrablót, and the recounting of Persephone’s annual release from Hades. The Christian feast of Candlemas on February 2, which commemorates the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple forty days after Christmas, incorporates many of the elements of these midwinter celebrations.
I have written previously about the Feast of the Presentation, and the Nunc Dimittis, which is the Gospel Canticle associated with Compline. In January and February, I was a participant in performances that included two very different, but stunningly beautiful settings of this text.
In January, Choral Arts Northwest performed the All-night vigil by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). The Nunc Dimittis is contained within Great Vespers, which is the first part of the all-night vigil. About this setting, I quote from Seattle conductor and musicologist Gary Cannon (who also participated in this performance), from his essay on the work:
“In the fifth movement the tenor gets a more extended role, and indeed it is a specific character, that of Simeon in the New Testament. He was the old man who met the infant Jesus in the temple and declared, as had been prophesied that he would, that this was the savior. In this prayer, known in the West as the ‘Nunc dimittis,’ Simeon declares his readiness for death. Surrounding the soloist’s Kievan chant, the slow, steady pace of the altos and tenors could be interpreted as either a gentle lullaby, the tolling of bells, or the gait of an old man. Liturgically, at this point children enter the church and are laid on the ground, after which the priest raises them up to their parents. The movement closes with the basses descending to an extraordinarily low bottom B-flat. When Rachmaninov first played this section for Nikolai Danilin (1878–1945), who was to conduct the premiere, the maestro’s response was: ‘Where on earth are we going to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas.’ Years later the composer confirmed: ‘I knew the voices of my countrymen.’ He had hoped that this movement would be played at his funeral, a wish which was unfortunately not realized.”
In this performance, from Choral Arts Northwest’s concert at Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle on January 14, 2017, the tenor soloist is Les Green:
(Orthodox Church Slavonic)
Nyne otpushchayeshi raba Tvoego, Vladyko, po glagolu Tvoyemu s mirom
yako videsta ochi moi spaseniye Tvoye,
ezhe esi ugotoval pred litsem vsekh lyudei,
svet vo otkrovenie yazykov,
i slavu lyudei Tvoikh Izrailya.
Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
Your word has been fulfilled.
My eyes have seen the salvation
You have prepared in the sight of every people,
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.
On February 19, 2017, the Compline Choir combined with the Senior Choristers from St Mark’s Cathedral to sing one of our rare SATB services (the intent is to sing once every two years). For the Nunc Dimitis, we sang a setting in D by the English composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983), which he wrote for the Cathedral Church Of The Holy and Indivisible Trinity, Gloucester, in 1946.
In the last section at the words “As it was in the beginning,” the trebles rise to a high “A,” producing the climactic moment of the piece. In his essay “A ‘Wholly New Chapter’ in Service Music: Collegium regale and the Gloucester Service” in The Music of Herbert Howells (ed. by Cooke and Maw: Boydell Press, 2013), Phillip A. Cooke writes, “The effect of this passage is truly spell-binding, and it is one of the great moments in the Anglican musical canon. This is a representation of ‘Christ in his glory and majesty…it is Howells at his most powerful and transcendental…”
For this February 19th Office of Compline, the choirs were accompanied on the organ by Michael Kleinschmidt, Canon Musician, and directed by Jason Anderson, Compline Choir Director. The senior choristers were prepared by Rebekah Gilmore, Associate Musician & Choir School Director, St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Glory be to the Father,
And to the Son,
And to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning,
Is now, and ever shall be,
World without end. Amen.