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Nunc Dimittis

posted Feb 1, 2014, 4:51 PM by Unknown user   [ updated Feb 1, 2014, 4:52 PM ]
Found in today’s Gospel, the Canticle of Simeon is sequentially the last of the New Testament’s three great Canticles, the other two being the Magnificat (Canticle of Mary) and the Benedictus (Canticle of Zachary). The title is formed from the opening words in Latin: Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine etc. Simeon was told he would see the Messiah in his lifetime. When he recognizes the infant Jesus as the Savior, his words of praise translate to “Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace, just as you promised.” So this canticle which implies fulfillment and rest is often used at the end of the day or the end of a life.

Hundreds (some say thousands) of composers have set this text to music, including William Byrd; Orlando Gibbons; Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Michael Praetorius. In England, one of the most well-known is the plainchant theme of Thomas Tallis. Gustave Holst, who composed the hymn tune THAXTED (which we sing as O God beyond All Praising and Three Days) wrote an eight-part a cappella version for chamber choir. Another version for eight-part a cappella choir, this time with tenor soloist, is in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, also known as his “Vespers”. J.S. Bach and Johannes Brahms both composed famous settings; and Charles Villiers Stanford’s setting was the recessional at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.

In jazz, every performance is unique, and many aficionados know the following story about legendary saxophonist John Coltrane. One night he performed one of his most famous pieces, A Love Supreme. Every ounce of his skill and musicianship came together in a magical performance described as “sublime”. Even Coltrane recognized something special had happened. And as he walked offstage, his drummer heard him breathe two words: “Nunc dimittis”…