Last winter around Christmas I wrote a Magnificat: it was strange, and in the end quite exciting to immerse myself in words I’ve known very well for years and years but haven’t ever set to music before (see a post about this). In England, the vast majority of occasions when a choir sings a Magnificat are Choral Evensongs, so it really made sense to follow up that piece with a Nunc Dimittis, setting the words of the old man Simeon when he sees the infant Jesus. At some point last year I mentioned to composer Robin Holloway that I’d written the Magnificat and was now thinking about a Nunc Dimittis, and he said – you’ll enjoy it: the Magnificat is an awkward text to set because it’s all chopped up into short separate sentences, but in the Nunc everything flows on in a single unfolding vision.
Looking at the two texts I can see exactly what he means, but strangely, I ended up finding the Nunc much harder to set. I got stuck just once in the Magnificat, and found a way through that within a few days. In the Nunc I made only a very uncertain start, and then got stuck for several months; later attempts in the summer to make a fresh start did little better. It could simply be that it wasn’t a top priority, but at any rate, the musical ideas wouldn’t come.
The next thing that happened was that Geoffrey Webber offered to give the first performance of the Magnificat with the fantastic choir of Gonville & Caius College – but it was agreed of course that I’d write a Nunc Dimittis to go with it. And then, once Christmas was done, there actually wasn’t a huge amount of time left in which to write it. The sticking point (‘For mine eyes have seen thy salvation…’) didn’t open up straight away, even then, but when it did, what turned out to have been the crucial issue was rhythm. It was only when I found the right rhythm, and with it momentum, flow, that the melodies and harmonies came, and then they came very easily. All the earlier attempts went nowhere because they weren’t in the right underlying tempo, metre, groove.
So it’s done now, and I’m really looking forward to hearing the first performance, at Evensong on Sunday 5th February – it’s a superb choir and I’ve no doubt they will do it proud. It’ll be an exciting service, with a new set of Responses by Robin Holloway and an anthem by Cheryl Frances Hoad.
And now I’m beginning to have an idea for a completely different setting of the Magnificat…
(to hear some of my other choral music, go to >listen/voices)