Caius Choir premiere

It was such a pleasure to hear the choir of Gonville & Caius College under their conductor Geoffrey Webber sing the new Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis which I wrote for them, on a wonderfully wintry, dark and snow-laden Sunday Evening.  It’s an unusual setting in many ways, and the choir and organist so quickly latched on to what it is about, and gave a really excellent first performance.  And it was an incredibly challenging programme, which also included three pieces by Cheryl Frances Hoad and a new set of responses by Robin Holloway.

It was very good to see so many friends who braved the weather to hear it.  I’m delighted that Geoffrey has suggested that they will sing the piece again next term, so if anyone was unable to get there on Sunday, do come along. As soon as I know the date I’ll post it up on this site.

Song of Simeon

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)

my soul doth magnify …

Like anyone who’s sung in an Anglican church or chapel choir, I’ve sung these words many times, in many wonderful settings (and a few less wonderful ones, too). I had never set the Magnificat myself, though.  And over Christmas, I suddenly felt drawn to have a go.

They are wonderful words.  But it took a lot of work, reading and speaking them through again and again, to get to the point where I could actually approach them again as words, ideas.  Until then, every phrase of the text immediately rang out with musical phrases from all the well-known settings which I’ve sung over the years til they’ve become engrained in my brain, and even if I managed to let go of the particular rhythms and shapes of that setting, I was still left with a sense of it that was already interpreted, pre-digested.  Gradually, as I said the lines over and over, I felt I was beginning to clear some free space in my mind and strip my reading and thinking right back to the words themselves. And this was the place where I could begin to find some music of my own. I’ve now finished the Magnificat, and tried to focus on the feelings of awe as well as joy,  the sense of realising something all-encompassing and fundamental.  Now I need to start thinking about the Nunc Dimittis…