Program notes

Nunc dimittis for choir, opus 89 (2011)

The following program note for Nunc dimittis is by Natalie Shea, Sydney Chamber Choir, and may be used with acknowledgment.

Like the Magnificat, the Nunc dimittis or Song of Simeon forms part of the liturgy of Vespers (in the Roman Catholic church) and Evensong (in the Anglican tradition). Together, they are affectionally known as the ‘Mag and Nunc’, and composers of church music across the centuries have tended to think of them as a single, two-movement piece, much like the movements of a Mass. Many settings, for example, use identical music for the Doxology at the end (‘Glory be to the Father…’).

Andrew Schultz, however, wrote his Nunc dimittis and Magnificat separately, some two years apart. The Nunc dimittis was written in 2011 in response to a commission from the Brisbane Chamber Choir who had already performed the Magnificat and wanted to have a Schultz Nunc dimittis to perform with the earlier work. Both were written primarily for concert performance although they both delight in the resonant acoustic of a traditional church building and may be performed in a liturgical context.

The approach to the text is, similarly, spacious rather than pragmatic: more poetry than prose, perhaps. The Song of Simeon, like the Magnificat, comes from the Gospel according to Luke and is a song of wonder at the ability of God to achieve great things through the most unexpected of means. Simeon was a man ‘just and devout’ who had been promised by the Spirit of God that he would not die until he had seen the saviour of Israel. We don’t know how long he had been waiting – the scripture doesn’t say how old he was though tradition has him as a grey-headed ancient – but it was long enough to see death as a welcome release.

When Mary and Joseph go to the temple to present their firstborn to the Lord, according to the rites set down in Jewish law, Simeon immediately recognises the infant Jesus as the promised saviour not only of the Jewish nation, but of the whole world. Overwhelmed at the prophetic vision he has been granted, he takes the baby into his arms and gives thanks to God that his long wait is over at last.

Though the text of the Nunc dimittis is a declaration of fulfilment, the music begins in the time of waiting. The lower voices quietly and slowly chant the text, the words and harmonies echoing each other as if to create in sound the vast chambers of the temple. Emerging from this confusion, the sopranos cry out with inarticulate longing and increasing urgency: ‘Lord, Lord, Lord…’

The shadowy rhythms distil into certainty at the word ‘Lumen’ (light), but the harmonies continue to unsettle. If this is a shout of exultation, it is not without pain, and we are reminded that Simeon spoke again after his Song, with a prophesy for Mary: ‘This child is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected – and a sword will pierce your own soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.’ There is a moment of shining splendour at the word ‘gloria’ (glory), but the vision quickly fades and blurs, and the sopranos are left groping for their last word.

In the Doxology, however, the mood changes completely. The tenors begin with a long-breathed melody, spun from simple rising and falling arpeggios, that encompasses a full octave and a fourth before being passed on to the other voices. The accompanying harmonies are gentle and tender, and the smooth, steady flow of notes, despite paying no heed to the barlines, manages to create a lilting feel – Simeon cradling the child Jesus in his arms? And the final ‘Amen’, a mellower echo of the strident cries of ‘Lumen’, now resolves into a brightly joyous major chord.

© Natalie Shea, 2013.