I’m sitting here currently listening to the Nunc Dimittis/St. Simeon’s Prayer/Νῦν ἀπολύεις in a setting by Herbert Howells. The Nunc Dimittis and it’s companion, the Magnificat, come from his Gloucester Service that he wrote for Gloucester Cathedral in 1946. The thing that strikes me about these two pieces is how hauntingly beautiful they are. I don’t know a whole lot about Howells however all of his pieces that I have heard have been deeply moving. The modal nature of much of his music especially endears itself to me.
29. Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
30. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
31. Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
32. A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
I took part in recording an audition CD a few months ago at Trinity to send to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London where they are hoping to get a spot singing for a week or two there, very big deal. I acted as page turner and music lackey for Michael, our choir director and head organist there. Richard, our assistant choir director and organist, conducted the choirs for the recording and played the part of priest for recording the responsories and collects. It was a glorious evening. Michael had called me in the afternoon asking if I could come in last minute to help out. Naturally I agreed and hopped on the train down to Boston, arriving just in time to grab a bite of dinner before the recording section.
Now, something should first be said about the Trinity Choristers. The choristers are made up of kids between 7 and 8 years of age and high school, and Richard has been working with them to train them in singing and music. The results are simply stunning and when you hear these kids sing it is like hearing the angels. We started at 6:30 p.m. and ran to 9 something. Hearing the choristers and the schola sing these two settings by Howells was the highlight of the evening. There was magic in the air, or the Holy Spirit, whichever you prefer. The music was so pure and good that I truly believe that “God gave us music that we might pray without words.” That feeling is rarely present in most choirs nowadays, but we managed captured at least a little part of it on tape and sent it off across the Atlantic.
The power of this music is obvious when you listen to it. It is at once both ethereal and totally other yet rooted deeply within you and has a connection, an indescribable connection. The power in the Nunc Dimittis at “the glory of thy people Israel” is palpable, you feel that glory, somehow, in the music that St. Simeon speaks as he beholds the Christ-child, the salvation, our hope, our life, our God. St. Simeon had been waiting for this moment for many generations. Indeed, he had been made to live an abnormally long life just so he would see Jesus, the Messiah. Simeon had been one of the 70 Elders who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, some 200 years before Christ was born. He had been translating the passage from the Prophet Isaiah that said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Simeon doubted this and so translated “virgin” as “young woman”. An angel appeared to him and told him to change it back and said that he would not die till he had beheld the Christ with his own eyes, because of his disbelief. One can only imagine how relieved Simeon was when the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph entered the Temple that day. His eyes had truly “seen the light of Thy salvation.”
The mystery of the music that Howells set this text to conveys, or attempts to convey, the mystery of the Incarnation. The completely incomprehensible mystery, that God would humble Himself and take on our flesh to save us. His love was so great, that He took the form of a servant, He that rules over all. There are few moments when music is able to capture some greater truth, in this case the text of St. Simeon’s Prayer has an especial power. I think that this is one of those things we need more of. Music that is truly prayer without words, music that lifts and soothes, empowers and humbles, music that glorifies God. He who made us, He who gave us the gift of music, He who inspires us.
And now listen.