For a while now the Tallis Nunc dimittis has been a regular staple in the weekly line up at Beer and Psalms. If you’ve never gone, and ladies, it’s safe to assume you haven’t, the guys sing it every week in parts. That’s an accomplishment. It’s taken them a while to learn it. But they’ve not been deterred and over time, they’ve come to love it and look forward to singing it each week. So I’m teaching it to the congregation for them. Well, at least I’ll teach the soprano line. You’re welcome, gents.
The Circs, the Sitch
The Nunc dimittis is the praise Simeon uttered (Luke 2:29-32) as he took the child Jesus in his arms and blessed God. Simeon awaited the coming of the Messiah, and God promised he would not die until he saw Him, and when Simeon finally does, he praises God, calling on God to let him die peacefully now that God has fulfilled His promise to him.
Light and vision are the subject of Simeon’s prayer. Imagine Simeon an old man, whose eyesight was undoubtedly weak, dimly seeing the LORD’S salvation before him. Though physically weak, Simeon sees the truth clearly: Jesus is the promised light to the Gentiles, the glory of Israel.
Historically the church has recognized Simeon’s prayer as a light shining in the darkness. Catholic monks would sing a Nunc dimittis at Compline: evening worship celebrated well after sunset, when final prayers were offered before turning in. In the contemplative life, the light of truth shines more acutely in the shroud of night. During the English Reformation, the Anglican church assimilated the Nunc dimittis into Evensong worship and many musical settings of this text were composed, no longer in Latin as before, but in English (even though the Latin title was retained. This is true for all the historic church canticles, including Mary’s song—Magnificat, its Latin title).
The common people did not know Latin and so vernacular language replaced it in many northern-European countries. But besides turning to the lingua franca, another feature of these songs is the use of homorhythm (literally “same rhythm”), or the simultaneous declamation of the words in all the parts. Before the Reformation, the musical vogue was polyphony in which all the parts are treated melodically. The result is an impenetrable wall of sound, glorious music, yes, but with the words lost in the jumble. To end the confusion composers began to write music in such a way that everyone in the choir sings the same words and syllables at the same time. Our Cantus hymns are conceived this way.
Composer Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) wrote his Dorian Service this way. Many Kirkers know Tallis’s Psalm 95 from the Dorian Service. This service is a complete set of traditional songs from morning and evening worship in English (not Latin) and set homorhythmically. The Nunc dimittis is the last song in the Dorian Service.
Why sing this song?
At Christ Church we revel in historic Christianity and Protestantism specifically. This includes celebrating faithful music of the past. The Cantus Christi consists not of one kind of music, but many, drawing from ancient music (The Lord’s Prayer is “very ancient”), medieval songs, Lutheran chorales, Reformed Psalms, 18th century hymns of Watts, Wesley, and Newton, on down to songs less than five years old. The English Reformation is part of our spiritual heritage and so we sing not only Tallis but the songs All People That on Earth Do Dwell and Let Israel Now Say in Thankfulness, two examples of songs from that tradition.
As we embark upon Tallis’s Nunc dimittis some may object saying it’s too difficult. True. It is difficult. This is because it’s choir music, not congregational music. It’s congregational insofar that we can understand the words sung, but not congregational in how difficult it actually is to sing.
So why sing it?
A lot of our favorite songs in the Cantus Christi are not congregational songs either. Fuging tunes, for example, are not congregational and never really were intended for congregational use. It may be the case that fuging tunes (e.g. Before Thee Let My Cry Come Near) were never intended even for corporate worship. Fuging tunes were written for devotional use especially among the young folks of the church as a wholesome mid-week activity. They would gather in singing schools under a singing master (Irving’s Ichabod Crane was one) where they’d learn how to sing and read music. The singing master would challenge his students with tricky songs such as fuging tunes to test their skill and give them an added challenge.
I cite fuging tunes to demonstrate that a song’s difficulty is not a reason for rejecting it, and in fact, may be a reason for taking it on.
I don’t expect that the Nunc dimittis will be an immediate sensation, or even favorite once the congregation has gotten used to it. Nevertheless, it is a very beautiful piece and worthy of our attention. Because of its focus on light, the plan is to close our services with it throughout that season of light, Epiphany, in which the Gentiles come to the light of Christ, and kings (i.e. the Magi), to the brightness of His rising.
Tidings of comfort and joy!