Robinson McClellan ~ composer
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NUNC DIMITTIS (2005)
for SATB Chorus, SATB Soloists
Text: Luke 2:29-32Commissioned and premiered by
Yale Schola Cantorum (Simon Carrington)
— May 16, 17, 18 2005: premiered at Winchester Cathedral, Magdalen College Oxford, St. George's Chapel/Windsor Castle.
Hear the Oxford, UK performance (5:11)
Hear it with the Monteverdi Magnificat (15:04)
Available in the NCCO Series from E.C. Schirmer
This setting of the Nunc dimittis (text: Luke 2:29-32) was commissioned by Yale Schola Cantorum to be performed alongside a Magnificat by Monteverdi. Following a long tradition in the Anglican Evensong service, composers often set the two texts as a pair. The Nunc features the four soloists of the first year of early music voice program at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music: Mellissa Hughes, Ian Howell, Derek Chester, and Douglas Williams.
Here are some questions asked me by William Bausano, Professor of Music at Miami University, which I answered in a live session at the NCCO Choral Music Series Literature Session on November 5, 2011 in Ft. Collins, CO.
This is more or less what I said, written here from memory.
William Bausano: What is the source of the pre-existing plainsong melody that is used as an opening and closing antiphon?
Robin McClellan: It comes from the Anglican Plainchant Gradual, a book containing melodies used by the Anglican church. But many of the tunes, and likely this one, go back to the pre-Reformation Sarum Rite, ca. the 11th century or so.
This tune is used at Candlemas, February 2 in the Church calendar, which celebrates Simeon, the source of the Nunc text. Simeon is the old man who, having at last seen the child Jesus in the temple, asks God to let him go from the world.
WB: Please explain the choice of key signature at the beginning. Why choose a key signature of six flats when and then write C and D naturals for the first seven pages?
RM: Yes, I can see why one would wonder about this. With every C and D written as a natural up to page 8, an odd, not-quite-diatonic mode is created. On page 8, shortly after rehearsal E, the C-flat, then the D-natural, come in for the first time.
Those naturals are meant to be understood in the normal way: as "outside the key". The whole time until that point, it "really is" in a modal mixture of E-flat minor and G-flat major. But this "true" key is only confirmed with the entry of the C-flat and D-flat on p.8 — just as the text announces the revelation of the Lord to the Gentiles.
This was very deliberate: I wanted a pychological tension in the music up until that crucial point in the text, which is then relieved harmonically and psychologically at the moment of revelation. The light — spoken of in the text — literally arrives in measure 62, embodied in that C-flat in the bass…like a warm glow.
WB: Comment on the ‘dark’ and ‘somber’ character of the opening pages.
RM: This was actually a suggestion from friends as I began the piece: Simeon is a very old, frail man on the verge of death, and so the whole opening section is slow, and for the men's voices only.
WB: Comment on the style of the imitative section at rehearsal letter C, the triple meter, and imitative writing in general.
RM: Something I love to do in many of my pieces is to overlap one meter on another, with different "real" downbeats coming in different parts of each written bar. For example at m.42 the time signature is 4/4 but the bass and alto are actually both in triple meter — different triple meters beginning one beat apart. They have their "true" downbeats on "quod-" and "-ra-" respectively — but while the bass begins on beat one of the written bar, the altos begin theirs on beat two. Again, both are doing this within the written quadruple meter.
This sounds complicated, but it's very simple to sing: just follow the natural text stresses which show the real, felt meter operating at any given moment.
My favorite example of this starts on p.8, at m.66. The word "revelationem" is in triple meter in each part, but again offset, with a couple of unmarked (but felt) duple meters thrown in. If you follow the bass part through to the next page, its triple meter stays consistent (within/against the written 4/4 time) through rehearsal F, and finally is "confirmed" by an actual change of time signature to 3/4. So a kind of "metric modulation" takes place — though of course much simpler than the kind of thing Elliott Carter does!
WB: You have included both the English and Latin texts. Why did you choose to include both languages and why does the Latin precede the English?
RM: The choir always sings in Latin, and the soloists always sing in English. I think of the choir as a kind of mysterious, slightly inscrutable "Greek chorus" (in the broadest, least historically accurate sense of the term): they intone mysterous words in a language that few people understand.
The soloists then explain or translate, as if to say: "listen, this is what that mystical body of voices is saying". And that's why the Latin comes first most (but not all) of the time. When the order changes, as a "reveal thee / revelationem", it is significant.
WB: Why did you choose the King James translation instead of something more literal or contemporary?
RM: Partly just because I like it. But more practically, the piece was commissioned for a tour to the UK, and it was performed at Magdalen College Oxford, Winchester Cathedral, and Windsor Castle. I didn't want to get in trouble by offering a translation any less English!
I should point out, though, that I changed a word: it usually says "A light to lighten the Gentiles", which to me sounds a bit silly and pompous, and worse, doesn't convey the meaning clearly. So I changed it to "a light to reveal thee to the Gentiles." That's what it's really saying: the light reveals, shows, God to a whole new population of people, and that's a big deal. And more importantly, God continues to do this, to each one of us, whoever we are, of whatever creed, if we want to think of it that way.
WB: Explain the juxtaposition of the words from the Lesser Doxology, “Glory to the Father…” with the text from Luke, “Glory to Israel.”
RM: Yes it's unusual that my piece ends by repeating "Glory to Israel" after the doxology. For me, "Israel" in this case refers to all humanity, and each of us in particular. I have no idea if that's liturgically, theologically, or historically accurate, but the idea became lodged in my mind, and I felt that it spoke very powerfully to me personally.
So the emotional center of the piece for me is on p.9, around measure 76-81 or so: a plea for glory and comfort and understanding for each one of us as humans. So it made sense to bring that back at the very end — though I have to confess, I'm not sure I thought all of that through clearly at the time! Sometimes things just come through the way they are supposed to, a bit beyond the composer's consciousness.
The piece is dedicated to my grandfather, James McClellan, an amazing sculptor and comitted atheist who, at age 94, was often in my thoughts as I wrote the piece. He died August 1st, 2005 age 95. Photos of his sculptures are available via the link above.
TEXT (choir in Latin, soloists in English)
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine,
secundum verbum tuum, in pace.
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum,
Quod parasti ante facem omnium populorum,
ad revelationem gentium,
Et GloriaPatri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.
~ English version adapted by the composer from the 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer