Of the great many settings of Simeon’s song, usually heard as one of the traditional canticles of the service of Evensong, the majority are for the most part quiet and restrained. The text obviously reinforces this idea, being words of resignation, the realisation that God is finally allowing the prophet to “depart in peace”. But i have always felt that there would have been no peace, no quietness, no restraint at that moment when Simeon first sees the child and realises who he is, with all the implications that arise out of that. To my mind, this would be an overwhelming experience, a vision beyond all other, the revelation of something profound and marvellous: the Nunc dimittis, after all, is not first and foremost a song about Simeon, but Jesus.
To this end, my setting begins with vast, dense chords from the organ, complex and resonant. This is, if you like, that moment of realisation drawn out to become the introduction of the work; the music is transfixed, rooted, amazed, a kaleidoscope of emotions. Everything that follows—the actual setting of the words—is therefore heard in the light of this opening, just as Simeon’s words are in the light of his realisation. The choir’s music is deliberately markedly different from the organ’s opening gestures: soft and intense, resigned but joyful, and musically relatively simple. Nonetheless, the choir’s quiet reflections increasingly draw on the more complex harmonies of the organ’s initial chords.
Despite the close association with evening worship, my setting was composed as an anthem for the Eucharist, with the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple specifically in mind; to that end, the traditional doxology was not originally included. However, it has been added for occasions when a traditional liturgical conclusion is more appropriate. It is deliberately played down, chanted to a single tone during the organ’s final bars; the choir may omit these words if desired.