Nunc dimittis

Icon of Simeon with the Christ in the church of St. Matthew in Heraklion

The Song of Simeon (St. Luke 2:29-32) is known as the Nunc dimittis, from the first two words of the Latin translation of text (meaning “Now you dismiss”). It is one of the most moving of the canticles in Scripture. It combines the quiet, intimate confidence of a humble and faithful servant of God with a bold and comprehensive summary of God’s purposes for all the world and for all of history. Here is the full text as it is usually sung (with the English translation from the Book of Common Prayer, plus a final Gloria Patri, which is traditionally added):

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.

Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;

Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in sæcula sæculorum. Amen.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

Swiss theologian Frédéric Godet (1812-1900) writes:

The vivid insight and energetic conciseness which characterizes this song reminds us of the compositions of David. Simeon represents himself under the image of a sentinel whom his master has placed in an elevated position, and charged to look for the appearance of a star, and then announce it to the world. He sees this long-desired star; he proclaims its rising, and asks to be relieved of the post he has occupied so long. . . . This soul, which for a long time past has been all expectation, has now found the satisfaction it desired, and can depart from earth in perfect peace.

In his 1978 commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, I. Howard Marshall observes that Simeon’s song — known best by its Latin name Nunc dimittis — has “the most obviously poetic form of any of the ‘hymns’ in the birth narrative. In content it is similar to the Magnificat and Benedictus, and it is not impossible that it was used in Christian worship and private devotion at an early stage.”

Because this canticle is a prayer at the closing of a life, it has traditionally been sung at the closing of the day, in Vespers, Compline, or Evening Prayer services. In the 1520s, Martin Luther paraphrased the Nunc dimittis in German, added a lovely melody, and created the moving and durable hymn Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (In peace and joy I now depart). There are many settings of the Nunc dimittis in Latin. But since — coupled with the Magnificat — the Nunc dimittis has a place of prominence in the Anglican liturgical tradition, there are countless settings of this in English. Our choir has only sung one setting, since we haven’t had occasion to celebrate a full Evensong. It is the Nunc dimittis from the Short Service in A-flat by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625).

Here are three other settings from Tudor era composers, presented in chronological order. The first is by the under-appreciated Robert Parsons (c.1530-1571). It is from his First Service, written sometime before 1553. Music historian Peter le Huray writes that “This Service is one of the most elaborate of all the extant Edwardian and Elizabethan settings.”

Here is a performance of Parsons’s First Service Nunc dimittis performed by Voces Catabiles conducted by Barnaby Smith.

Second is the Nunc dimittis from William Byrd’s Great Service. It is sung here by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury.

Finally, a setting of the Nunc dimittis by a composer who was one of the most prolific of major 16th- and early 17th-century composers, the Welsh-born Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656). This setting of the Nunc dimittis is from Tomkins’s Fifth Service, and differs from the others by its use of instrumental accompaniment. One can hear in this work the very beginnings of what might be called the English Baroque, developed more fully by John Blow (1649-1708) and Henry Purcell (1659-1695), long before George Frideric Handel (1685-1757) relocated to England.

But I digress. Here is Tomkins’s Fifth Service Nunc dimittis sung by the combined forces of the Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, the vocal ensemble Alamire, and the viol consort Fretwork, conducted by David Skinner.