Monday 2 February 2015

Some Music for Candlemas

A few things to listen to on the evening of this feast-day.

Introit for Candlemas, BL Egerton 3759, f.72

'Suscepimus Deus, misericordiam tuam in medio templi tui: secundum nomen tuum Deus, ita et laus tua in fines terrae: justitia plena est dextera tua.'

In other words:

'Senex puerum portabat: puer autem senem regebat...'

Kate Rusby sings Robert Herrick's poem 'Candlemas Eve':

'Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.'

A few favourite settings of the Nunc Dimittis:

I promise this is my very last post about Candlemas. I am, as you may have gathered from my last few posts, particularly fond of this feast, for reasons which are personal and a little sentimental: they include, for instance, a love for Cnut's Candlemas song at Ely, the subject of a section of my doctoral thesis I was particularly proud of; a real fondness for the medieval texts I've posted and linked to over the past few days; and a sense that on this day one can get especially close to the world of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, of Ælfric and Æthelwold and Dunstan and the rest. But more than anything I associate this day with the Nunc Dimittis, a text which as a student in a college choir I sang many times, in many different forms, week after week, with people who are very dear to me - so it's dear to me too, for that reason.

I also have a special liking for the Nunc Dimittis because I vividly remember the first time I encountered it. It was in my early teens, when I was taken for some reason to Evensong in a little church in the town where I grew up. Although a beautiful (and, I know now, an ancient) church, it's in a deprived area, rundown, with a small and aging congregation. When I went to Evensong there were perhaps four or five people in the congregation, with a few more in the dedicated but raggedy choir. The service, from the Book of Common Prayer, was mostly said or chanted by the congregation in unison. So there I was at thirteen, encountering Evensong for the first time: a near-empty church, the very plainest music, and an elderly church community of the kind which is always supposed to put young people off. But I loved it, odd child that I was - all because of the strangeness and beauty of the language. Although I had had quite an extensive religious education, and had been to a Catholic primary school, I don't think that until that point in my life I had ever heard a beautiful prayer; I'd certainly never encountered religious language that was challenging or difficult. At Evensong I was fascinated by the knotty language of the psalms and the collects, but it was one phrase in the Nunc Dimittis which struck me most of all: a light to lighten the Gentiles. It's such a simple, obvious rhetorical device, and I didn't know then that there's a name for it (polyptoton, in case you're wondering); I didn't know where the phrase came from, or what it meant, or even what Gentiles were (extensive religious education, remember!). I didn't know then what would matter to me now, that it's a poetic device which would work just as well in Old English as in the Tudor English of the Prayer Book - a phrase which an Anglo-Saxon writer could recognise, appreciate, even play with. None of that would have meant anything to me then. I just knew that it was beautiful. Up to that point, religion and beauty of language had seemed to me like quite distinct concepts; beauty was what I found and hungered for in poetry, but it had nothing to do with the simple, mostly banal language in which all religious ideas had been taught to me. I didn't know you could pray beautiful prayers, and I didn't know you could pray for abstract things like 'light'. It was a revelation to me that religious language could be interesting or beautiful, or that there was a place for beauty or complexity in religion at all. It was the first time I learned that prayer could be poetry, and poetry could be prayer.


Katie said...

Thank you for gathering all of this wonderful music! I'm settling in for an evening of paper writing and this is the perfect accompaniment.

I've greatly enjoyed your Candlemas posts over the last few days. I didn't encounter the Nunc Dimittis until I was eighteen and went away to college, and it's become so dear to me since.

Anonymous said...

What a feast for the Feast - thank you! "New things succeed...": I had never tried to follow neums before, heard the Eccard, or that anyone had set the Herrick, or that Cnut's song was about Candlemas - or what Dean Stubbs and T. Tertius Noble made of it! (Why, I wonder, did Dean Stubbs transfer it from Candlemas to Christmas Day? As it happens, I had just been rereading "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth" and enjoying again the use Tolkien makes of it there...)

Thank you, too, for telling of the 'lightening' of your Candlemas experience at thirteen! (It is strikingly in keeping with Dorothy L. Sayers' ideas about writing radio plays for children...) One Candlemas (I think at a couple years older) gave me one of my first experiences of a Latin service (and, I think, of a procession as well - certainly of being in one). I think it was before I read Eliot's wonderful "Song for Simeon"...

You say, "I promise this is my very last post about Candlemas" - well, I have enjoyed them all, and I see Frederick Holweck's 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia article includes, "In the Middle Ages it had an octave in the larger number of dioceses; also today the religious orders whose special object is the veneration of the Mother of God (Carmelites, Servites) and many dioceses (Loreto, the Province of Siena, etc.) celebrate the octave." So,... (I had better go water the Christmas tree, in any case - let the box wait an Octave!)

An Old Mertonian

Itinérante said...

I am so happy today =)
I was wishing that after the other beautiful posts, you would put some music for candlemas and there it is!
Thank you very very much!

neko said...

Today's blog was beautiful. The sacred music was magnificent. I especially like the first segment which gave the latin music manuscript to follow with the singing. Simply divine, as they say.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Just beautiful!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if there is any tradition of Nativity scenes with Simeon and Anna (even as adding the Christ Child and the Magi at the liturgically appropriate times have their traditions)?

An Old Mertonian

Anonymous said...

Thank you for all the Candlemas posts. To me it is a day steeped in mysteries about the nature of prophecy and fulfillment, about faithfulness, and about a follower (Simeon) granted his manumission. (Did he consider himself God's slave?)

I love Bach's song for Simeon "Ich habe genug." Also, another favorite Nunc Dimittis was the one used during the final credits of the television series "Tinker, Tailor."

Jenny said...

What a lovely post! Your last two thoughts, about the complexity and beauty of religion and the poetry of prayer, were especially poignant. Thank you for drawing attention to an often overlooked season.

Clerk of Oxford said...

I'm so glad you all enjoyed this collection of music as much as I enjoyed putting it together :)