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In 1962, St John’s College, Cambridge, was celebrating its 450th anniversary and Tippett was commissioned to write a liturgical work in celebration. Tippett himself decided to set the evening canticles and the first performance was given in the Chapel by the College Choir under George Guest on 13 March 1962. Controversial at the time and controversial to this day, the setting underlines the revolutionary nature of the text (he ‘hath exalted the humble and meek … and the rich he hath sent empty away’). Tippett was particularly interested in the Trompetta Real stop which had recently been added to the St John’s organ and which, with its trumpets protruding at a 45-degree angle from the casework, was an inspiration from the organs George Guest had discovered on trips to Spain. The Magnificat starts with an ecstatic flourish from the Trompetta and can be a rude awakening to those used to the comfortable and comforting settings of the previous ages. The Nunc dimittis is particularly affecting. Ian Kemp describes the low organ chords as ‘the thumping in Simeon’s heart as he is about to meet his Creator’ and goes on to say that ‘Simeon is too old to voice his own thoughts. All he can do is say “Lord”. An angel plucks the words out of his thoughts and sings them for him’ (Kemp, Ian Tippett The Composer and his Music, OUP, 1987, p374).
from notes by Andrew Carwood © 2014
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