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Magnificat and Nunc dimittis
October 1999; SATB+organ; Magnificat commissioned for the 1st BBC evensong of 2000; first performed in Wells by the catheral choir, St John's Cambridge & the BBC Philharmonic under MacMillan; Nunc commissioned by Winchester and 1st performed 15 July 2000
author of text
Magnificat: Luke 1: 46-55; Nunc dimittis: Luke 2: 29-32

'MacMillan: Choral Music' (CDA67867)
MacMillan: Choral Music
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67867 
Canticle 1: Magnificat  My soul doth magnify the Lord
Canticle 2: Nunc dimittis  Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace

Magnificat and Nunc dimittis
The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis was commissioned in two parts. The Magnificat, in its original version with orchestral accompaniment, was commissioned by the BBC for the first broadcast of Choral Evensong of the new millennium, which came from Wells and was sung by the choirs of Wells Cathedral and St John’s College, Cambridge, with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by the composer. The Nunc dimittis was commissioned by Winchester Cathedral and first performed (alongside the Magnificat in its version with organ accompaniment) on 15 July 2000. The two movements together form a large-scale work that takes over twenty minutes to perform if the full introduction to the Magnificat is used.

The atmosphere MacMillan sets up is quietly meditative and the vocal parts seem to grow out of the stillness of the introduction. A sense of suspended animation, and of awe, is created, giving Mary’s song of praise at being chosen as the mother of Jesus a palpable feeling of wonder. The choir’s simple, unaccompanied, chant-like phrases are interspersed by organ interludes that are Messiaen-like in their evocation of birdsong. A brief moment of darkly latent power from the organ at ‘For he that is mighty hath magnified me’ comes again before ‘He hath shewed strength with his arm’, but this time turns into an extended interlude. The whole movement barely raises its voice and one is reminded of Herbert Howells’ stricture that ‘the mighty should be put down without a brute force which would deny this canticle’s feminine association’. Nevertheless, the powerfully effective build up towards the ‘Gloria Patri’—through the words ‘as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever’, with many repetitions of the words ‘for ever’—leads quite naturally into the massive blocks of sound introduced in the ‘Gloria’. Again, the choir and the organ have separate phrases, the organ playing tutti and the choir singing their chant-like phrases homophonically, a little reminiscent of Tippett’s only setting of these words. The Amens are sung piano by the choir with strong organ interjections. But, at last, the opening of the Magnificat is reiterated by the organ quietly and the canticle reaches its conclusion with a gentle chord of A major. The dedication is to Joyce McMillan, a journalist with The Scotsman newspaper.

The Nunc dimittis begins with static long low notes for the basses and organ pedals. This is Simeon’s song of thanksgiving at the end of his life and MacMillan sets up an opening which exudes exhaustion—almost as if the old man cannot raise his head from the dust to utter his words. The organ breaks into birdsong-like material again after the words ‘according to thy word’, and the pattern of choral phrase with gentle accompaniment and organ interlude with birdsong figuration continues. The words ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel’ begin with the direction serene, but the music soon expands and develops. The organ builds through the vocal parts to develop a toccata-like figuration for the start of the ‘Gloria Patri’ and the choir sings long lines divided between sopranos/tenors and altos/basses. There is a climax and a pause at the words ‘world without end’ before the Amens which recall the ‘Gloria’ to the Magnificat, with huge organ chords and right-hand clusters. A wonderfully lyrical falling phrase, very much like the last movement of MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, takes the dynamic from forte to piano, and the movement ends as it started with the basses intoning a low E. The Nunc dimittis is dedicated to Patrick Reilly, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Glasgow University and, as MacMillan wryly notes: ‘a fellow apologist for Catholicism’.

from notes by Paul Spicer © 2011

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDA67867 track 3
Recording date
24 June 2010
Recording venue
Wells Cathedral, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. MacMillan: Choral Music (CDA67867)
    Disc 1 Track 3
    Release date: June 2011
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