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In the Magnificat Stanford’s organ accompaniment immediately recalls the imagery of Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, but it is Mary, with her exultant song (rather than Gretchen’s one of romantic longing) at the Annunciation, who is placed at the spinning-wheel. Throughout the movement (in effect a deliciously gentle scherzo) the form is punctuated by the treble’s joyous top G (‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’; ‘For he that is mighty’; ‘and hath exalted’; ‘As he promised to our forefathers, Abraham’) while a secondary motif (‘And my spirit hath rejoiced’), itself related to the opening phrase, is deployed as a concluding idea to both the first and last paragraphs (‘and holy is his name’; ‘for ever’). In addition to the admixture of phraseological and lyrical sophistication, Stanford brings an effortless sense of control to the tonal structure. The deft manner in which the music hovers on the dominant of E (‘And his mercy is on them’), avoids the platitude of the cadence (‘He hath filled the hungry with good things’) and strays yet further to the Neapolitan (‘his servant Israel’) only to recover to the tonic with consummate ease, demonstrates just how skilfully he had adapted those elements of Brahmsian instrumental technique for liturgical use.
The Nunc dimittis, taken by a solo bass, is composed around the seminal phrase ‘depart in peace’ heard at the opening on the organ. This motif is developed in the central section in combination with a new idea (‘To be a light’) before returning as the core of the choir’s hushed unison recapitulation (‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant’). The Gloria begins by reworking corresponding material from the Magnificat (itself drawn from the opening of the Te Deum), but any sense of a more muscular conclusion is dissipated by a return to tranquillity, first in the succession of wilting, valedictory phrases (‘world without end’) and secondly in the final ‘Amen’ which recalls the central motive of the Nunc dimittis one last time.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 1998
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