Pärt was indeed aware of the prevalence of partnered ‘Mag and Nunc’ settings elsewhere, and of the possible inevitability that he would set the Nunc dimittis in the future (though not consciously as a companion to the Magnificat). So he describes it as a happy coincidence—‘my wish, their wish’—that he was asked to write one for the Choir of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh, and their director Matthew Owens. Twelve years after the Berlin Magnificat, this setting of three remarkable verses from Luke Chapter 2 was premiered in a cathedral Evensong during the Edinburgh Festival in August 2001.
It is a text just waiting to be set by a composer of Pärt’s sensibilities – one of serenity and tenderness, followed by transcendent, sparkling joy. The same still beauty that he achieved back in 1977 with the second part of Tabula Rasa, or the Stabat Mater in 1985, is present in the opening of this Nunc dimittis; and all three share the same stepwise downward sighs and intermingling dissonances of upper voices. In the equally placid ‘Gloria Patri’ (interestingly, Pärt’s Magnificat doesn’t feature this customary adjunct to the Evening Canticles), the two upper parts work against each other in stepwise ascent, then descent, around a contra-bass C sharp/G sharp pedal—playing with dissonance and consonance in the same way that Bach so often did. Centrally, Pärt prepares the ground for a radiant climax on ‘lumen ad revelationem’ (‘a light to lighten’) with a measured procession of gradually expanding phrases and anticipations of the brief, majesterial shift from C sharp minor to major.
from notes by Meurig Bowen © 2003