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St John's Service

commissioned for the choir of St John's College, Cambridge
author of text
Magnificat: Luke 1: 46-55; Nunc dimittis: Luke 2: 29-32

With the music of Julian Anderson we come right up to the present day; we recorded the work just a few weeks after giving its premiere in 2019. Choral music was not part of Anderson’s background: 'in fact it’s quite a surprise to me—but a very pleasant one—that I’ve ended up doing as much choral music as I have.' He was commissioned to write a major choral and orchestral work for the 2006 BBC Proms, Heaven is Shy of Earth, becoming a member of the London Philharmonic Choir as he started to compose that piece. Anderson’s 'first proper teacher', John Lambert, was another Nadia Boulanger pupil like Berkeley. Anderson has commented on the rigorous training Lambert gave him in 'how to hear pitch'. His extraordinary ear was much in evidence as we learnt the work, and also his remarkable feel for texture and colour. Anderson has a very particular approach to the organ pedals—when there should and shouldn’t be 16’ pitch; this links back to the Howells at the start of our album.

Magnificat is based around two contrasting textures which are heard at the start. The first is characterised by bright, energetic two-part writing for organ manuals. The second, which begins after 'God my saviour', sets lyrical choral writing over long sustained organ chords as Berkeley had done. The harmony makes use of Anderson’s favourite chord from Dutilleux’s second symphony. In my notes on the Watson, above, I compared the ways different composers set 'He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away'. Anderson described to me how, living in the city, he has an image of good things, but he remembers the look on people’s faces in 2008 after the financial crisis. The end of the Magnificat Gloria brings to mind the end of Jonathan Harvey’s Magnificat Gloria, which Harvey described as having 'an urgency, a pleading quality regarding the future, a strong impulse to transform the cosmos'. Harvey and Anderson both spent time working in Paris, both are connected to the French tradition of spectralism, and they knew each other well.

Anderson wanted maximum contrast between the two canticles, and the Nunc dimittis was in fact the first to be composed. The brevity of the Nunc dimittis text, and a desire to balance the two canticles, led Anderson to use much word repetition. The opening is a two-part texture, with pairs of voices doubled in octaves. (Berkeley had done the same at 'He remembering'.) Anderson conjures up a particular atmosphere through his use of dynamics, accents, tenutos and fps. The organ chords after salvation demonstrate the composer’s ear for spacing, like Pärt, whilst referring to his wedding anthem My beloved spake. When composing 'which thou hast prepared' Anderson tried out several harmonisations; he liked four, so he used them all! The first iteration of 'To be a light' has a particular glow, with six white notes close together within the space of an octave. 'And to be the glory' is designed to sound as though there are no bar lines, like sixteenth-century music. Anderson highlights a parallel between the ends of the two canticles, uniquely amongst composers on this recording, creating a sense of eternity for 'thy people Israel' as well as 'his seed for ever'. Both passages enhance the sudden exuberance of the doxology which follows. Anderson’s brief use of the Trompeta Real at the start of the second Gloria pays homage to Tippett’s St John’s Service, as heard in Magnificat 1. As it was in the beginning returns us to the texture and shapes of the opening.

By the time this recording is released a major new book will have been published by Boydell and Brewer, Julian Anderson: Dialogues on Culture, Composing and Listening. The composer has also written a note on his Evening Canticles:

Although I had already set separate Latin versions of both the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, this is the first time I’ve made a setting in English of both texts for use at Evensong. I have often attended Evensong in the Cambridge college chapels: it’s a service whose meanings and spirituality are quite different from any other, and it has its own special atmosphere. Evensong’s coupling of Magnificat and Nunc dimittis texts is fascinating: the exuberant celebration of the former contrasts so marvellously with the intimate reflections of the latter.
In my Evening Canticles I have tried to make the most of that contrast. The Magnificat is forceful, replete with sprung rhythms, polymeter, and bright harmonies showing off the brilliance of the choir. Some use is made (especially near the opening) of free rhythms in which every singer performs a passage at their own speed, creating a spray of sound. The Nunc dimittis, on the other hand, is predominantly clear and transparent, even austere, allowing the singers to shape melodic lines with expression and lyricism, as befits the text.
I was enormously excited to be invited to compose my Evening Canticles for Andrew Nethsingha and the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. I want to thank all the performers for giving the work such a splendid launch, and for the magnificent recording on this CD. The work is dedicated to Andrew Nethsingha.

I am grateful for this and for his generous words; it’s been very enjoyable to perform and record the work. Anderson’s music forms a fine ending to our recording, as these 2000-year-old religious texts continue to inspire composers in new ways.

from notes by Andrew Nethsingha © 2021


Magnificat, Vol. 2
Studio Master: SIGCD667Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Canticle 1: Magnificat  My soul doth magnify the Lord
Track 15 on SIGCD667 [5'29] Download only
Canticle 2: Nunc dimittis  Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace
Track 16 on SIGCD667 [4'59] Download only

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