This year is the centenary of Gustav Holst’s beautiful ‘Nunc Dimittis’ (H127). This work was composed at the request of the then Director of Music at Westminster Cathedral, Richard Terry (1864-1938). It was first performed on Easter Sunday, 4 April 1915 and then promptly forgotten. According to Imogen Holst (Holst, 1974) the original holograph had been lost, however there was a part-autograph score which enabled her to reconstruct the work. It was given its first modern performance by the BBC Northern Singers under Stephen Wilkinson on Tuesday 11 June 1974 during the Aldeburgh Festival in Framlington Church. Other works at this concert included music choral and organ music by Thomas Weelkes and William Byrd. Holst’s music featured the traditional ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’ from the Six Choral Folksongs (H136), ‘Sing me the Men’ (H160), Ave Maria (H49) and The Evening Watch (H159). Edward Greenfield reviewing this concert in the Musical Times (August 1974) considered that ‘…as a reaction against The Planets (which was occupying him at the time) Holst's inspiration was sweetly Elizabethan, with an exhilarating bell-like Gloria.’ The work was published by Novello in 1979.
The words of this liturgical piece are in Latin rather than the well-known Thomas Cranmer translation from The Book of Common Prayer. This reflects it use for the late-night service Compline in the Roman Catholic Book of Hours.
Latin Text of Nunc Dimittis:
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.
English Translation of Nunc Dimittis (Book of Common Prayer)
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen: thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared: before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
The interesting feature of Holst’s ‘Nunc Dimittis’ is the dichotomy of styles that the composer has utilised. Michael Short (Short, 1990) has noted how the work ‘begins with a typically Holstian build-up of intervals, producing a sustained resonant chord…’ [C minor 13th]. However, the style then changes to one of pure Renaissance with traditional chordal, unison and contrapuntal passages. There is an antiphonal exchange between male and female voices. This surely reflects the composer’s deep attachment to the music of William Byrd, John Sheppard and the Italian, Palestrina. A.E.F. Dickinson (Dickinson, 1995) has stated that this short liturgical work ‘predated Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor and reflects a similar interest in Renaissance polyphony.’ However Dickinson feels that it is ultimately too close to its models ‘for comfort’. The setting is for eight-part chorus.
If I heard Holst’s Nunc Dimittis ‘blind’ I would not probably not attribute it to him. There is little to suggest 20th century Barnes or Hammersmith - but a lot of influence from Palestrina and the Elizabethans.
Gustav Holst’s ‘Nunc Dimittis’ has received many recordings since 1974. It is available on YouTube in a beautiful meditative version sing by Exeter Cathedral Choir.
Dickinson, A.E.F., Holst’s Music: A Guide, (Thames Publishing, London 1995)
Holst, Imogen, A Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst’s Music, (Faber Music Limited, London, 1974)
Short, Michael, Gustav Holst: The Man and his Music, (Oxford, OUP, 1990)