Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (St Paul's)       Herbert Howells

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For He hath regarded : the lowliness of His handmaiden.

For, behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.

For He that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is His name.

And His mercy is on them that fear Him : throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with His arm : He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich He hath sent empty away.

He, remembering His mercy, hath holpen His servant Israel: 

as He promised to our forefathers, Abraham, and His seed for ever.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world without end. Amen.


St Luke, Ch 1, vv 46 – 55  (The Song of Mary)


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.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world without end. Amen.


St Luke, Ch 2, vv 29-32   (The Song of Simeon)

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, also known respectively as the Song of Mary and the Song of Simeon, are the two canticles set in the Book of Common Prayer to be used at the daily office of Evensong, either side of a bible reading. Howells wrote settings of these canticles for many of the major choral establishments in England including the choirs of King’s College, and St John’s College Cambridge, Magdalen College Oxford, and the cathedrals of Gloucester, Worcester, Winchester and Chichester, to name but a few, as well as Westminster Abbey and several American choral institutions. This one, for the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral, was completed on Boxing Day in 1951. Howells always wrote these canticles with an understanding of the intended acoustic in mind. The colossal space of St Paul’s, with its sluggish and highly resonant acoustic, was a challenge. Mindful of this, the music has a very slow rate of harmonic change, compared to much of Howells’ music, in order that the rich and vibrant harmonies should be given time to bloom and develop in the acoustic and not become blurred and crowded. Never do more than two subsequent harmonies overlap. Howells wrote that this setting was “…my most extended in scale…” and the composer’s biographer, Christopher Palmer, writes that the three settings for St Paul’s, King’s College, and the composer’s home cathedral of Gloucester, ‘…tower above the rest, with the music burning through the words’ patina of familiarity into a dramatic and purposeful entity’. The music begins with a robust opening statement with the choir in unison, soon spreading into four independent parts, and never looks back, surging forward with a relentless momentum. To draw attention to the acoustic, there are jagged and wildly shifting tonal centres between unrelated keys, which are hugely exciting. The buoyancy of the work is maintained by the use of asymmetric rhythms and syncopation, and the modal legacy of the Tudor period is never far away. The opening, ostensibly in G minor, has the occasional, delicious replacement of E flats with E naturals, and this, with the complete absence of F sharps, suggests a transposed Dorian mode. Just an easing of the pace at the beautiful section ‘He remembering His mercy’ makes for a beautifully tranquil contrast before the momentum and harmonic brutality return with a vengeance for the Gloria. 

The Nunc Dimittis, by contrast, is slow and tender at the beginning, and the parts weave delicately in and out of one another. Modality is again beautifully exposed in the organ introduction and, as the music progresses, so both the tension and the texture build, rising to a thrilling climax at ‘… and to be the glory…’. The Gloria is the same as for the Magnificat but with a slightly modified and extended opening.