St. Paul's (1951)
Herbert Howells: St Paul's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis
This exquisite Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis was written by Howells for St Paul's Cathedral. The Magnificat starts with a robust unison opening statement, which soon divides into four parts, each of which seems intent on going its own way. The apparent confusion is soon calmed and the unison theme, slightly modified, reappears a fourth lower. A feature of the Magnificat is the reoccurrence throughout of this melodic idea or motif. The buoyancy of the work is maintained by a subtle use of asymmetric rhythms and syncopation, but the modal ancestry of the music is never very far away. For example the opening is ostensibly in G minor, but the occasional use of an E natural in place of an E flat and the complete absence of F sharps gives a feeling of the Dorian mode (albeit transposed up a fourth). This sense of the music's Gregorian origins is further emphasised when, at the end of the opening few bars, the choir comes to rest on a unison D. This is the important Dominant of the mode on which the priest's intonation would have been sung. These tonal subtleties, together with the free use of time, serve to give the work its characteristic combination of ancient and modern, so typical of Howells' liturgical music. The Magnificat ends with an impressive and exciting Gloria.
The contrast of the following Nunc Dimittis, marked "slowly and tenderly", demonstrates another facet of Howells' writing. The slow interweaving of the parts, with voices seldom raised until the sun bursts through at "…and to be the glory…", s some of the most restrained and beautiful music ever written. Once again the work is completed by a majestic Gloria which uses snatches of the opening motif of the Magnificat. The last part of the Gloria "…as it was in the beginning…" returns to the music of the first Gloria, giving the whole work a sense of unity which culminates in a magnificent final Amen.
© 1984 David White