This article first appeared in the February 2017 issue of our parish magazine. You can read it again here:
Taken from the gospel of St Luke (2:29-32), the text of the Song of Simeon is:
- Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
- According to thy word;
- For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
- Which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples,
- To be a light to lighten the Gentiles
- And for the glory of thy people Israel.
Simeon spent his whole life waiting. At last, Jesus’ parents took him to the temple to be presented as a new born baby. Simeon took Him in his arms and knew that his long wait was over: he had seen, touched and experienced God’s salvation. He could leave his earthly life in peace. Similarly, Anna also lived in the temple, fasting and praying. She waited. Eventually, she too saw her salvation in the little baby held by Mary (Luke 2:36-38).
A coda is often added:
- Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost
- As it was in the beginning, is now, and evermore shall be
- World without end
As with so many biblical texts, I cannot read the words without singing them – albeit quietly, in my head. My favourite setting is one by John Wood (1957) that Jeremy taught to Alex, Jennifer and I a few years ago. Written in compound time (9/8), the tune swings along in joyous two part harmony, celebrating Simeon’s realisation. Sometimes the harmonies clash and then resolve, in keeping with the text. The coda is far more sedate, in 2/2 time, and with a more prayerful feel to it.
Of course, much better known is the 1979 setting by Geoffrey Burgon, used as a backdrop to the final credits of “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy” (https://goo.gl/iH68W6). That is the version that St Margaret’s choir sang for a couple of years prior to the 9/8 setting.
The “spirit and song” website suggests that the Song of Simeon is not just for Candlemas. The authors recommend that whenever we are in spiritual darkness, we should stand in Simeon’s shoes, holding on to Jesus, receiving His light. Whatever the problems are that cloud our decisions, chances are, with Jesus shedding some light, we’ll know which way to go.
There are many, many settings of the Nunc Dimittis. Here are a few: