Byrd: Nunc Dimittis: Choir of Magdalen College Oxford

Photograph of stained glass window in Magdalen College Oxford at  evensong with suspended lights in front of the window,The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis have been sung at Evensong in the Church of England (Anglican) from the time of its foundation during the reformation. Evensong took the place of the Catholic Vespers (Magnificat), and Compline (Nunc dimittis). In this posting I discuss a recording of Byrd’s Nunc Dimittis, Great Service, 2, sung by the Choir of Magdalen College Oxford to the accompaniment of viols by Fretwork.

It’s not certain when Byrd wrote his Great Service employing ten voices in seven sections. According to Kerman (Grove 2006) it can’t have been before the late 1580s; Kerman suspects that Byrd used it as he used much of his Anglican music as a way of establishing his mastery of its genres and having done that "cultivated them no further". Kerman also suspects that, somewhat similar to Bach’s Mass in B minor, that parts of Byrd’s Great Service were written for some great occasion of state and the rest filled in later. Byrd’s purpose Kerman says was to make a statement about a genre with which he was religiously and ideologically out of sympathy.

All of that may very well be true certainly the Great Service is a masterpiece and a masterpiece on a very grand scale that’s marked by lengthy narrative spans and very elaborately worked polyphony. And yet it’s very clearly and very distinctly an Anglican rather than a Catholic work. It obeys the Protestant requirement present since Merbecke published ‘The Booke of Common Prayer Noted’ in 1550 at Cranmer’s behest that the words being sung should be clearly intelligible and in direct settings of the texts. You can hear this very clearly in the Nunc Dimittis and Byrd’s very assured handling of the style whose potential he pushes to its limits.

Before we get to the video itself I want to mention the viol accompaniment to the singing. The music video features  an extract from Magdalen College Choir’s CD recording ‘William Byrd: Second Service And Consort Anthems’ produced by the Choir of Magdalen College Oxford under the direction of Bill Ives, organ accompaniment is by Ryan Leonard while the viol accompaniment is by Fretwork.  I was a bit dubious about this notwithstanding the fact that it’s Fretwork doing the accompaniment. But I have to say that my doubts were quickly dispelled as I listened. David Skinner’s accompanying text provides clear evidence for instrumental accompaniment being a feature of English religious music even in pre-Reformation times. It isn’t Skinner says that viols should replace the organ in verse services but rather that in the light both of this evidence and Magdalen’s successful recording of Gibbons’ Second Service & Consort Anthems that the use of viols is a viable option. On balance I agree not least because Fretwork’s accompaniment provides a depth and warmth of sonority that I have rarely experienced listening to recordings of Byrd. Lyrics and video are both below the fold. Enjoy :-).



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 thy people Israel,

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.

Byrd Second Service Nunc Dimittis Choir of Magdalene College Oxford – YouTube

Sources Consulted:
  • Kerman, J. (2006). New grove dictionary of music and musicians [Byrd, William]. (Local HTML version).
  • Skinner, D (Editor). (2007). William Byrd Second Service & Consort Anthems [Recorded by Choir of Magdalen College Oxford]. [Medium of recording: CD] Burbank: Harmonia Mundi USA

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