Some choral musicians may be particularly interested in this post, having become as captivated as I have been through the years by Alexander Grechaninov’s Holy Radiant Light.¹ What a rich work of wonder that is, with its luxuriant harmonies, wide dynamic range, and varied worship-moods wedded to a translation of a 3rd-century Greek text.
More than a year ago, I began looking for material occupy to my musical self, having little to no challenge or stimulation at the time. I turned up several freely available works by Russian choral composers and began sifting through them in my spare time, which was then relatively plentiful. I was thinking I’d transcribe a four-, six-, or eight-part choral piece for a brass ensemble or a large wind band, but I ended up enhancing that half-plan considerably.
I came upon Grechaninov’s Nunc Dimittis, a choral work for 4-8 (depending on the measure) voice parts. The Latin words “nunc dimittis” are translated “Now Dismiss” or “Now Send Away”; this expression stands as the title for a plethora of choral works through the centuries. The words refer to what is known as “The Song of Simeon” from Luke 2—that poignant account in which one of God’s faithful ones, upon holding Mary’s baby, essentially prays this:
Now, Lord, send me away (i.e., from this life) in peace, because I have seen your Salvation — the light of the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.
I got a spine-tingle as I typed those words. They have for years given me that kind of rush, perhaps first because of “Michael Card’s “Simeon’s Song,” which I wrote about two years ago. Even a sensitive agnostic or atheist can appreciate this moving scene.
In beginning work with Grechaninov’s Nunc Dimittis, I had at my disposal a presumably 2nd- or 3rd-generation edition of the composer’s choral score. While I could have paid good money to attempt to retrieve some undiscovered pen-and-ink version from Russia or the composer’s estate, it was not a scholarly edition of this original I was after, so, after a couple of quick checks, I was satisfied with a readily available, unattested version.
The music, conceived originally for a cappella choir, demands sonorous, “familial” blends: after all, a choral sound is made up of a family of varieties of the same basic thing—the human voice—with different pitch ranges. For an instrumental sonic medium, I suppose I could have gone with one of the following:
- a bassoon/English horn/oboe ensemble—all double reeds, from the same “family,” that can collectively span about four octaves
- cellos, violas, and violins—all strings that can do the same
- a clarinet choir—also possible in terms of range, but the extended clarinet family seems a bit understated for the expression of this music
Actually, none of the above instrument families seemed dynamic enough, so . . . none of the above for this piece. Brass instruments are cooler, anyway. I would adapt it and arrange the Grechaninov work for a brass choir. It didn’t hurt that I had the live brass players available for a performance.
However (αλλα) . . . it quickly became clear to me that this new musical work of mine would not be an instrumental-only one. Although I almost always prefer instrumental sounds to vocal ones,² I was impelled in this case to work with the literary text (to honor the ancient ῥῆμα) as well as the much later musical text.
The melody in the choral original was entirely in the soprano part, but I thought, Why use a soprano for a text spoken originally by a man? Plus, I only like about one out of every 84 sopranos I hear, whereas the odds are better with tenors and baritones. So I decided to set the music for tenor vocal solo with brass accompaniment.
The work was daunting. And equally rewarding.
- a few details about the process
- a link to score excerpts and edition notes for those interested in more detail about the music, the text, or both
- article that describes the work’s April 2015 premiere
¹Incidentally, a hymn by the title “Hail, Gladdening Light” (“Phōs Hilaron”), published in Great Songs of the Church No. 2 and Great Songs of the Church, Revised, translates the same ancient Greek poem as “Holy Radiant Light.”
² Choral music is mostly in the background for me at this point—for practical, philosophical, and psychological reasons. It doesn’t help that I have a really mediocre voice that gets tired easily—and that may be, in large part, because I didn’t devote myself enough to voice lessons as a younger person! The fact that I regularly turn away from vocalists and vocal or choral sounds is but one of the many ways I am not like most people around me.