Rachmaninov's Vespers

The ‘Nunc Dimittis’ from Rachmaninov’s Vespers

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I think you would be hard pressed to find a piece of music more beautiful than the 5th movement of Rachmaninov’s ‘All Night Vigil’, his ‘Vespers’. This is quite a claim, I know. Yet – and yet! – when I hear this piece I cannot do anything other than stop still and feel that I have witnessed enough beauty to die, and I cannot believe that anyone could disagree with me! How moving that Rachmaninov also felt this way: the ‘Nunc Dimittis’ was one of his two favourite compositions and he requested it be played at his funeral.

And, really, what could be more perfect than a beautiful ‘Nunc Dimittis’ at one’s funeral? The ‘Nunc Dimittis’ is, after all, the Canticle of Simeon, so named from the Latin incipit of the second chapter of Luke; ‘Lord, now lettest thou’:

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace:

Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum

Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:

Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.

 

and in Church Slavonic, in which the movement is sung:

Ны́не отпуща́еши раба́ Твоего́, Влады́ко, по глаго́лу Твоему́, съ ми́ромъ; я́ко ви́деста о́чи мои́ спасе́нiе Твое́, е́же еси́ угото́валъ предъ лице́мъ всехъ люде́й, светъ во открове́нiе язы́ковъ, и сла́ву люде́й Твои́хъ Изра́иля.

Simeon had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, and when Jesus is brought for the Presentation at the Temple, Simeon took Jesus into his arms and uttered these words, knowing that now he could depart in peace.

When I listen to the heart-meltingly beautiful voice of the tenor (my favourite recording is Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King’s, Cambridge), I imagine Simeon’s rapture and relief – for how long had he faithfully and lovingly waited for this moment? He must have looked up at heaven and nodded to God knowingly: Lord, it is one thing to have been promised this – to believe it is coming – and yet, thank you for this moment! Now lettest thy servant depart…for mine eyes have seen the salvation of the world!

I am, of course, reminded of Joseph Brodsky’s wonderful poem, ‘Nunc Dimittis’, here in translation by George L. Kline:

 

When Mary first came to present the Christ Child

to God in His temple, she found—of those few

who fasted and prayed there, departing not from it—

devout Simeon and the prophetess Anna.

 

The holy man took the Babe up in his arms.

The three of them, lost in the grayness of dawn,

now stood like a small shifting frame that surrounded

the Child in the palpable dark of the temple.

 

The temple enclosed them in forests of stone.

Its lofty vaults stooped as though trying to cloak

the prophetess Anna, and Simeon, and Mary—

to hide them from men and to hide them from Heaven.

 

And only a chance ray of light struck the hair

of that sleeping Infant, who stirred but as yet

was conscious of nothing and blew drowsy bubbles;

old Simeon’s arms held him like a stout cradle.

 

It had been revealed to this upright old man

that he would not die until his eyes had seen

the Son of the Lord. And it thus came to pass. And

he said: ‘Now, O Lord, lettest thou thy poor servant,

 

according to thy holy word, leave in peace,

for mine eyes have witnessed thine offspring: he is

thy continuation and also the source of

thy Light for idolatrous tribes, and the glory

 

of Israel as well.’ The old Simeon paused.

The silence, regaining the temple’s clear space

oozed from all its corners and almost engulfed them,

and only his echoing words grazed the rafters,

 

to spin for a moment, with faint rustling sounds,

high over their heads in the tall temple’s vaults,

akin to a bird that can soar, yet that cannot

return to the earth, even if it should want to.

 

A strangeness engulfed them. The silence now seemed

as strange as the words of old Simeon’s speech.

And Mary, confused and bewildered, said nothing—

so strange had his words been. He added, while turning

 

directly to Mary: ‘Behold, in this Child,

now close to thy breast, is concealed the great fall

of many, the great elevation of others,

a subject of strife and a source of dissension,

 

and that very steel which will torture his flesh

shall pierce through thine own soul as well. And that wound

will show to thee, Mary, as in a new vision

what lies hidden, deep in the hearts of all people.’

 

He ended and moved toward the temple’s great door.

Old Anna, bent down with the weight of her years,

and Mary, now stooping gazed after him, silent.

He moved and grew smaller, in size and in meaning,

 

to these two frail women who stood in the gloom.

As though driven on by the force of their looks,

he strode through the cold empty space of the temple

and moved toward the whitening blur of the doorway.

 

The stride of his old legs was steady and firm.

When Anna’s voice sounded behind him, he slowed

his step for a moment. But she was not calling

to him; she had started to bless God and praise Him.

 

The door came still closer. The wind stirred his robe

and fanned at his forehead; the roar of the street,

exploding in life by the door of the temple,

beat stubbornly into old Simeon’s hearing.

 

He went forth to die. It was not the loud din

of streets that he faced when he flung the door wide,

but rather the deaf-and-dumb fields of death’s kingdom.

He strode through a space that was no longer solid.

 

The rustle of time ebbed away in his ears.

And Simeon’s soul held the form of the Child—

its feathery crown now enveloped in glory—

aloft, like a torch, pressing back the black shadows,

 

to light up the path that leads into death’s realm,

where never before until this present hour

had any man managed to lighten his pathway.

The old man’s torch glowed and the pathway grew wider.

 

Written in 1972, this poem was dedicated to the great Anna Akhmatova. After everything she had witnessed, could it possibly suggested that she retained her faith in humankind like the Prophetess Anna, her namesake in the Temple?

Family of mine, nota bene what is to be played when the time comes…..

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