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Nunc dimittis

Tallis: Magnificat; Nunc dimittis

There are great dating problems in the case of the five-part Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, the unique source of which is Elizabethan. In the Latin rite these canticles were sung at Vespers and Compline; in the English rite both were sung during Evensong. Paul Doe has suggested that these settings by Tallis—which were obviously intended as a pair because they have identical beginnings and share other musical material—must have been made in connection with Haddon's Latin translation of the prayer-book, since 'a Magnificat-Nunc dimittis 'pair' for the old rite would have been inconceivable' (Doe, Tallis, p. 38, fn. 2). However, an inventory of polyphonic music belonging to King's College, Cambridge in 1529 includes references to 'Water Lambes Exultavit. Nunc dimittis off the same. ... Exultavit. Also Quia viderunt. ... Exultavit ffarfax. Quia viderunt off the same', while an inventory of 1522/4 from Magdalen College, Oxford mentions two choirbooks containing 'Magnificat et Nunc Dimittis ac Antiphonarum' in five, six and seven parts. If, as these quotations imply, pre-Reformation composers had already formed the habit of pairing the two evening canticles, the date of Tallis's pair deserves reappraisal. The musical evidence is equivocal. Tallis keeps to the pre-Reformation practice of setting only the even-numbered verses in polyphony, but he ignores the traditional English conventions of scoring some verses entirely for reduced combinations of voices and incorporating a special kind of cantus firmus called a faburden. As far as their musical style is concerned, these two works contain no features that cannot be found in other music by Tallis securely datable to the 1540s. The strongest evidence for a later date is probably the very heavy reliance upon imitative writing, but there is ample precedent for this in some works certainly in existence by 1540, such as Taverner's antiphon Fac nobis secundum hoc nomen suave and Tye's Missa Sine nomine.

Nick Sandon, 15 June 1997


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