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Candles by Gerd Altmann,

The music and traditions of Candlemas

Many of us argue about whether Twelfth Night is the evening of 5 or 6 January, anxious that it is considered unlucky to leave Christmas decorations hanging after this. In fact, a more ancient feast of the Church counts the forty days after Christmas as the whole season of Christmastide, ending with the celebration of Candlemas.

Candlemas is generally observed on 2 February (although the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates Christmas Day on 6 January and Candlemas on 14 February) and it is said that the Queen requests that the tree and decorations remain on display in Sandringham House until the royal party leave, during the week of Candlemas. Think how much brighter those dark days of January must be with the twinkle of Christmas decorations still in place!

Christians celebrate Candlemas to commemorate the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Under Jewish law, a woman who had given birth to a son was considered unclean for seven days, and was to remain a further thirty-three days “in the blood of her purification.”

According to the law, children belonged to God, and the parents had to “buy them back” on the fortieth day after their birth. So the Presentation in the Temple followed the rite of Purification, which is encapsulated in the famous When to the temple Mary went by Johannes Eccard (found in both Epiphany to All Saints for Choirs and Three Festal Songs) The words of this anthem (arranged for SATB with divisions) summarize the entire Feast of the Purification and Presentation of Christ:

When to the temple Mary went,
And brought the Holy Child,
Him did the aged Simeon see,
As it had been revealed.
He took up Jesus in his arms
And blessing God he said:
In peace I now depart, my Saviour having seen,
The Hope of Israel, the Light of men.

Help now thy servants, gracious Lord,
That we may ever be
As once the faithful Simeon was,
Rejoicing but in Thee;
And when we must from earth departure take,
May gently fall asleep and with Thee wake.

Simeon is a key figure in the Biblical account of the Presentation in the Temple. Having met the baby Jesus at the temple, and taking him into his arms, he uttered a prayer that is still used liturgically as the Latin Nunc dimittis or Song of Simeon, which has been set to music by many notable composers, including Rachmaninoff in the fifth movement of his All-Night Vigil. An evocative and stirring arrangement of this by Katie Melua and Bob Chilcott, provides a more contemporary option with guitar accompaniment and an alto solo.

Candlemas Procession. Image copyright The Parish of All Saints, Dorchester, Massachusetts. Used with permission.
Image credit: Candlemas Procession. Image copyright The Parish of All Saints, Dorchester, Massachusetts. Used with permission.

Another setting of the Nunc dimittis is John Rutter’s elegant “Depart in Peace” which is scored for the traditional forces of SATB choir and organ accompaniment. Rutter wrote the setting in the style of the composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford to whom the piece pays homage; Stanford’s own Magnificat and Nunc dimittis settings are firmly established works within the English sacred choral repertoire.

Settings of Senex puerum portabat (An ancient held up an infant) are also popular choices for Candlemas services. Those by Victoria, Palestrina, and William Byrd (in both four and five parts) and more recently, Nico Muhly, who set these words for SATB and brass ensemble, are all ideal selections.

The theme of light is central to Candlemas. Christians believe that Jesus, the “Light of the World”, came at Christmas, and the celebration of Candlemas presents Jesus as “a light to lighten the Gentiles.” Lighted candles are carried at key points in the liturgy, and the church’s beeswax candles to be used for the coming year are blessed during the service. Anthems such as Malcolm Archer’s Eternal Light, shine into our hearts, or Thomas Tallis’s O nata Lux di Lumine (Oh Light, born of Light), that both draw upon the theme of light, are particularly appropriate for a Candlemas service.

It is also natural for the music chosen for Candlemas services to draw upon the imagery of winter departing, and spring emerging. This is captured in Robert Herrick’s poem “Down with the rosemary and bays“, which was arranged for SATB voices by Edgar Pittman in his “Candlemas Eve Carol”, adapted from a Basque melody.

Candlemas also marks the transition from Christmas to the forthcoming season of Lent and Passiontide, and is the time when the church switches the “Anthem of the Blessed Virgin” from Alma Redemptoris Mater (Loving Mother of our Saviour) to Ave Regina Caelorum (Hail, O Queen of Heaven).

The latter will be sung between Candlemas and Maundy Thursday, and choral settings of this anthem, such as those by Gabriel Jackson (which includes a part for electric guitar), Cecilia McDowall, and Samuel Wesley, would also be appropriate additions to the musical choices for a Candlemas service.

Featured image credit: Candles by Gerd Altmann – CCO Public Domain via Pixabay.

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  1. […] historical background about Candlemas from the Clerk of Oxford blog and some music ideas on the Oxford University Press blog.  Although for me, Kate Rusby’s song, Candlemas Eve, is one of the […]

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