Song of Simeon

Luke 2:29-32

versified as
Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin
In peace and joy I now depart
Maintenant Seigneur Dieu
Or laisse Createur
Now may your servant, Lord

with
MIT FRIED UND FREUD
NUNC DIMITTIS (CANTIQUE DE SIMEON)

 

Scripture. The Scripture passage known as the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32) is part of the story of Christ’s purification and his parents’ offering of a substitutionary sacrifice on his behalf at the temple. Prior to this event at an unknown time, the Holy Spirit had shown Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. When Simeon found the holy family at the temple, he praised God for fulfilling the prophecy.

And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
    according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
     that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:22-35, ESV ©2001 Crossway).

Orthodox. The Song of Simeon (Νυν ἀπολύεις) is a regular element of Vespers services in the Orthodox tradition. The connection of this Scripture with evening prayer can be traced as early as the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles (ca. 380):

XLVIII. An Evening Prayer. “Ye children, praise the Lord: praise the name of the Lord.” [Ps. 113:1] We praise thee, we sing hymns to thee, we bless thee for thy great glory, O Lord our King, the Father of Christ the immaculate Lamb, who taketh away the sin of the world. Praise becomes thee, hymns become thee, glory becomes thee, the God and Father, through the Son, in the most Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen. “Now, Lord, 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 all people, a light for the revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.”[1]

In an account from the late sixth or early seventh century involving John Moschus, Sophronius, and Nilus of Sinai, the Song of Simeon was named among the regular elements of Vespers worship.[2] 

Roman. In the Latin rite, this passage is known by the first two words, Nunc dimittis, and is appointed for services of Compline. The chant shown here is from the Liber Usualis (Fig. 1), the last universal service book for the old Tridentine rite of the Catholic Church, which was the standard rite for four hundred years, between the Council of Trent (1545–1563, plus the papal bull of 1570) and the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). This excerpt is from the Compline service for Easter.

 

Fig. 1. Liber Usualis (NY: Desclee, 1961), p. 784.

 

Anglican. The Song of Simeon has had a place in the Anglican liturgy since the earliest days of the Church of England. In the first Book of Common Prayer (1549), it was included in the rite for Evensong services (Fig. 2), after the second lesson. The 1549 edition contained a minor error, “of thy people of Israel,” which was corrected in subsequent editions to “of thy people Israel.” The following year, The Booke of Common Praier Noted (1550) provided two chant settings for liturgical use, but this collection was quickly rendered obsolete by the publication of the revised Book of Common Prayer in 1552. 

 

Fig. 2. The Booke of the Common Prayer (London, 1549).

 

Episcopal. The Nunc Dimittis was omitted from American Episcopal editions of the Book of Common Prayer, starting with the first official edition of 1790, substituted with Psalm 103:1-4,20-22 (Benedic, anima mea). Nunc Dimittis was not restored for Evening Prayer until the 1892 edition. The 1979 revision expanded its use to include Morning Prayer, Compline, and Burial of the Dead.[3] The Hymnal 1982 includes multiple musical settings at S.196–200, and S.253-260. S.198, for example, is a pointed chant, and uses a tune by F.A. Gore Ouseley, first printed in Chants as Used in Westminster Abbey (ed. James Turle, London: Novello, 1855 | Fig. 3), where it was appointed for Morning Prayer, Day 22.

 

Fig. 3. Chants as Used in Westminster Abbey (ed. James Turle, London: Novello, 1855).

 

German (Lutheran). Martin Luther (1483–1546) crafted his own paraphrase of the Song of Simeon, “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin,” first published in Geystliche Gesangk Buchleyn (Wittenberg, 1524 | Fig. 4), compiled and arranged by Johann Walter (1496–1570) as a set of five choral partbooks, melody in the tenor part. The tune, probably by either Luther or Walter, is usually dubbed MIT FRIED UND FREUD. Luther included this hymn in a set of funeral hymns, Christliche Geseng . . . zum Begrebniss (1542). The final published version under Luther’s direction was in the cumulative collection Geystliche Lieder mit einer newen vorrhede (1545 | Fig. 5), published by Valentin Babst. Changes from 1524 to 1545 include rhythmic adjustments to the melody and a shift in spelling from low German to high German. Like the Catholic church, Lutherans appoint the Song of Simeon for Compline services. 


Fig. 4. Geystliche Gesangk Buchleyn (Wittenberg, 1524), tenor partbook. 


Fig. 5. Geystliche Lieder mit einer newen vorrhede (Valentin Babst, 1545).


In 1854, Richard Massie (1800–1887) published a set of translations, Martin Luther’s Spiritual Songs (Fig. 4), including “In peace and joy I now depart” (Fig. 6). Many translations have borrowed his opening line then departed in different directions. Catherine Winkworth (1827–1878) produced a version, “In peace and joy I now depart, according to God’s will,” for The Chorale Book for England (1863), but hers does not match the original meter of Luther’s text, nor does it fit the original tune without some modification, so it has not been widely adopted. Another version, which had gained some favor in Lutheran hymnals in the United States, is “In peace and joy I now depart, at God’s disposing,” by Leonard Bacon (1802–1881), in The Hymns of Martin Luther (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883 | Fig. 7). Bacon’s text matches the original meter of the German. For his collection, he used an arrangement by Michael Praetorius (1571–1621) from Musae Sioniae, part 8, no. 159 (1610). 

Fig. 7. Leonard Bacon, The Hymns of Martin Luther (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883).

  Fig. 6.  Richard Massie,  Martin Luther’s Spiritual Songs  (London, 1854).

Fig. 6. Richard Massie, Martin Luther’s Spiritual Songs (London, 1854).


French (Reformed). In Jean Calvin’s first collection of French psalm paraphrases, Aulcuns Pseaulmes et cantiques mys en chant (Strasbourg, 1539), he had prepared his own paraphrase of Le Cantique de Siméon, “Maintenant Seigneur Dieu,” with a melody by an unknown composer (Fig. 8). For an English translation by K.W. Simpson and a hymnic setting, see Calvin’s First Psalter, ed. Richard R. Terry (London: Ernest Benn, 1932), p. 109. 


 
 

Fig. 8. Aulcuns Pseaulmes et cantiques mys en chant (Strasbourg, 1539).


Calvin’s paraphrase and this musical setting were replaced in later editions of the French Psalter. The paraphrase by Clément Marot (ca. 1497–1544), “Or laisse Createur,” first appeared in Livre premier contenant pseaulmes . . . en musique par maistre Anthione de Mornable (Paris, 1546), then the following year in Le premier Livre des Pseaulmes, composé par Louys Bourgeois (Lyon, 1547), with the melody known generally today as NUNC DIMITTIS or LE CANTIQUE DE SIMÉON, either edited or composed by Loys Bourgeois (ca. 1510–1559). Both this text and tune were adopted into the Genevan psalters starting with Pseaumes Octantetrois de David (1551 | Fig. 9).[4]


 
 

Fig. 9. Pseaumes Octantetrois de David (Geneva, 1551).


The Song of Simeon was versified into English as “Now may thy servant, Lord” by Dewey Westra, written in 1931 for inclusion in the Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids: CRC, 1934). Westra’s text was designed to fit the Genevan tune. In the first few editions of The Psalter Hymnal, the musical settings went through some adjustment, first in the harmonization (2nd ed., 1938), then in the flattening of the rhythms (3rd ed., ca. 1946). In the latter edition (Fig. 10), the hymnal committee enlisted the help of Henry A. Bruinsma to bring the music closer in line to the style of the old Dutch psalters, especially consulting the work of Bauke de Vries from the late 1800s (De melodieën der psalmen and /or De melodieën der evangelische gezangen). Subsequent editions of The Psalter Hymnal, such as the 1959 Centennial Edition (Fig. 11), like many other publications of this melody (see also “O gladsome light”), use a harmonization by Claude Goudimel (c. 1514-1572), from Les Pseaumes mis en rime françoise (1565).

Fig. 10. The Psalter Hymnal, 3rd ed. (ca. 1946).

Fig. 11. The Psalter Hymnal, Centennial Edition (1959).

Other Paraphrases. Many other paraphrases are available for the Song of Simeon, including “Lord, bid your servant go in peace” by James Quinn (New Hymns for All Seasons, 1970), “Now have you set your servant free, O Lord,” by Carl Daw Jr. (A Year of Grace, 1990), “Now let your servant go in peace” by Ruth Duck (Gather Comprehensive, 1994), “Faithful vigil ended” by Timothy Dudley-Smith (Youth Praise 2, 1969), and “Lord God, you now have set your servant free” by Rae Whitney (Fig Tree Songs I, 1981).

by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
25 July 2018, rev. 9 Aug. 2018


Footnotes:

  1. The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 7 (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1886), Book VII, part 48, p. 478: PDF\

  2. Egon Wellesz, A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), pp. 173-174; N.D. Uspensky, Evening Worship in the Orthodox Church, trans. and ed. Paul Lazor (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), pp. 58-61, 67; Gregory W. Woolfenden, Daily Liturgical Prayer: Origins and Theology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 53-54; in Greek, see W. Christ and M. Paranikas, eds., Anthologia Graeca Carminum Christianorum (Lipsiae [Leipzig]: B.G. Teubneri, 1871), xxx-xxxi.

  3. Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (NY: The Seabury Press, 1980), p. 116.

  4. For detailed histories of the Genevan tunes in a critical edition, see Le Psautier Huguenot du XVIe Siécle, ed. Pierre Pidoux, vol. 1 (Baerenreiter, 1962); the Cantique de Siméon is melody 202, pp. 136-137.

Related Resources:

James Mearns, “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin,” ed. John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), p. 760.

John Julian, “Nunc dimittis,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 822-823.

Emily R. Brink, “The Song of Simeon,” The Hymn, vol. 55, no. 4 (Oct. 2004), pp. 40-41: HathiTrust

J.R. Watson, “Nunc dimittis,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/n/nunc-dimittis

J.R. Watson, “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/m/mit-fried-und-freud-ich-fahr-dahin

MIT FRIED UND FREUD at Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/tune/mit_fried_und_freud

NUNC DIMITTIS (CANTIQUE DE SIMÉON) at Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/tune/nunc_dimittis_bourgeois

“In peace and joy I now depart” (Bacon) at Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/in_peace_and_joy_i_now_depart_at_gods

“Now may your servant, Lord” (Westra) at Hymnary.org
https://hymnary.org/text/now_may_your_servant_lord

“Lord, now lettest Thou thy servant” (Book of Common Prayer) at Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/lord_now_lettest_thou_thy_servant_chant