For the season of Lent over at King's Chapel, music director Heinrich Christensen is leading his choir in various settings of John iii.16 (For God so loved the world &c.), and a bit more than a week ago, Heinrich sent word kindly inviting me to send a piece. I hadn't set that text yet, and so began to take thought.
For the first two days of bending thought thither, I puttered at a fresh piece, seeking to set the Latin text; but (for whatever passel of reasons) the result was not much to my liking. What to do?
It was then that my thought glanced upon a setting I wrote in 2006 of the Nunc dimittis, for an Evensong we performed at the Cathedral Church of St Paul. If I am not mistaken, it was a piece which Ed Broms (until recently, music director at St Paul's) had his choir sing each year. So perhaps in the back of my mind there lurked the thought, how might that annual tradition be transferred and sustained?
I decided to try re-texting the music for this Canticle, with the verse from John.
I worked at that for perhaps a further two days, but I was not pleased with how the Latin version of John iii.16 was fitting (poorly fitting) the music. Well, thought I, what if I cast it in English, instead?
(The first problem to be avoided there, of course, was that I needed a version of the verse which is in the Public Domain; so I lit upon the verse from the 1899 American edition of the Douay-Rheims Bible.)
Although the task of re-texting the piece did not feel very smooth at first, it immediately felt much more like the right thing, than my prior efforts; and after something of a warming-up period, the work became perfectly natural.
That said, though . . . for some reason, I did not see a natural make-over for the final section (m.48ff.), which in the source piece is the Doxology following the Canticle text proper; so (possibly a bit lazily, I don't mind considering the possibility) I decided to set that section with the Doxology in English. I then in large part worked backward: m.28ff., which is like m.48ff. only in the minor mode (a switch which, I remember, threw off my choir the very first couple of times that we sang it), I quickly found would suit that whosoever believeth in Him. There were the inevitable rhythmic changes, and the need to repeat text; and at the last, I was pleased with the result.
I sent that score to Heinrich, and he discreetly reminded me that the Doxology would not quite suit. At that point, though, my musical mind was well in the zone; and to re-use earlier text from the verse, so as to re-text m.48ff. again, was now but the work of another half hour (and some of that time, was the work of reflecting the altered rhythmic values in the rehearsal reduction for keyboard).