Oliver Tarney on his Magnificat

In the first of two blog posts about our next concert, composer Oliver Tarney writes about his setting of the Magnificat, which forms the centrepiece of the programme.

Mary was 16.  As many traditional images show, she may have been working at her spinning wheel, minding her own business, when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her the news that she was with child. Not only that, but her son was God, and would grow up to be the saviour of mankind. I can’t help but feel that ecstatic jubilation was probably not her first response. 

Many settings of the Magnificat present the text as though Mary is saying it there and then, as an outpouring a joy and wonder, which it doubtless is, with brass and clattering timpani. I, however, have chosen to follow the story which then unfolded, so that we hear the words of the Magnificat as a personal reflection, as Mary replays that moment in her mind, but now in the light of the events that ensued––many of them full of uncertainty, and pain. The piece finds itself in modal territory quite frequently. This is partly because of how I have chosen to set this text, and partly because it is based around the one of the plainsong tones that have been used for chanting this canticle for over 1000 years. The plainsong melody originated in a time when major and minor did not exist as they do today and before listeners formed such firm associations with what each represents. This is a notion that has appealed to me whilst writing this, and I hope that it gives the work a sort of timeless quality.

Magnificat tone VIII ending I

To tell the nativity story, I have drawn from various sources, including lines from the book of Mary (Maryam) in the Qur’an. This book describes in some detail the conception and birth of Jesus (or ʿĪsā), who is considered one of the most major prophets in Islam. The account seems rather familiar; it does, however, contain some surprises. For instance, the line ‘and the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree, and she said, “I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten’’’ (Qur’an 19:23). This seems to display a very human response to this situation: that she wishes to be in ‘oblivion, forgotten’ is perhaps a reaction to the pain of childbirth, or maybe an indication that she already has a sense that celebrity awaits her.  

Apart from some very familiar lines from St Luke’s Gospel, the main source of the narrative is the Infancy Gospel (or protevangelium) of James—a non-canonical gospel of around the mid-second century. I find this fascinating, as this gospel offers an account of Mary’s own birth, as well as a wealth of anecdotal details, and alludes to some of the Old Testament’s headline barren-but-now-miraculously-with-child characters: Sarah (and Abraham), and Hannah (and Elkanah). It is quite fitting that the story of Hannah (from I Samuel, 1–2) is referenced here. The gist of it is that Peninnah, the other wife of Elkanah (he had two) has given him many children, whilst Hannah has not borne him any. God promises Hannah a son, which He then delivers. Hannah thanks God with her own magnificat, a song of Joy, which she offers in gratefulness and praise for her son. Mary, being brought up in the Jewish tradition would probably have known this text, and been aware of the story of Hannah. Indeed, many scholars understand the Song of Hannah to have been the model for Mary’s Magnificat. As Mary spoke the words of her Magnificat, the Song of Hannah must have been ringing in her ears as the same themes resonated, through time, with her present situation. Each movement of this piece is paired with sympathetic lines from the Song of Hannah, as Mary reflects on them and on her place in this line of women.

The protevangelium goes on to describe how Joseph finds out about Mary’s pregnancy, doesn’t believe in the Angel’s message, and assumes that another man has fathered this child.  We learn of how he is castigated—the subject of public derision—as people assume the child is his, and both he and Mary find themselves social pariahs. They are forced to undergo the ‘drink test’ to prove their innocence: essentially, drinking water then being thrown out into the desert to see if you will return unharmed, or even return at all. Fortunately for the pair, they re-appear without a scratch between them, and so are vindicated. All of this paints a fairly grim picture of a fairly miserable existence, full of worry, fear, anger, and persecution, which must have impacted upon how Mary later viewed her Magnificat, her song of praise to God, who must have seemed at arm’s length at times. 

Amongst other details found in the protevangelium, we learn that, according to tradition, Mary had a direct hand in weaving the veil of the temple, which would later be torn from the top to the bottom after the moment of her own son’s death on the cross. This poignant detail underlines the uncertainty, the pain, and the sacrifice that has been endured, and will continue on the journey on which we now find ourselves. This story is surely also a testament to Mary’s incredible trust in God by keeping her faith in the face of great hardship, as so many men and women have also done throughout history.

I have included parts of key texts from the three Abrahamic religions, (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) fully aware of the historical and present tensions that exist between them; perhaps one thing common to all is that we live in difficult times to be a person of faith, sharing the same challenges, and requiring the same fortitude. It reminds me of a line of a hymn written by The Reverend Canon Gervase W Markham, ‘though friend and foe oppose and scorn all we proclaim, yet strong we still shall stand and praise his Holy name’.  Markham was an army chaplain during WW2, and it is apt that as I write this, it is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches, where so many men gave their lives in pursuit of a better future: a cause in which they believed—in which they had faith. Perhaps we can understand the Magnificat not only as a statement of euphoric joy but as a symbol of faith in the face of uncertainty and of strength in the face of adversity.

Oliver Tarney, Winchester, 6th June, 2014