The Magnificat

In the second of two blog posts about our next concert, Michael Gilmore writes about the biblical song of Mary, which forms the basis of the programme.

Sitting in St Cuthbert’s Chapel at Ushaw, you can see, just above the stalls, a line of almost undecipherable gothic script. Turn towards the old high altar, and near the front on your righthand side you can begin decoding, ‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum…’, and you can trace the whole of the Magnificat text around to the back of the Chapel and then up on your lefthand side to the concluding doxology ‘… in saecula saeculorum. Amen. Alleluia.’   

Why put this text on the walls of a chapel? Why has Christian art, music, and devotion given it such prominence?

To get a sense of what the Magnificat is about, you could imagine yourself as a Gospel writer in the first century. You have received an account of the death and resurrection of Jesus and stories of his preaching and miracle-working. You assemble a set of these stories, and given that there isn’t a recorded chronology, put them into a narrative order that leads up to the passion. But how do you start your Gospel?  

Mark has taken the short cut, saying nothing about Jesus before his encounter with John the Baptist at the river Jordan. John goes for metaphysics, beginning his Gospel with the very opening words of the Bible, ‘In the beginning …’, linking Jesus to Creation. Matthew narrates from the paternal perspective of St Joseph. So, what option are you left with?  How about starting your Gospel from the point of view of Mary?  Now you have stepped into the shoes of Luke.

The day of our concert is a fitting day on which to imagine Mary’s story.  Exactly nine months before Christmas Day, the 25th of March marks the conception of Jesus. Known as the ‘Feast of the Annunciation’, it is one of the most joyful celebrations in the Church’s calendar, with its story of the Archangel’s appearance to Mary announcing her motherhood and Mary’s ‘let it be done’ response. As our Lucan story goes, in the days that followed, Mary went to the hill country of Judea to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who herself was six months pregnant with John the Baptist. On meeting Mary, Elizabeth praised her, ‘Blessed are you among women…’, but Mary transferred the praise to God, proclaiming the hymn known by its first word in Latin, ‘Magnificat’: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord…’.  

Luke, of course, writes in Greek, a very fluent Greek too, and he has studied the Greek version of the Old Testament. He doesn’t quote prophecies like Matthew, but instead chooses to echo events that happened in Old Testament times. The birth stories of both John the Baptist and Jesus pick up on miraculous birth stories in the Old Testament: unlikely mothers; the appearance of angels to mothers-to-be, Hagar, Sarah, and the unnamed mother of Samson; moments of trepidation; and even the words ‘Behold … you are to conceive and bear a son’. And Mary’s Magnificat echoes the Song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. At Shiloh, Eli the priest promises that Hannah’s prayer for a son will be answered. Hannah sings a song of joy, which begins ‘My heart exults in the Lord’, a model for the Magnificat.  

How much of Luke’s story is historical narrative and how much is framing the story to be like its Old Testament antecedents? Sadly, we can’t ask him, but his intention is clear. His purpose is to help us understand who Jesus was, and he assembles the narrative to do just that.

Like Matthew, Luke tells a great story, which is why it is so well known through centuries of art and drama, and most familiarly through numberless primary school nativity plays in which many of us have played our part. The highlight of my own nativity career was portraying the Archangel Gabriel in a magnificent white and gold costume. Under the spotlights, the poorly applied stage-makeup around my eyes melted, and a golden tear ran down each cheek as I spread my wings and sang: ‘Rejoice so highly favoured the Lord is with you.’ Mary was greatly troubled and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.  

Curiosity about Mary didn’t stop with Luke. Later in the second century the so-called ‘Gospel of James’ elaborates on her story with great imagination.  It’s a strange ‘non-canonical’ work which surfaces in the writings of some authoritative early Christian theologians. ‘James’ elaborates a backstory for Mary, with her parents, Joachim and Anna, dedicating their daughter to the Lord and to life in the Temple. He describes the torment of Joseph, who assumed that another man had fathered Mary’s child. Derided, he was forced to prove their innocence. Curiosity went further in the seventh century Qur’an, which integrated Mary’s backstory into the Book of Maryam. Uniquely, the Qur’an describes the pains of Mary’s childbirth. These stories paint a more troubled picture than the joyful word portrait of Luke’s Magnificat to which we are accustomed.

Biblical scholars ask many questions about Luke’s Magnificat. Was Mary inspired to compose it or did it come from elsewhere? Did Mary say all those words, or did Luke, with poetic licence, imagine Mary saying them as a way of expressing what she would have felt? These questions are impossible to answer, because our only evidence is the text itself, although it doesn’t stop scholars from doing textual archaeology to substantiate their learned opinions.  

One thing is for certain, the smooth Greek prose of Luke’s opening narrative is interrupted by three hymns that have a poetic style and linguistic origin that is Hebrew not Greek: the Magnificat being the most poetic of the three, the other two being Zechariah’s Benedictus and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis. It seems that Luke inherited these texts with all their Hebrew idioms, albeit translated into Greek, from a Jewish Christian community, perhaps the one in Jerusalem.  

In so many ways the Magnificat appears to be a piecing together of bits and pieces of Old Testament poetry, from the psalms, the Song of Hannah and elsewhere, and then shaped into context. It is like a psalm of praise with a litany of reasons for praising God. It makes abundant use of a Hebrew poetic device called parallelism – two parallel lines saying the same thing twice. ‘My Soul magnifies the Lord – My spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.’  Sometimes the parallel is contrasting, ‘He sends the rich away empty – and fills the hungry with good things’, the second line the antithesis of the first. 

It feels like the Magnificat is in two parts, the first very personal to Mary, with lots of use of first-person pronouns: ‘my Soul’, ‘my spirit’, ‘my saviour’, ’call me blessed’. Then the solo aria opens out into a chorus recounting revolutionary events that sounds more like a choir of the early Church than a Marian psalmist. The promised salvation has happened: the mighty put down, the lowly exalted, the hungry filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty, a series of contrasting parallels that tell us we don’t have to redeem ourselves. God’s mercy reaches ‘from age to age’.

For Luke, the Magnificat sits in an in-between time, the culmination of Old Testament song and the inauguration of its New Testament counterpart. He portrays its cantor, Mary, both as the underclass of Israel and the first disciple of the faith community to which Luke belongs. Used as a Christian hymn from the earliest times, it wasn’t just buried in Luke’s text. Mary’s song became the Church’s song of redemption. 

Already in the first century there are references in Christian writing to set hours of prayer, a liturgy of the hours, that gave symbolic significance to the rising of the sun and the lighting of the night lamps as images of Christ, the light of the world. Christians gathered to pray communally, at first as the activity of a penumbral minority and then after the emperor Constantine in public. The core content of the prayer was made up of psalms and scriptural readings.  

We don’t know exactly when fixed patterns of prayer became established, but eventually in the Eastern Church, the Magnificat was incorporated into morning worship. In western Christianity, the Magnificat was sung at evening prayer, a tradition regulated in the sixth century by St Benedict and other founders of Western Monasticism in their monastic rules. It was sung at vespers as plainsong, unaccompanied, monophonic, non-metric chant. When plainsong was standardised into the eight modes of Gregorian chant, eight different ways of structuring the notes of a scale, there came to be a version of the Magnificat ‘tone’ in each of the modes, with a simple and a solemn variation of each. One of them we sing today. The tone was chosen to match the mode of the antiphon that preceded and followed it, which framed the recitative of the Magnificat with a prelude and postlude devotional focus.  These are meditative settings. They encourage you to take the words away with you after their chanting and contemplate them in your daily routine, reinforced here at Ushaw for the plainsong singing seminarians by the script around the Chapel.

Many subsequent settings of the Magnificat are based on these plainsong tones. Much bolder, they present the text as an outpouring of joy, the emotions of the community of the redeemed. Occupying a highly honoured position in Renaissance music, composers set the text many times over, some ending up with a polyphonic setting for each of the plainsong tones. Palestrina wrote thirty-five. They typically alternated plainsong odd numbered verses with polyphonic even numbered verses, reaching a joyful polyphonic climax.

Reverence for the text straddled the Reformation. The protestant reformers sought to simplify the daily cycle of prayer: fewer hours, more scripture, and less fuss about the saints, but they kept the Magnificat. Cranmer designed a more accessible liturgy of the hours. Deliberately not a specialist preserve of monks and canons, he combined the Roman vespers and compline into a single evensong which included both the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis.  Luther kept the basic Roman scheme of matins and vespers, but true to his reforming instincts, added preaching.   

Into the post-Lutheran protestant world of North Germany, as the Renaissance was giving way to the Baroque, Hieronymus Praetorius imported the Venetian style of the Italian Catholic world.  It demanded spatially separate choirs singing in alternation, with echoes and contrasts, chorus against chorus, high voices against low voices, chords then counterpoint.  With these techniques, Praetorius composed the four-hundred-year-old Magnificat we sing today, a version full of colour, with word painting, such as the drumming ‘scattered the proud’ (dispersit superbos) and the playful drawn-out ‘for ever and ever’ (in saecula saeculorum).

In the message of the Magnificat, Mary shares the glory of God only because she is also the peasant girl who suffers with her son. It’s ironic then that such a revolutionary song, giving voice to the voiceless, should have triumphant renaissance and baroque musical settings commissioned by the rich and powerful. Did the sponsors read carefully those contrasting parallels that turn worldly values upside down? 

Step forward three hundred and sixty years to the third of our concert pieces, something closer to the plainsong: the stark beauty of Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat with its dissonances and bleak open chords. He works carefully from the text, the reduced sound world demanding close attention, with the choir moving together syllable by syllable, until it splits at the scattering of the proud. It takes us back to a less triumphant interpretation, more reflective of the complexity.

The Magnificat throws up more questions than answers. What if you went back imaginatively not to Luke and the early Church, but to Mary? What if there was a hint of truth about the more troubled detail in the ‘Gospel of James’ and the Qur’an? How would the text sound if it was Mary’s own later reflection? Emotionally more ambiguous, less resolved? A disjointed stream of consciousness? This is the imaginative challenge that Oliver Tarney set himself in our fourth piece. Let us hear his answer.