Piece of the Week 44: Magnificat

There must be innumerable musical settings of this text, many combined with the Nunc Dimittis to form the evening canticles. But at this time of the year, the Magnificat (Song of Mary) assumes a greater importance as it is also one of the Advent readings.

I have made four settings of it, each with a Nunc Dimittis, but in the future I might try writing a larger scale Magnificat setting in several movements.

It’s a fascinating text to set – the opening section can be big and joyous (as if all people are rejoicing), but just as characterful would be to view the event quietly, from Mary’s point of view, reflecting the wonder and ‘lowliness’ that she feels in her role. Later on, there is the opportunity to respond to various key words: mighty, mercy, strength, and then the universally applicable message of ‘putting down the mighty, and exalting the humble and meek’. The complete words are printed at the end of this post.

So I’d like to share with you two of my easier settings, one for unison or two-part voices, and one for SATB or two-part voices.

Let’s start with the setting for unison or two-part voices, accompanied by piano or organ. I wrote this setting, ‘The Colchester Service’ specially for The Oxford Book of Easy Flexible Anthems and aimed for maximum flexibility in the vocal scoring: I set myself the task of writing a unison melody with a range of just an octave, so that it can be sung by any or all voices, and I added an optional second part beneath it. Either part can be sung by almost any voice, so it is suitable for many sizes and types of choirs. My aim in this setting was to write a free-flowing melody, responding to the text, of course, (in a modern translation) but also aiming to achieve something unified and ‘folky’ and a little different from many more traditionally ‘churchy’ settings of the text. The recording here emphasises that aspect – although it is with organ rather than piano. Here it is on YouTube with a scrolling score, and here is the same recording on Spotify.

The other setting – ‘The Essex Service’ – was commissioned for a choral festival in Brentwood Cathedral organised by the Essex and East London Branch of the RSCM in 2015. Originally for voices in two parts, I later worked it up into an SATB version. Again, I sought to achieve that mood of wondering that Mary must have felt, beginning with a musical line that gradually opens out from a major third to an octave and back again, with the lower part moving in the opposite direction to the upper one. Compared with the ‘Colchester’ setting, this ‘Essex’ setting then responds more directly to the mood of the different verses, with greater contrast in the ideas. Finally, the music settles down on a single note for the ‘Glory be to the Father’ section, builds to a climax and relaxes for the final Amens, in a condensed version of the opening line. You can hear this setting, with a scrolling score, here, performed by the choir of Chelmsford Cathedral directed by James Davy.

It’s been a privilege to be able to set these iconic words to music several times; they offer so much to all composers to respond to in their own way.

Scores of the settings are here:
Magnificat (Colchester Service) in the Oxford Book of Easy Flexible Anthems
Magnificat (Essex Service) Sheet Music Direct (SATB version) or Sheet Music Direct (two-part version) – or contact me for a single specimen copy.

And finally, here are the words of the Magnificat in the more traditional version:

My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded: the lowliness of his handmaiden:
For behold, from henceforth: all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel:
As he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be: World without end, Amen.