John Rutter


One of the oldest of Christian hymns, the Magnificat (Song of Mary) has been exceedingly popular with composers throughout the centuries. Partly because of the sheer beauty of the text itself, partly because it was included as a canticle in Evening Prayer in both Roman and Episcopal liturgy, this pæan of Mary has well stood the test of time in Western music.

Upon learning of her immaculate conception of Jesus, the gospels record Mary’s spontaneous outburst of joy and praise, which has come to be called by its Latin title Magnificat (short for “My soul magnifies the Lord”). John Rutter, following the lead of countless composers has broken the text into sections, each defined by a particular mood or feeling (or as the Germans described, an “affekt”). The opening movement, which describes Mary’s initial happiness and self-description of humility, is painted by Rutter with bouncy rhythmic figures that create a sense of dancing and jubilation. The section of text describing Mary’s “lowliness” is set with slower moving melodic figures, returning to the first dance motifs for the conclusion.

Rutter has inserted a 15th century English poem for the second movement. The poet describes the branching of the tree of Jesse, eventually leading to the birth of Jesus. The refrain “Of a Rose, a lovely Rose…” punctuates the various stanzas of the poem, in differing combinations, some of which are set for women’s voices alone. The third movement, Quia fecit, starts out with full organ proclaiming the mightiness of God. An imitative section follows, which is based on the opening melody and is some of the finest writing in the work. After an extended build-up Rutter closes the movement with another interpolated text: the Sanctus from the Ordinary of the Mass, with plainsong from the Gregorian Missa cum Jubilio.

“Et misericordia” (And his mercy is on them) is set to more pastoral tones, in a fluid walking tempo and the first use of the soprano solo. Rutter also intersperses the soprano solo with the original Magnificat melody above the chorus as it sings the Et misericordia theme. This gentle dialogue between the soloist and the chorus provides an effective respite between the stronger and more assertive text and music of the neighboring movements.

Fecit potentiam (He has showed strength with his arm) is marked “Lively and energetic” and depicts the power of the Lord. Its crisp, marked rhythmic figures are in contrast to the flowing melodies of the previous movement. An energetic fugal section comprises the middle section, followed by multiple meter changes, creating a chaotic sense of meter that keeps our ears somewhat off-center, in keeping with the text Dispersit superbos (He has scattered the proud).

More text painting occurs in “Deposuit” (God casts down), where the descending melodic figure is ironically presented from the bottom up—bass to soprano—even as the tonal center shifts downward. The text et exaltavit humiles (and raises up the humble poor) follows immediately, relying on ascending melodic figures and a more quiet musical affekt, which sets up the following movement. Another pastoral movement, this soprano solo conveys the goodness of the Lord towards the poor and needy. The chorus acts as part of the accompaniment here, alternating with and providing musical support for the soloist. The overall affekt of this movement is one of safety, satisfaction and warm sentimentality, as expressed originally in this portion of the Magnificat text.

The final movement is a double recapitulation in that it reprises features of both the opening Magnificat and the “Quia fecit.” The Gloria Patri is not original to the Song of Mary found in the Gospels; it has, however, through the centuries become a standard doxology for much Christian hymnody and has been attached to the Magnificat seemingly forever. Again Rutter has inserted a later text: Sancta Maria (Holy Mary), the antiphon from the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is wholly in keeping with the spirit of the composition. Sung by the soloist, the plainsong separates the first recapitulation (Quia fecit) from the second (Magnificat). The work closes as it opened, with the bouncy, dance-like rhythmic and melodic figures that accurately and successfully convey the inherent joy, praise and love of God that characterizes this ancient hymn.

©2020 David Friddle     Communicate