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.