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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott


In this post we're going to explore an enormous span of European music history, looking at how composers have set one particular text to music. Known as the Magnificat, this is, after the Ordinary of the Mass, the most-frequently set text in the history of church music. I just want to survey some of this vast, rich heritage.

The text of the Magnificat comes directly from the Bible, from the first chapter of St Luke's Gospel which tells the story known in Christian tradition as the Annunciation. The Virgin Mary is told by an angel that, despite the fact that she is a virgin, she will give birth to the son of God. Mary then visits her cousin Elizabeth to discover that she too is pregnant (she became the mother of John the Baptist). In response, Mary sings a song of praise to God and it's this song which is the text of the Magnificat.

My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, In remembrance of His mercy, As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and to his seed forever.

In Latin, the first line of this song is Magnificat anima mea dominum, and in usual church practice the text is referred to by its first word.

Leonardo: The Annunciation (c. 1475)

As with most texts sung in the Christian liturgy, the earliest known musical settings of the Magnificat are those in the medieval chant usually known today as Gregorian chant and there are several chants for the text. From the 6th century onwards the Magnificat was used as the final canticle in the Office of Vespers, the sunset or evening service; it was and still is traditionally associated with evening worship in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant churches. [listen]

The earliest surviving polyphonic settings of the Magnificat (that is, settings with more than one voice part) date from the 15th century. Also, virtually all polyphonic Magnificat settings up to the 17th century are based on pre-existing melodies. In the vast majority of cases the melody used is the Gregorian chant setting of the Magnificat text, which is in some way woven into the polyphonic setting. In rare cases another melody is used.

When the pre-existing melody is used in long notes in one part, while the other parts weave around it with new music, the long note part is called a cantus firmus. Where the pre-existing melody is used more freely, say, broken up and used in fragments, or embellished, this practice is called cantus prius factus, which simply means "pre-existing melody".

This is part of a three-voice setting by the Franco-Flemish composer Gilles Binchois, who died in 1460. The uppermost part is an elaboration the Magnificat's Gregorian chant setting. [listen]

That setting, like virtually all Magnificat settings of the Renaissance, began with an intonation. That is, the first word - Magnificat - was chanted to its Gregorian setting rather than set by the composer. This three-part setting by Binchois' more famous contemporary Guillaume Dufay does the same, and again the top part is an elaboration of the chant melody. This performance takes up an option of doubling some of the sections with instruments. [listen]

Guillaume Dufay (left) and Gilles Binchois (right)

In Europe in the 15th and 16th century virtually every composer who wrote church music would have to write Magnificat settings because the liturgy demanded it so regularly.

In Tudor England, the brilliant flowering of Catholic church music before the Reformation gave the world some of the most complex and exuberant church music in the repertoire. William Cornysh composed for the Chapel Royal under Henry VII and Henry VIII and died in 1523. His five-part Magnificat displays a common feature of later Renaissance settings, in that the composer only sets alternate verses, leaving the other verses to be sung in the chant versions. Sometimes odd-numbered verses were left to be chanted, sometimes even-numbered; most composers (especially on the Continent) composed Magnificats both ways, although the first word - Magnificat - was virtually always chanted, regardless. Sometimes composers did set the entire text polyphonically, usually for high feast days or other special occasions, but even then the first word was usually intoned and not set by the composer.

Cornysh's setting displays the sheer indulgence in sound for its own sake which characterises pre-Reformation Tudor church music, something which makes the settings rather long as the syllables are often greatly extended. [listen]

Robert Fayrfax was a contemporary of Cornysh. His five-part Magnificat Regale is one of the glories of Tudor church music. The "regale" part of the title indicates that it is based on a chant beginning "regale et progenie", suggesting a royal connection, either with Eton or with King's College, Cambridge. As with Cornysh's setting, the set verses alternate with chant ones, and the setting is extended again by virtuosic vocal writing. The composed sections are based on fragments of the "regale" chant. [listen]

Thomas Tallis, that amazing Tudor composer who worked under no less than four English monarchs - and their own respective takes on religion - composed a number of Magnificat settings, both in Latin and in English. This is one of his most elaborate. [listen]

Thomas Tallis (posthumous portrait)

Meanwhile, on the Continent in the 16th century, composers at the centre of the Catholic world turned out huge numbers of Magnificat settings. Major names like Tomás Luis de Victoria wrote 18 settings, Pierluigi da Palestrina 35 and Orlande de Lassus around 100. The reason for needing so many is that settings were written in different modes; the eight church modes were the equivalent of our major and minor keys. Liturgically the Magnificat is introduced and followed by an antiphon, a short sung text appropriate to the day. The antiphons were all in different modes and generally the modes of the antiphon had to match that of the Magnificat, hence the need for so many different polyphonic settings, in different modes.

The modes were sometimes referred to as "tones" and this is what is meant by a title like Magnificat primi toni or "Magnificat on the first tone". This tells us that the Magnificat is in the first mode, which was the Dorian mode.

The most widespread Magnificat settings in Europe at this time (according to Grove, which was my major source for this survey) were those by a Spanish composer, Cristóbal de Morales, whose life spanned the first half of the 16th century. [listen]

Cristóbal de Morales (posthumous portrait)

The name which towers above all in the annals of late Renaissance polyphony is Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose career was centred on Rome. His 35 Magnificat settings include a full cycle in all the tones. [listen]

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Tomás Luis de Victoria, who died in 1611, ranks with Palestrina as one of the masters of high Renaissance church music. Of his 18 Magnificats, 16 set the verses alternately with chant. The other two set the entire text after the first word is intoned. This is the opening of one of these, for eight parts, divided into two choirs, one high and one low. [listen]

Not all Renaissance settings of the Magnificat were based on the Magnificat plainchant. About 40 of Lassus's 100 settings were based on other material, in some cases secular. This setting is based on a popular secular madrigal, Ancor che col partire, by Cipriano de Rore. [listen]

Orlande de Lassus

Palestrina, Victoria and Lassus bring us to the end of the high Renaissance and the start of what later generations came to call the Baroque. The absence of instrumental parts in most of the recordings linked to so far here shows the overwhelming practice of the Renaissance in having music of this nature sung unaccompanied, or, if local practice allowed instruments, they only doubled the existing voice parts. Practices varied from place to place and what might have held sway in London, Rome or Madrid didn't always apply elsewhere. Venice always went by their own rules and in St Mark's basilica the use of instrumental choirs in tandem with vocal choirs was well established by the end of the 16th century.

Giovanni Gabrieli, organist at St Mark's until his death in 1612, wrote some spectacular music for the basilica, including seven Magnificat settings. His 14-part Magnificat was published in 1615, three years after his death. [listen]

With the seismic shifts in musical taste and practice from the start of the 17th century we enter the period later generations called the Baroque. The first great master of the new, exuberant style - which gave the world, among other things, opera - was Claudio Monteverdi, whose work in Mantua, and later in Venice, created sumptuous church works and much else besides. Of his four known Magnificat settings, two were written as part of the famous Vespers of 1610. One of these, for seven voices, requires large instrumental forces, and the other is an alternative setting for six voices without the instruments.

Strozzi: Claudio Monteverdi (c. 1630)

Separate to this are two settings Monteverdi published in 1641, two years before his death, in the great collection called Selva morale e spirituale. Like the two settings in the Vespers publication, the two in the Selva have contrasting requirements. One is for four voices without instruments, the other is much grander, for eight voices and instruments.

Monteverdi's settings still intertwine the plainchant setting into his rich and complex textures. This is the larger setting from the Selva. [listen]

Eighteen years younger than Monteverdi was the greatest German composer of the 17th century, Heinrich Schütz. Schütz studied with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice shortly before Gabrieli's death and shortly before Monteverdi arrived in the city. He was thus well-acquainted with the Venetian style of multiple choirs of voices and instruments and in Germany transferred this style into his German-language works for the Lutheran church.

Spätner: Heinrich Schütz (c. 1660)

Lutheran worship at this time - and well into the 18th century - while mostly in the vernacular language still allowed the use of Latin for some texts on special occasions and the Magnificat was one of these. Schütz's lavish setting of the Magnificat (thought to have been written sometime before 1665) calls for three vocal choirs - one of soloists, the other two of multiple voices - as well as violins and trombones in addition to the organ and bassline instruments. [listen]

The influence of opera on church music throughout the Baroque was extensive. Larger texts like the Magnificat were broken up, with each part of the text set as a completely separate, stand-alone movement. This is often called a "cantata" setting, and many of the arias especially took on an operatic style. Antonio Vivaldi wrote a very large body of church music including psalm settings, mass movements and solo motets. Some of these were commissioned by individual churches, others were intended for the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice where he taught.

A cantata-style setting of the Magnificat in G minor by Vivaldi exists in several versions. After composing it, probably for the Pietà, around 1715 he revised the chorus parts, instrumentation and the solo parts several times. The work has a huge range of styles, moods and textures. [listen]

Probable portrait of Antonio Vivaldi (c. 1723)

Which brings us, chronologically, to Johann Sebastian Bach. As with the Lutheran churches in which Heinrich Schütz worked, the Leipzig churches in Bach's time also permitted certain texts to be sung in Latin on certain occasions. Given its connection with the birth of Jesus, the Magnificat was usually sung at Christmas Vespers in Leipzig, and it was for his first Christmas as Cantor there that Bach composed the first version of his Magnificat in 1723.

Haussmann: Johann Sebastian Bach (1746)

This was a setting in E flat, in the cantata style taking several movements, and there were four extra movements setting German Christmas texts interpolated into the Latin Magnificat text. In the early 1730s he revised it, removing the German Christmas texts and transposing it into D; it's the later version which is usually performed today. It's a work of spectacular variety, and the opening chorus shows the virtuosity Bach required of his singers and instrumentalists. There is, as in Vivaldi's setting, a wide variety of moods spanning a sequence of rather short movements. [listen]

In the 1740s, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach composed a large-scale setting of the Magnificat which rivals that of his famous father. It's thought by some that it was composed with a view to the younger Bach applying for his father's job after the elder Bach's death, but as it turned out, despite applying twice, Emanuel Bach didn't get the Cantor's position in Leipzig.

Löhr: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

The younger Bach's style reflects the transitional period between the high Baroque and the later Classical style of Haydn and Mozart. JS Bach's music is full of semiquavers but they have melodic importance and shape the music completely. CPE Bach's instrumental semiquavers, in the opening chorus especially, are decorative and incidental to the far more straightforward nature of the music. [listen]

CPE Bach's Magnificat is, like his father's, a "cantata" style setting, with the text broken up and set as discrete movements. By the later part of the 18th century, when Haydn and Mozart and their contemporaries were at work, this was regarded as a very old-fashioned way of composing. This is not to say it wasn't used, but when it was (such as in Mozart's unfinished "Great" Mass in C minor) is was intended to be grand and monumental, invoking the past.

Far more common was a more compact form of text-setting, sometimes called "symphonic", in which the text is set in a single movement. Sometimes there are contrasting sections within this movement, but by and large the text is contained in one piece rather than many.

Mozart set the Magnificat a number of times as part of his duties in Salzburg. The most notable settings are in his two sets of Vespers written in 1780, which set the five psalms and Magnificat used at formal Vesper services. In each case, the texts are set as single movements, following a sort of abridged sonata form. This means that often different texts are heard sung to music encountered earlier, with the result that form is more important than the text a lot of the time.

The difference between cantata and symphonic approaches to text can be seen in the durations of these works which sets exactly the same words. JS Bach's Magnificat takes about 25 minutes; CPE Bach's takes about 40. In his Solemn Vespers for a Confessor, the Magnificat is all done in about five. It starts at 20'46 in this recording. [listen]

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1777)

Large scale settings of the Magnificat - either cantata style or symphonic - all but disappear from the repertoire, in the Catholic church at least, in the 19th century. But in the Anglican church the Magnificat had, since the English Reformation in the 16th century, had a role in the service of Evening Prayer, or Evensong as it is often called. This paralleled the place of the Magnificat in the Catholic Office of Vespers, and also in the Lutheran Vesper service as well, both of which were held in the afternoon or evening.

In the Anglican liturgy, the Magnificat was set as one of the two main canticles for Evening Prayer, usually in tandem with another New Testament canticle, the Nunc Dimittis. The Latin titles were retained in the Book of Common Prayer despite the canticles themselves being sung in English.

The practice of setting the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for use in Anglican worship, usually with organ accompaniment, became a standard practice in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is part of the Magnificat from John Stainer's Service No 3 in B flat, composed in 1884. [listen]

John Stainer

The Magnificat has always had a role to play in the All Night Vigil (sometimes called Vespers) of the Russian Orthodox Church. In his famous setting of 1915 for unaccompanied choir, Sergei Rachmaninov lavished great attention on the fifteen texts he set, of which the Slavonic text of the Magnificat is the 11th. The Orthodox text intersperses a refrain honouring the Virgin between the verses, and Rachmaninov's setting is based on the traditional Orthodox chants. [listen]

Sergei Rachmaninov (1921)

To conclude this survey I want to share with you parts of three very different settings of the Magnificat from the later 20th century.

The Armenian heritage of the American composer Alan Hovhaness comes to the fore in his large-scale setting of the Magnificat composed in 1958. The text is broken up, cantata style, to make a work lasting about half an hour. The composer said that he was aiming to suggest the mystery and mysticism of early Christianity. [listen]

Alan Hovhaness

The Polish modernist composer Krzysztof Penderecki composed his large-scale setting of the Magnificat in 1973-74 in response to a commission from Salzburg Cathedral. Scored for bass soloist, choirs and orchestra, it takes around three-quarters of an hour. The text is divided into seven sections and cast in four main movements, and the demands on all the performers are substantial as Penderecki sets the text with his own, very personal take on mysticism and praise. [listen]

Krzysztof Penderecki (2008)

A modernist of a very different sort - sometimes called one of the "holy minimalists" - is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. His intensely meditative music based on traditional harmony has won new friends for modern music in recent decades, and his choral music is much-loved of choirs. His Magnificat for unaccompanied choir was composed in 1989. Pärt aims, like Penderecki and Hovhaness, to portray the Virgin's praise in ecstatic, mystical tones, but his means of doing so is markedly different. The repetitive calm of the music is intense and attractive, although it's not everyone's cup of tea; this music can be annoying in the extreme to those not able to "get into" the music's any music, I guess. But I think it's certainly very beautiful and worth the effort. [listen]

Arvo Pärt (2008)

In this survey we've covered more than five centuries of polyphonic music. As always, looking at one text set by many different composers from different times and in different traditions is in some ways a microcosm of western music history itself. But the sheer variety of approaches the Magnificat text has inspired - from rarefied mystery to exultant joy - is remarkable.

Fra Angelico: The Annunciation (c. 1443)

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October and November, 2014.

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