One woman’s voice : the Magnificat

Mary our mother and the Mothers of Israel

The women I concentrated on in my last blog  (Judith, Ruth, Esther, Deborah) are recorded with honour in the Old Testament.  They are regarded  as heroines and holy women, the Mothers of Israel; and they are our mothers in faith too.  Parallels between them and the Mother of Jesus are interesting and not hard to find and show.   But we would look in vain for a similarly extensive prayer from her.

someone’s holding up the words,  so she must be joining in the singing
Women’s voices in the New Testament

In the New Testament, it is even harder to find women’s words than in the Old.  Mary is recorded as saying astonishingly little, although she is present during so much of it.  In Luke she speaks four times, once in John, and we have none of her words in Matthew and Mark, though she sends Jesus a message that she’s arrived  (Mark 3, 31).  So the exchange with Elizabeth (in Luke  1, 39ff)  is very precious, even though it repeats whole lines out of previous songs, psalms and prayers.  Elizabeth’s words are incorporated into the Hail Mary,  and the Magnificat is part of Evening Prayer.  It is by far the longest piece of female speech in the New Testament. And it is brief.

Mary’s Magnificat?

It’s a (relatively rare) joy for me to write music for psalms that even mention women, so I particularly appreciate setting women’s words. And yes, I know that these are words fully in the tradition of the Old Testament, put into Mary’s mouth by the evangelist Luke.  Definitely mediated through a male writer, then, and deliberately reusing the language and tropes of earlier speakers, some of them women;  but tradition has always claimed these words as Mary’s own.  If Luke (according to tradition) painted her, they would have had time to talk; who else would remember these words, if she did not?  —    and in the end, they are all that we have. So I am taking them as women’s words.

A woman’s prayer from below

In the whole text, there is only one word indicating the speaker’s gender : ‘He looks on his servant in her nothingness’  or (different translation) ‘he has regarded his lowly handmaiden‘  (and the US version ‘for he has looked upon his lowly servant’ elides even that).  But what is distinctive about this song is that it written from below throughout.  This is a person without any power or rank speaking, and celebrating God because he is wonderful and does marvellous deeds; and is doing them, for her, now.

Living in the moment

The references to God’s actions are all in the present tense, not the future : this lowly person is totally confident that all this is happening right here, right now.  This is an interesting contrast to the appeals for help in the psalms, which are usually looking forward for relief (O Lord, hasten to my help…..O Lord, do not delay… O Lord make haste to help us , Ps 22/23  but passim really).

The text does not move forwards or back; there is no narrative; there is no sense of time other than the present.  Mary describes what is happening  at this moment to her.  There is one gesture towards the future: ‘Henceforth all ages will call me blessed’, but this is an immediate future which starts now, just as the one reference to the past is ‘the mercy promised to our fathers’, a past which is still continuing into now and for ever.

A world turned upside down

Apart from the absoluteness of the present tense, the other striking thing about the words of the Magnificat is their celebration of the reversal of human order.  Mary starts with a statement of fact: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ and then starts to celebrate the topsy-turvey.  God looks at his servant (Mary) and he is perfectly aware of her status; but guess what, ‘henceforth all ages will call me blessed’.  This is so extreme that it would be embarrassing or foolish if it were not true.  Then Mary refers again to God, because her future standing is not because of her, but because of him.  God is working wonders for her, he is wonderful, and his kindness is for everyone.

And it isn’t just Mary for whom he is turning the world upside down : ‘He […] scatters the proud-hearted […], casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly’.    Again the claim is stupendous : from their thrones, so not just petty important people, but the mighty of the earth, the sort of person Mary would only ever have seen at a distance, or possibly only heard about.  More reversal :’he fills the starving […] sends the rich away empty’.  Here is the option for the poor with a vengeance.  When you think about Mary’s status compared to ‘the rich’, this almost sounds like a joke (and that’s how Bach sets it in his Magnificat, with the music petering out into the hollow left in the bellies of the rich).

Historical context for Mary’s words…

The last verse of the Magnificat is like a doxology, and in it Mary places herself in the line of salvation history and shows that what is happening to her is the fulfilment of God’s promises from the beginning (our fathers) until the end of time (for ever).  To reduce the Magnificat to a neat three verses of Responsorial Psalm, the proud-hearted and the mighty are left out on Sunday, as are the last two lines, but all the rest is there (I said it was short).

…and parallels before and after

As a literary artefact, it is interesting to compare the Magnificat to Hannah’s song  in 1 Samuel 2.  Mary’s song is not special because it is so original; rather, it is important that it is part of a tradition of obedience to God,  of joyful surrender to his will.  It is special because it is the fulfilment of salvation history, not an isolated event.  The other literary artefact it chimes with is the Beatitudes.  Even the order is the same : Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God […] blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied (Luke 6,20ff).

Setting the words

As well as being all one tense, the Magnificat is all one mood, of exultation.  So I tried to keep the music simple but jubilant.  We need to remember what Mary is like at this point.  She is very young.  She is enthusiastic, exuberant, committed and joyful.  She doesn’t know very much about what’s going on yet, but her faith in God is so complete that she is prepared to leave it all to him.  She knows that her situation is unorthodox, to say the least, but that does not concern her, and, thanks to Joseph, it is not allowed to become an issue.  She will treasure every piece of information as it comes along, but she has not yet met Simeon and heard about the sword that will pierce her.  In a different cultural context, I think we might have had something specifically about the baby, but Elizabeth is the only person who mentions that.  She is (much) older,  and her baby is much bigger and moving about (‘leaping for joy’ Luke 1, 44),  a magical stage of pregnancy which Mary hasn’t reached yet.

a special baby each : compare and contrast

Elizabeth would have let Mary feel the baby leaping for joy in her womb, and suddenly Mary’s own pregnancy would have felt real.  With our first baby, until she started to move,  I felt as though she lived inside the ultrasound box at the hospital; only when I felt her move was I sure that she was really there.

I wanted the Response to feel like a natural spill-over of all the excitement in the verses.  I think it does quite effectively in the (new) CAN version.  The Response is tricky, because it starts with an unstressed syllable, but you don’t want to take the congregation by surprise; so that’s why the OZ and UK versions have a tiny introduction, which is rare for me, but seemed to work here. The US one is straightforward.

Hard to find a picture of Mary singing it
…the best I could find

It’s really difficult to find a good image of Mary and the Magnificat.  If you look at the covers for the different musical recordings of it, they show soulful, ethereal females,  actually a bit wishy-washy and almost without exception with their mouth shut;  even sometimes male figures (Christ or the composer).   What they do not show is a woman speaking, chanting or singing aloud in the fulness of joy.   I think this is a pity, as in the Magnificat we have an unafraid female voice just celebrating God’s greatness.  Sing it with joy and conviction.  This is not a silent blonde, with clasped hands, and eyes raised to heaven.  This is a real woman, who is so happy she can’t not sing.  What a wonderful, heartening role model.

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