Labour of love : another Magnificat

Magnificat anima mea

Setting women’s words is a rare pleasure for a church musician, so I tend to grab any chance I can find. I’ve set the Magnificat before, because it comes up occasionally in the readings at Mass (not often enough). When it does come up, it’s usually not in the place of the psalm but as part of the spoken readings. I’ve blogged about it before too (see here). However, it is offered as the Responsorial Psalm for the Feast of Our Lady’s Presentation in the Temple (November 21st), and somebody wrote to ask for a setting.

Mary speaking
Mary rejoicing in God her Saviour, with Elizabeth

I’m always delighted to get these special requests and do my best to help. We’ve completed the Sunday three-year cycle now, so these are my best chance to do something new, and it’s always interesting. Sometimes there’s a version that is pretty close among the Sunday psalms, and I just need a new response; sometimes the verses have been grouped differently; sometimes whole verses have been left out or put in; sometimes you just have to start again, wondering why those in charge of the Lectionary thought this might be a better or even remotely singable version.

The Presentation(s) in the Temple
Presentation Mary
Mary as a tiny girl arrives at the Temple, with Joachim and Anna in support

There are two Presentations and two Feasts, and this can lead to confusion. You can easily tell which is which in the pictures, because Mary’s Presentation, in November, shows her as a little standing figure on her own (after all, she is three, see later),

Jesus’ Presentation as a babe in arms, Mary and Joseph to the left, Joseph with pigeons

and the other is the Presentation of Our Lord, sometimes just called ‘The Presentation in the Temple’, and that’s the one with a swaddled babe in arms, held by Mary (sometimes and Joseph), being received by Simeon (sometimes and Anna). The age of the baby shows you clearly who is being Presented.

Who is my mother?

The feast of Our Lady’s Presentation in the Temple is an interesting one. There is no information about Mary’s early life in the Gospels. When she walks on-stage in Matthew’s Gospel, she is a young woman, engaged to Joseph and already mysteriously pregnant, but she appears out of nowhere. Mark has no birth narrative at all; Mary appears only at the end of chapter 3, arriving from we don’t know where, with Jesus’ brethren, and sending a message to Jesus where he is sitting surrounded by a crowd,”‘Your mother and your brethren are outside asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brethren?'” (Mk 3:31f), and goes on to declare that anyone who does the will of God is his mother, brother and sister. So far, so baffling.

Mary’s early life, according to Luke…

Luke has much more on the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, but not much information about his mother. She is a virgin (or a young woman, not my topic for today), betrothed to a man named Joseph, but at least she has a name. God sends an angel to her with two lots of startling news, first about her own child and then about her cousin Elizabeth’s. Mary agrees to God’s plan and rushes off to see Elizabeth, who comfortingly already knows her news and greets her with joy. The Magnificat is Mary’s answer.

…but not according to John

John, like Mark, has no birth narrative, and Jesus is already fully-grown when Mary is first mentioned, at the wedding at Cana in John’s second chapter. They are attending the wedding separately, but after it Jesus and his disciples spend a few days with Mary and the brethren.

Tradition, legend, and the Protevangelium of James

So there is nothing at all about Mary’s early life in the Gospels, but what we have instead is quite a bit of pious tradition and folklore. Some of it is based on the Protevangelium of James, dating from the end of the second century AD, non-canonical but ‘immensely popular’ in the Middle Ages, according to Simon Gathercole, who published a new translation of it for Penguin in 2021. We were lucky enough some years ago to visit Chora in Turkey where they have a whole series of mosaics of the Virgin’s early life, which were beautiful; I think you can no longer get into the church because it’s being turned into a mosque again (it’s been both in its long history, like Hagia Sophia).

Joachim and Anna
Immaculate Conception : angel comes to tell Joachim about Mary (at rear), then Joachim rejoices with Anna (foreground)

And it’s very easy to see why the Protevangelium of James was so popular. It starts with Joachim and Anna’s anguish over their infertility, and the text is full of lively and engaging dialogue. Joachim comes back from a tented desert retreat (lasting forty days, naturally) to find that Anna is pregnant and has already promised the baby to God’s service (just like Hannah and Samuel).  There are angel messengers for both Anna and Joachim to explain what is going on. The birth of Mary takes place six months later. Anna first asks whether the baby is a boy or a girl, and then declares,’My soul is magnified today!’

A very special baby

The baby Mary walks at six months, seven steps to her mother’s breast. Her mother swears that she will not set foot on the earth again until she goes to the Temple.

Joachim and Anna
Joachim and Anna cuddling the toddler Mary (Chora) : good parenting

Her parents make her a sanctuary in her bedroom and keep her safe and unpolluted by unclean foods, they have a party for her on her birthday and invite the nation of Israel and all the priests, who bless the little girl. Everyone predicts great things for her. Joachim and Anna discuss when to take her to the Temple; Joachim thinks she should go when she is two, in case God gets angry, but Anna easily persuades him to wait a year, so that she won’t miss her parents.

When she is three, they take her to the Temple. The priest welcomes and kisses her. Then he blesses her (‘The Lord God has magnified your name for all generations’). I especially like the next bit. The chief priest sits her down on the third step of the altar. ‘She did a little dance, and the whole house of Israel adored her’ (p.10 in Gathercole’s edition).

and here she is dancing adorably at the top of the steps
What Mary did next

This is non-canonical, but it’s written by someone who had lovingly observed three-year-old girls; it’s detailed, realistic and relatable. Mary’s parents go home and disappear from the story; she lives in the Temple, fed by an angel, until she is twelve when the priests all have conniptions at the thought that her periods might start, so they seek among the widowers for a suitable protector for Mary.  A miraculous dove flying out of his staff and perching on his head indicates that Joseph is the chosen one. He’s an elderly widower with sons (a useful explanation of the inconvenient ‘brethren’ in the Gospels), and is initially reluctant because he’s afraid of being laughed at. The priest threatens him with God’s anger and being swallowed up by the earth, so he agrees to take Mary; but he needs to go away for work, so he takes her to his home and leaves her there. She is engaged in spinning the purple and red wool for the Temple curtain (presumably the same one that will be rent from top to bottom at the Crucifixion), when the angel comes to visit her,  – and the story continues as in Luke, although there is no Magnificat in this text. But the ‘magnify’ word comes back again when the high priest says to her, as she hands over the spun thread,’Mary, the Lord God has magnified your name’. By now Mary is sixteen, though there’s no indication of where the time went.

Joseph comes back and finds Mary six months pregnant and is very distressed. There is lots of very human dialogue, with Joseph angry and resentful and Mary bursting into tears, and once Joseph is persuaded that Mary is innocent, both he and she have to defend themselves at length against the Temple authorities.

The feasts of Our Lady

I’ve covered this in some detail because it was so popular, and because the feast of Mary’s Presentation used to be much more important than it is now in the Roman church.  The Orthodox have kept some feasts that the Roman Church has lost or reduced in importance over the years. Of the Twelve Great Feasts among the Orthodox, four are for Mary and eight are about Jesus; the Catholic Church has invented various new feasts for Mary (Queenship of Mary, Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady Help of Christians and so on), but downgraded the older ones (presumably on canonical grounds, just like the changes to the Stations of the Cross to leave out the ones with central female characters).

The four Mary feasts in the Orthodox list are her birthday (corresponding to the nativity, in the list of Jesus feasts), the Annunciation, her Presentation and the Dormition.  The idea of ‘showing forth’ was very important in the early days of the Church (before the Roman/Orthodox split), which is why the Epiphany was originally a bigger feast than Christmas itself. The Orthodox Church preserved this emphasis. Mary’s Presentation is her Epiphany.  I need to mention St Sergius here, because we all owe him a debt. He was Pope from 687 to 701 AD, after two other people were claiming the triple crown (it’s a complicated story, but Sergius turned out to be the unity candidate everyone could agree on). He gave even more solemnity to the four Our Lady feasts by adding solemn processions to them. In the Roman Church, this feast of Mary’s Presentation was downgraded later (because of its non-canonical nature), but we are still very grateful to St Sergius because he introduced the sung Agnus Dei at Mass (he was a singer himself), and I do love a good Agnus Dei.

Different Magnificats

But when we have the chance to sing Mary’s own words (and yes, I know they have been mediated through a male evangelist and years of tradition, but they are all we have), we need to take it. I had already got a version for the Australian and New Zealand Lectionary, because my friend in Adelaide had asked for it two years ago, and I was happy to find that the UK and Eire words were very similar. The Response needed some tweaking, and I thought I could simplify the tune in a couple of places, but we weren’t starting from scratch. I don’t have the Canada words, unfortunately, so I can’t write that version until someone helpfully sends them to me (I haven’t got a Canada Daily Missal until one of my family has a chance to go and get me one); I hope you’ll be able to cobble something together out of the other three. And the US version of the words is so different that I started again with a different time signature.

Different Responses

In the prescribed readings, the Magnificat comes with two possible Responses, one taken from the words themselves and the second a sort of comment. I prefer the first, as the second is a bit long for the congregation to absorb so quickly; but there are five verses in this version, so they’ll know it by the end anyway. Just make sure you’ve checked with your celebrant if he has strong opinions about which one to go for.

Making the music dance too
This is a very damaged mosaic, but I think it shows Mary dancing (with the stars under her feet?)

When I set the Magnificat, I try to allow the exuberance of it to shine through. It’s such a joyful and affirming set of words; it isn’t tidy or meek, it’s exultant and young. It’s full of boundless hope and excitement. It has a helter-skelter quality; it’s overtly revolutionary. It needs almost to fall over itself as it heaps up the list of God’s promises. It’s irregular, but that’s a plus: God’s goodness is uncontainable. So it needs to go with a swing, and I’ve tried to make the Responses pick up with a swing at the end of each verse.

Another one will be along shortly

The main difference between this version of the Magnificat and the other Sunday version, which we will shortly be singing, as it comes up in Advent Year B Week 3, is that the Magnificat for the Presentation is complete, and the Advent one has only three verses. The Presentation Magnificat has all five verses, but the first one is only two lines long; and it has a choice of Responses, as I said, whereas the Advent Magnificat takes a verse from Isaiah as its Response. These are all quite small changes, but they matter a lot when you are trying to sing it! It’s tricky when v.1 is the one that doesn’t follow the pattern that you are trying to establish, but I’ve tried to keep the run-up to the Response the same throughout, so that the congregation feels confident. Sing it loud, sing it proud. Some of the versions are more bouncy, some more stately, but this is the showing-forth feast of the Theotokos, after all. It needs to be jubilant.

©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Hannah and the first Magnificat : 1 Samuel 2

Hannah’s Magnificat

The Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd (Tuesday of Christmas week this year) is the Canticle from 1 Samuel, and although you will never have sung it before as a Sunday psalm, the words are oddly familiar. It is solidly reminiscent of the Magnificat, Our Lady’s chant of joy when she goes to see Elizabeth, which we also don’t use as often as we might, but it is much earlier in date. It is another chant of joy by a mother, but this one is voiced by Hannah, one of the great Mothers of Israel.

from left to right, Hannah, Penninah with children, and Elkanah
Women’s words?

I have to put in a disclaimer here, because of the culture in which the Bible was written and its great age.  It is most likely that the words of both Hannah and Mary herself have been mediated through a male writer, and we have no way of knowing what is authentically women’s words and what is artistic recreation, but as I have said before, there is so little even ostensibly by women in the Bible, that we have to grasp at what we can get. 

Women's voices singing
women singing, a rare picture

So I am taking both Hannah’s words and Mary’s in good faith as women’s words.  Traditionally, her mother taught Mary to read, but we don’t actually know whether she was literate, and it’s very unlikely that Hannah was.  So someone else must have written the words down; but they are given to us as women’s words, in the same way that Shakespeare’s heroines speak women’s words.

Familiar words, unfamiliar speaker

As I say, the most striking thing about Hannah’s words is how familiar they are, even to Christians who barely know Hannah’s name and story.  Part of the narrative is prescribed reading just once in the three-year cycle of Sunday readings (Holy Family Year C).  It finishes before Hannah’s prayer/song, but tells only a small part of the story even so.  I know I’ve talked of Hannah before, but only briefly, as one of a group (Women’s voices in the Bible).  Here I’d like to pursue her further, as she has a great story, which is worth studying.

Who is Hannah?

Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah.  She has no child.  Her barrenness is her defining characteristic at this stage in the story.  Her co-wife is Penninah, who has several children, but even so Elkanah prefers Hannah. He goes up to Shiloh once a year, to make a sacrifice to God.  Elkanah hands out parts of the sacrifice to all his family, so Penninah and her children all get some of it, but Hannah gets only one portion, because she has no children.

Hannah sad and Penninah just possibly flaunting

Penninah taunts Hannah, and this happens year after year.   Hannah is reduced to tears and understandably does not want to take part in the meal;  Elkanah indicates one possible aspect of the problem when he says to her with quite stunning insensitivity, ‘Hannah, why do you weep?  Am I not more to you than ten sons?’

Childlessness in the early Old Testament

With all its limitations in approach (it’s always solely the wife’s fault or problem), the Bible in its early stories is surprisingly aware of the anguish that can be caused by involuntary childlessness.  From Eve’s desire for another son after the death of Abel, to the unsavoury jealous byplay between Hagar and Sarah, one fertile, one barren, and the similar  arguments between Leah and Rachel, which can only have been exacerbated by their being sisters, children are seen as not only God’s gift, a sign of favour which can be given or withheld, but the greatest gift, justifying almost anything. 

Sarah and Hagar
Sarah and Hagar : Sarah by now has a child, but the comparison is still fertile versus barren

Lot’s daughters make him drunk so that they can have children by him, because there is no other man available.   Tamar wants a child so much that she disguises herself as a prostitute and leads her father-in-law astray (she has twins).  These women will do anything to get a child.  There is a poignant moment in Genesis 35, where Rachel is delivering Benjamin :  ‘In her difficult delivery the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; you have another son here”. 

Rachel and Leah
Leah with child and Rachel without

Rachel dies, and is mourned with great grief by Jacob, but there is no suggestion that the child was not worth all her suffering in her own eyes; her only fear is not having a son.  Obviously, there is the practical viewpoint that a child will look after you when you are old and weak, but there is more to it, as a child-bearing woman in those days often didn’t make it to being old and weak.

Hannah prays for a child

So Hannah, like Sarah and Rachel, knows that only God has the power to give her the son she craves.  After everyone has had dinner, she slips away from the hall, and goes to the temple.  Eli the priest is sitting there by the door.  Hannah weeps and prays, and then makes God a promise : if he will give her a son,  she will give him back to God for the whole of his life, and his hair will never be cut (a symbol of this dedication).  Then there is a fascinating little exchange between Eli and Hannah.  She is praying under her breath; her lips can be seen to move but her voice cannot be heard.  Eli ‘therefore supposed that she was drunk’, and upbraids her harshly.  Hannah replies in a most dignified and impressive way.  ‘And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD’ (King James 2000 Bible. Some of the other translations are more modern and colloquial, but the dignity is constant).  She explains that she has been speaking from her grief and resentment.   Eli does not apologise (look at the situation and who is speaking to whom here), but to his credit, he does answer respectfully and kindly : ‘Go in peace, and may God grant what you ask’.  Interestingly, she doesn’t tell him what she is asking for, and he now behaves with tact.  She goes back to the hall, her sadness relieved.

Hannah praying with grief and resentment

Samuel is born
Hannah with Eli (and the Ark of the Covenant)(top), then Hannah with Samuel (and a midwife)

The family returns home, Hannah conceives and bears a son, Samuel.  The following year, she decides not to go on the annual pilgrimage because Samuel isn’t weaned yet, but she explains to her husband that when he is, she will bring him to Shiloh and present him to God in the temple, and leave him there.  Elkanah says, ‘Do as you think fit’.  We are told nothing about Hannah’s feelings, and it’s difficult to imagine them.  She has longed for this child, but he will not be hers to keep even as briefly as usual.   A ‘weaned child’, even in those days, is still quite little, easily able to fit on a lap (cf. Psalm 130/131:2). At this age, she gives Samuel up.

Hannah a real woman, not just a representer

In a way, it’s not Hannah’s feelings which are important here, because we aren’t thinking about her as an individual but as a representative of the heroic qualities she demonstrates.  It’s just like in fairy stories, where again, the longing for a child is frequently an engine of the plot (Snow White, Tom Thumb, The Gingerbread Boy, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and so on).   None of these stories dwells on the yearning of the would-be parent(s).  The situation is stated and we move on into the story.  Hannah’s story takes us very quickly into the next stage.  She longs for this child so much as to beg God for him, and at the same time she promises to give him up.  Hannah is ready to give her son to God if she can only have a son to take away the reproach of her childlessness.  This does not make her a self-obsessed monster lacking maternal feeling, it is to show first how good God is to her when asked, and second how generous he is (after giving up Samuel, Hannah goes on to have five more children, three of them sons).  But what I find fascinating is the way the story is told and the tension between the events as they unroll and the human nature of the woman.  Some of it we can glean from Hannah’s words, some from her actions and the way they are recounted.

look how little he is
Le style, c’est la femme

Unusually, we are given all Hannah’s words in direct speech.  (I regret that we don’t have any answer to Elkanah’s first question, but it’s probably just as well.)  We hear first what she says to God, where she is simple, passionate and direct as she makes her vow. She is full of grief and resentment, and she says so.  This is a real relationship with God, person to person, which can cope with the stresses of reproach and challenge.  Then Eli questions her and she answers him, again with simplicity and directness.  Later she tells Elkanah what her plans are in relation to Samuel, and he agrees without any cavil. After Samuel is weaned, she takes him up to the temple, with various gifts.  There is no evidence that Elkanah takes any part in this trip; Hannah is an impressively independent woman in context.  She goes to Eli and reminds him, again with great simplicity and directness, of their previous meeting.  Then she says the crucial sentence twice. ‘Now I make him over to the Lord for the whole of his life.  He is made over to the Lord.’ (1 Sam 1:28)’.  Then there is one more performative sentence (There she left him, for the Lord;  alternative translation in several other versions, There he worshipped the Lord) and then there is her Magnificat.

Hannah offering Samuel to the Lord
Hannah’s heroic sacrifice

I find the simplicity and understatement of all this extremely moving.  We have learned that Hannah is a woman of dignity and self-respect, and she is doing this because she has promised, not because anyone has made her.  She is a strong woman with agency.  We know that she loves her son.  In another very touching detail later, we discover that each year when the family comes back for the annual sacrifice, she brings Samuel a new little tunic, having worked out how much bigger it needs to be this year.  There is so much in that tiny detail, and you can imagine the love that would have been woven into the cloth and sewn into the seams.

Two women, two Magnificats

Hannah’s prayer starts, like Mary’s, with a declaration of God’s might. She quotes the psalms (God is a rock, there is none like him), and moves swiftly to a celebration of his power to turn everything upside down.  Here the sequence is as in Mary’s Magnificat: we move from a statement of God’s power to his crushing of the powerful and raising the weak, the sated going hungry and the starving having their fill, the raising of the poor and humbling of the rich.   Mary’s words are more individual and powerful.  She is talking about what God has done for her, now, in this time;  Hannah’s words are more general (and more repetitive), as she describes what God does and has done repeatedly through history.  She also has one specific couplet which only makes sense if you know the context :’ the barren woman bears sevenfold,/ but the mother of many is desolate’.  It comes in as another example of God’s reversal of the current order, but it is chilling.  Hannah’s Magnificat is an Old Testament version, compared to the pure redemptive NT joy of Mary’s.  Jesus refers to the barren only once, and on the way to the Crucifixion, where he speaks to the women of Jerusalem, and it’s a passage to show how dreadful things will be : ‘The days are coming when they will say,’Blessed are the barren” (Luke 23:29).   This is a topsyturvey again, but a fearsome one.

Hannah’s Magnificat : form

We do not use all Hannah’s words in the Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd, because it is even longer than Mary’s Magnificat (and we omit parts of that, when we use it as a psalm), but we use all the parts which chime with Mary’s later version.  We have the first four lines on God’s greatness, then the six-line stanza about turning things upside down, and the later lines which continue the same theme.  It comes out as a psalm of four stanzas, a six-liner followed by a four-liner, twice.  The Response is tweaked to emphasize the similarity between the two Magnificats : Hannah’s Response as prescribed is ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord, my Saviour’, given as v 1 of the psalm but in fact that is simply ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord’, and the reference to a Saviour is absent.  Mary’s first lines, on the other hand, are ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour ‘(Luke 1:46f), so we are definitely pushing the parallels here.

Mary speaking
Mary rejoicing in God her Saviour
Giving it a tune

Setting it to music was difficult, but I think mainly because I would have liked to be able to do it so much better.  Setting women’s words is a rare privilege for me, but there are various essential limitations when you are writing a tune for a Responsorial psalm, especially for a weekday.  It can’t be too difficult to grasp or to sing.  Technically, this one has unequal verses, which means the tune needs to have room to expand and contract.  It seemed to fall naturally into a Handelian sort of shape, but the problem with that is that Handel is so much better at setting joyful women’s voices than anyone else (except Bach), so it’s embarrassing.    There is some laughing in the tune (verse 1), and at one point the tune itself has to turn topsyturvey because the words need it to go up when the rest of the verses take it down (end of stanza 3).  And I had to change the Response, because I first thought it started on an unaccented syllable (‘My’), but that didn’t work with the shape of the verse ending, so I had to allow the ‘my’ a certain stress.  It felt right after that; Hannah is a strong woman, and her words have a characteristic directness.  So I wasn’t satisfied with it when it was done, but at least it now has a tune and can be sung.  And I had a chance to find out more about Hannah, and write about her, an early Christmas present I had not expected.  Because she was worth it, definitely.  Happy Christmas.

crib scene in illuminated capital
the joy of a baby….and music as well

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.