Mary's Canticle: the Magnificat

May 09, 2014
Source: District of the USA

Our Lady's inspired canticle, the Magnificat, has a special place in the Roman liturgy during the Office of Vespers. Her sublime words have inspired many musical settings that have attempted to capture the spirit of her supernatural message.

In honor of Our Lady's month of May, we offer this short treatise on the Magnificat, which includes some excerpts from The Catholic Encyclopedia and a list of musical selections available online.

The Magnificat of Our Lady

Luke 1:39-46:

In the days that followed [the Annunciation], Mary rose up and went with all haste to a town of Juda, in the hill country where Zachary dwelt; and there entering in she gave Elizabeth greeting. No sooner had Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, than the child leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Ghost; so that she cried out with a loud voice, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. How have I deserved to be thus visited by the mother of my Lord? Why, as soon as ever the voice of thy greeting sounded in my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed art thou for thy believing; the message that was brought to thee from the Lord shall have fulfilment.

And Mary said:

Latin Vulgate; Luke 1:46-55: Douay-Rheims English:

Magnificat anima mea Dominum,
et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salvatore meo,
quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae.
Ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes,
quia fecit mihi magna,
qui potens est,
et sanctum nomen eius,
et misericordia eius in progenies et progenies
timentibus eum.
Fecit potentiam in brachio suo,
dispersit superbos mente cordis sui;
deposuit potentes de sede
et exaltavit humiles;
esurientes implevit bonis
et divites dimisit inanes.
Suscepit Israel puerum suum,
recordatus misericordiae,
sicut locutus est ad patres nostros,
Abraham et semini eius in saecula.

My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid;
for behold from henceforth...
all generations shall call me blessed.
Because he that is mighty,
hath done great things to me;
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is from generation unto generations,
to them that fear him.
He hath shewed might in his arm:
he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath received Israel his servant,
being mindful of his mercy:
As he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his seed forever.

Concluding doxology added during the Divine Office:

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula, saeculorum. Amen.

Concluding doxology:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost! As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.

Explanation on the Magnificat

The title commonly given to the Latin text and vernacular translation of the Canticle (or Song) of Mary. It is the opening word of the Vulgate text (Luke 1:46-55): "Magnificat anima mea, Dominum", etc. (My soul doth magnify the Lord, etc.). In ancient antiphonaries it was often styled Evangelium Mariæ, the "Gospel of Mary". In the Roman Breviary it is entitled (Vespers for Sunday) Canticum B.M.V. (Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary). The Magnificat, Benedictus (Canticle of Zachary—Luke 1:68-79), and Nunc Dimittis (Canticle of Simeon—Luke 2:29-32) are also styled "evangelical canticles", as they are found in the Gospel (Evangelium) of St. Luke.

Liturgical use

While the canticles taken by the Roman Breviary from the Old Testament are located with the psalms, and are so distributed as to be sung only once a week, the Magnificat shares with the other two "evangelical canticles" the honor of a daily recitation and of a singularly prominent location immediately before the Oratio, or Prayer of the daily Office (or, if there be preces, immediately before these). The Magnificat is assigned to Vespers, the Benedictus to Lauds, and the Nunc Dimittis to Compline. Six reasons are given by Durandus for the assignment of the Magnificat to Vespers, the first being that the world was saved in its eventide by the assent of Mary to the Divine plan of Redemption. Another reason is found by Colvenarius in the probability that it was towards evening when Our Lady arrived at the house of St. Elizabeth. However this may be, in the Rule (written before 502) of St. Cæsarius of Arles, the earliest extant account of its liturgical use, it is assigned to Lauds, as it is in the Greek Churches of today.

The ceremonies attending its singing in the choir at solemn Vespers are notably impressive. At the intonation Magnificat, all who are in the sanctuary arise, and the celebrant (having first removed his biretta "in honor of the canticles") goes with his assistants to the altar, where, with the customary reverences, etc., he blesses the incense and incenses the altar as at the beginning of solemn Mass. In order to permit the elaborate ceremony of incensing, the Magnificat is sung much more slowly than the psalms. A similar ceremony attends the singing of the Benedictus at solemn Lauds, but not of the Nunc Dimittis at Compline.

At the first word of the Magnificat, the Benedictus and Nunc Dimittis, the Sign of the Cross is made. In some churches the Magnificat is sung at devotions outside of Vespers. Answering a question from Canada, the Ecclesiastical Review (XXIII, 74) declares that the rubrics allow such a separation, but forbids the incensing of the altar in such a case. The same review (XXIII, 173) remarks that "the practice of making the Sign of the Cross at the opening of the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis in the Office is of very ancient usage, and is sanctioned by the very best authority", and refers to the Congregation of Sacred Rites, December 20, 1861.

Musical settings

Like the canticles and psalms, the Magnificat is preceeded and followed by an antiphon varying for the feast or ferial Office, and is sung to the 8 modes of plain song. The first verse has, however, no mediation, because of the brevity (the one word Magnificat) of the first half. The Canticles of Mary and of Zachary share (even in the Office of the Dead) the peculiar honor of commencing every verse with an initium or intonation. This intonation varies for the varying modes; and the Magnificat has a special solemn intonation for the 2nd, 7th, and 8th modes, although in this case the usual festive intonation applies, in the 2nd and 8th modes, to all the verses except the 1st.

The "musical", as distinguished from the "plainsong", treating of the canticle has been very varied. Sometimes the chanted verses alternated with harmonized plainsong, sometimes with falso bordone having original melodies in the same mode as the plain song. But there are innumerable settings which are entirely original, and which run through the whole range of musical expression, from the simplest harmony up to the most elaborate dramatic treatment, with orchestral accompaniment of the text.

Almost every great church composer has worked often and zealously on this theme. Palestrina published two settings in each of the eight modes, and left in manuscript almost as many more. Fifty settings by Orlando di Lasso are in the Royal Library at Munich, and tradition credits him with twice as many more. In our own days, Cesar Franck (1822-1890) is said to have completed sixty-three out of the hundred he had planned. In addition to such names as Palestrina, di Lasso, Josquin des Pres, Morales, Goudimal, Animuccia, Vittoria, Anerio, Gabrieli, Suriano, who with their contemporaries contributed innumerable settings, the modern Cecilian School has done much work on the Magnificat both as a separate canticle, and as one of the numbers in a "Complete Vespers" of many feasts...

To get an idea of the variety of musical arrangements that have been made of Our Lady's Canticle, we recommend these pieces available on YOUTUBE: