The text of the Magnificat has understandably attracted many composers. Its vivid language and clear structure make it eminently suitable for musical setting. But for me, as for many composers in the past, it was the confidence of Mary's affirmation of faith, and her joy at being chosen by God which primarily attracted me, and I have tried to convey some of the directness of her emotions in music which has clarity of texture and line, and which is unashamedly joyous in character.
My setting (in Latin) is in five contrasted movements. The first, and longest, is for the most part vigorous, but contains two reflective passages for the ladies alone (Quia respexit) and for the men alone (Ecce enim). The second and third movements respectively are also for the ladies and men on their own: "Et misericordia" is gentle and yearning, while "Fecit potentiam" is very much more forceful and rhythmic. The fourth movement, "Suscepit Israel", looks back in mood and musical ideas to the "Et misericordia", and is scored for unaccompanied chorus interrupted occasionally by trumpets, oboe d'amore and bassoon. An orchestral interlude leads directly into the "Gloria", which returns to the music of the first movement, to end the work in a spirit of joy and conviction.
Between these choral movements are four settings for the soloists alone of English poems which in some way relate to the thought or mood of the preceding choral section. The first, for tenor, (part of Walt Whitman's "Passage to India"), is reflective and introvert in character, contrasting strongly with the second poem, an anonymous medieval dramatic dialogue between a Soul and Christ, set for alto and bass. The third poem, Christina Rossetti's "Up-hill", is another dialogue, this time between a Pilgrim Soul and an Angel, here set for soprano and tenor. The fourth poem brings all four soloists together in Richard Chevenix Trench's meditation on the reality of God and Heaven.
The work was designed originally as a companion piece to Bach's incomparable setting, and uses the same vocal and instrumental resources, with the addition of a little percussion. Bach's first version of the "Magnificat" also included non-biblical interpolations, and, just as his setting can be, and indeed usually is, performed without these interpolations, so mine too is constructed in such a way that it can be performed simply as a setting of the Latin Magnificat without the English solo movements.
"Magnificat" was written in 1980 to a commission from the St. Albans Chamber Choir, who gave its first performance the following year in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, under the direction Richard Stangroom.
© Christopher Brown 1981