Sometimes the Church’s liturgical year can seem very far removed from the concerns of ordinary people. Today we celebrate St Luke, and some of us will have had thoughts running down predictable channels, e.g. Gospel, Acts, allegedly a physician and an artist, wrote better Greek than his fellow evangelists, seems to have been more friendly to women than they, etc, etc. For others, St Luke is but half-remembered, as in the phrase ‘St Luke’s summer’ (which means that this year he won’t be thought of at all). For the majority, however, I suspect the fact that today is Anti-Slavery Day will have more  impact. The statistics are appalling: 27 million people enslaved world-wide; human trafficking into the UK at its highest-ever level; and Christians are talking about St Luke?

Secular-minded people will never understand how the commemoration of a man who died nearly two thousand years ago can matter today. Of the many aspects of his life and work we could single out, I would like to suggest just this: the canticle we know as the Magnificat. It is a tissue of Old Testament quotations put into the mouth of Our Lady and sung every evening at Vespers. In other words, somewhere in the world, at whatever hour of day or night it may be here in Britain, someone is singing this ancient prayer, proclaiming through the darkness the Church’s trust in her Lord, her belief in his goodness to the poor, his fidelity to his promise. It is the prayer of the poor and the humble, the oppressed and downtrodden; and it is sung by the whole Church, no matter how rich or comfortable an individual part of it may be. It is the song of a people set free and, as such, we Christians should sing it tonight on behalf of those still in chains. St Luke’s Day and Anti-Slavery Day have more in common than you might think.


13 thoughts on “Magnificat”

  1. On an Ecumenical note…the Magnificat is also sung every night at Choral Evensong, that “two services in one” (Vespers and Compline) that has been sung nightly since the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. Indeed some of the most well known musical settings of the Canticle have been written for the Anglican Church, although the setting by Gabrelli for his Vespers of the Virgin mary 1603 take some beating, as does the Heinrich Schütz setting two years latter. However you sing/say it, it is a magnificent statement of faith. Happy St Luke’s Day…apropos his Greek: I’ve been reading Homer The Odyessey which was Liverpool Cathedral’s Book Club choice this week, but was also reading Acts, also in Greek since I was in “Greek” mode, and couldn’t help noticing the number of stylistic devices the two works have in common. Luke was obviously better read than the other three Evangalists!

  2. Thank you, Nadine. At the risk of seeming ungracious, I would just like to say that the plainsong settings of the Latin rite take some beating; and as for the Greek rite of the Catholic Church, that is for many unexplored territory. Gabrielli and Co are all right, you see, but a bit on the modern side . . . :—)

  3. One of my very favourite prayers! What a nice thought that, at any one time, somewhere in the world, the Church is proclaiming its trust in her Lord. How reassuring. Thank you.

    • Yes, isn’t it? I am always encouraged by the thought that somewhere in the world Mass is being celebrated and the Divine Office sung unceasingly to the glory of God, not to mention the quiet, persevering prayer of the Church’s contemplatives, from the Carthusians to the person no one knows anything about living on a housing estate or tucked out of sight in some wilderness or other.

  4. I meant no disrespect to the plainsong version. quite the contrary, I’m a huge fan of it. I’ve been privilaged to attend Vespers sevefral times at the Abbay de Solemnes in France…now you don’t get much more Gregorian than that!! Always a very prayerful experience. Ands, I must report, one “borrowed” by us Anglicans; albeit most notably by a couple of Roman Catholic composers at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, namely Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, who took the concept of a “faux-boudon” and turned it to good use in their Canticle settings. This involves the Cantor singing the first line in the appropriate plainsong “My Soul doth Magnify the Lord”, at which the choir respond in harmony “And my spirit doth rejoice in God my Saviour” to be answered by the Cantor etc. Here at Liverpool during Lent, at least one service a week is wholly Plainsong, as are the Psalm chants on the Sundays of Lent. However you pray it, the Magnificat together with the Nunc Dimitis are two of the most wonderful evocations of a life in service to God anywhere in the Bible.

  5. Now, careful, Nadine, you are getting on to dangerous territory! As someone trained in the Stanbrook tradition of plainsong, I wouldn’t rank Solesmes as the ne plus ultra of the chant, not that I’ve been there recently. (Actually, any monastery has its highs and lows musically. One can be gravely disappointed going to a monastery with a wonderful reputation, and then thrilled to go somewhere no one ever talks about where the chant is sung supremely well and prayerfully. As regards the way in which the chant is interpreted, Solesmes influenced Stanbrook in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but we adopted many of the pre-Reformation English melodies Solesmes wouldn’t countenance; but I expect you know that.) I am familiar with the Byrd and Tallis, so I’ll be merciful THIS time. Perhaps my friend Jeffrey Morse will leap into this conversation from the USA later today. He is a very fine musician. I am pleased to know you have such a lively musical tradition at Liverpool.

  6. I was just catching up on some past blog posts and came across this one. Of course, I agree with Dame Catherine! We owe much to Solesmes in particular for the painstaking restoration of the Roman Chant which had come down to us from the time of the Renaissance butchered and corrupt. However, this work was not only confined to the precincts of the Abbey of Solesmes! Stanbrook Abbey, was almost at the same time discovering the musical wonders of the Worcester Antiphoner, the oldest complete English monastic antiphoner extant. The melodies found in this antiphoner could very well be even purer, more Roman and more Gregorian than the Gregorian Chant restored by Solesmes due to the history and provenance of this book.

    In regards performance- the charm of the Chant, I believe is the fact that it is going to have its own ‘flavour’ from monastery to monastery and Abbey to Abbey, and as well it should! Dame Laurentia, the former Abbess of Stanbrook used to say that a slavish imitation of even the best interpretation of Chant was not something one should aim to, but rather, after giving some sound principles, let the interpretation develop on its own. Sheer sanity if you ask me!

    • Thank you, Jeffrey. One of the great things about the long monastic memory is that I can recall my chant mistress saying, of a particular chant, ‘Now, D. Laurentia always said that . . .’ or ‘we knock out the b flats on that, D. Laurentia said they were a Solesmes introduction’ — and Abbess Laurentia had died before she was born!

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