The month of December brings with it the strains of much beloved music. One of my favorite works—and one of the first major choral works I ever sang with a choir—is J. S. Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243), first performed when Bach was Thomaskantor in Leipzig. [You can view the full score on IMSLP, order Schirmer’s choral edition through JW Pepper, and listen to Philippe Herreweghe’s stunning interpretation on YouTube.] Composers through the centuries have been fascinated by Mary’s canticle of praise to God, and their highly varied settings testify to the the depth of emotion contained in her song (recorded in Luke 1:46-55). During the increasingly busy season of Advent, taking some time to reflect on the circumstances that brought about one of the very first Christmas songs can help restore your hope, peace, and joy in the goodness of God.
When Mary heard the good news—that Jesus was coming and she would be his mother—her world was turned upside down instantly. From that moment on, everything in her life was different from what she had imagined. Her plans, her hopes, her dreams were all challenged. At first, the angel’s words did not make sense to her. How could she give birth to a child—the Child? But Gabriel reminded her that all things are possible with God, he reminded her of the truth she already knew about God, and Mary responded in humble obedience. Understandably though, she needed someone to talk to, someone who could support her. So she left quickly to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who helped strengthen Mary’s faith in the promises of God (Luke 1:45). In response, Mary sang a song of praise to the Lord, a song rich in scriptural truth. Her concern for the poor is striking, as is her deep understanding of God’s acts in redemptive history. Mary’s song demonstrates her faith in the good and wise purposes of God. Could it be that she sang this song more than once, throughout her pregnancy and beyond, as a way to remind herself of God’s faithfulness? Perhaps, as new mothers do, she even sang this song as a lullaby to Jesus himself when he was a baby. When faced with the unexpected working of God in her life, Mary looked to him, recalling the Lord’s goodness to his people in the past, and was able to move forward in faith. Truly, the Lord is mighty, his name is holy, and his unfailing love endures forever. (adapted from Behold He Comes: Advent Reflections)
Choral Settings of the Magnificat
Magnificat in D Major (BWV 243), J. S. Bach | Difficult (SSATB, soloists)
Magnificat, R. Clausen | Difficult (SATB, a cappella)
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, R. Vaughan Williams | Moderate (SATB, organ/piano)
Mary’s Magnificat, A. Carter | Moderate (Soprano solo, SATB, organ)
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, T. Shaw | Easy (SA/TB, soloists, piano)
© 2015 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.