Sunday, December 13, 2020


Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, a day on which Mary's Magnificat is part of the lectionary. As it happens, I composed a new setting of this text for our annual service of Advent Lessons and Carols last Sunday. Of course, there are many, many musical settings of the Song of Mary, including a very famous and brilliant multi-movement work by Bach. Because this text is part of the liturgies for Vespers and the Anglican Evensong services, there are regular opportunities for these words to be sung. Stanford apparently composed versions in every major key!

In many past years, I've written a new anthem for our choir for Lessons and Carols, but for this year, any choral offerings needed to be produced virtually; though I was mildly tempted by the idea of creating something specifically intended to be assembled online, I ultimately decided this would be a great year to write something for Emily, our outstanding soprano leader. She and three family members served as our in-house choir since they could safely sing next to each other. (Do I need to include a note here for future readers that this was during the Pandemic of 2020?)

I'm not an expert on the subject, but I have thought before that the grandeur and exuberance of so many Magnificat settings can seem a little out of proportion for words spoken by a simple young woman. I'm also not a big fan of breaking this kind of text up into so many sections, although I understand the temptation to mine each line for maximum effect.

But, since I was writing for solo soprano, my goal was more to communicate a sense of quiet, first-person wonder, with the words flowing by at a fairly regular pace - not quite like chant, but delivered with directness and simplicity. Also, I was a little slow getting notes on the page, and in fact, Emily didn't see a note of this until the Wednesday before the service. We ran it once on Friday night, and she sang it exactly as I'd hoped. The writing is indeed pretty straightforward, with an unobtrusive organ part providing support, and regular use of a bVI-bVII-I cadential pattern I tend to associate with wonder. (For the record, I didn't set out to use that pattern; it just kind of emerged as a unifying factor as I tried out this and that.)

Here's the performance from the livestreamed service last Sunday morning. Only a small number of people were in the sanctuary for social distancing reasons, and Emily was banished to the small chapel area in the back where singing can be done far from others. Given the distance and limited rehearsal, I'm pleased with how well we stayed together! Through the many wide open windows in the building, you can hear the leftovers of a Saturday night snow melting to the ground, especially over the quiet final chords.

Oh, I meant to add that I fell into a mostly King James English without really thinking too much about it. I'd actually been looking at a Purcell setting when I started putting notes on the page and was casually borrowing those words, taken from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. I pivoted to the King James version in a few spots, but I guess I just find the beautifully archaic language helps evoke the past.