Magnificat by John Rutter
The Latin word “Magnificat” begins the Virgin Mary’s joyful outburst following the Annunciation–the Angel’s word that she was to bear the Messiah, as recorded in Luke 1: 46-55. This poem, or song, of Mary has been a central part of the observance of the Advent season in Christian churches since early times, and many composers have set this text: There are extant Magnificats–in some cases as many as 100 by one composer–by at least fifty well-known composers, from Guillaume Dufay (born 1398 in France) to this evening’s offering by the contemporary English composer John Rutter (born 1945). Rutter, a graduate of Clare College, Cambridge, was also music director there from 1975-1979, and thereafter founded the Cambridge Singers, a professional chorus with which he remains closely identified; this work has been recorded by that group under his direction [Collegium COLCD114]. The first performance of this work, however, was in the US, at Carnegie Hall in New York City, in May, 1990, also under the composer’s direction. Mr. Rutter is a frequent visitor to the US as well as all over Europe and Scandinavia, conducting and lecturing; he has appeared in the Chicago area, including a visit to a west suburban music festival a few years ago. He remains active as a composer as well; he has written or arranged many Christmas anthems, such as his Star Carol, which has become a popular offering on Christmas programs and is in the current repertoire of the Naperville Chamber Singers, a division of the Chorus.
Many of Rutter’s compositions are known for apparent simplicity, often almost that of folk music. Groves says “…His idiom…also draws on a wider sympathy for European music of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, especially the harmonic and melodic language of Faure, Durufle and their contemporaries…”. Simplicity of melodic line does not, for Rutter, preclude occasional complex interweaving of themes, voices, and text, any more than it did for the composers cited by Groves.
Rutter is of course familiar with Anglican traditions, e.g., the preference for men’s and boys’ voices. However, in his large sacred compositions, including Requiem and Gloria, he does not always stay within the limits of traditional forms, and that is also the case here: In this setting, he interpolates a 15th-century anonymous English poem, Of a Rose, A Lovely Rose, as the second movement. The blossoming rose is, of course, a symbol of the newborn Christ (compare the metaphor in Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming [Praetorius], a hymn of 15th-century German origin); in Rutter’s poem, Mary becomes the seed, or stalk, from which five branches spring– representing the Annunciation, the star, the Kings, the vanquishment of Satan through Christ’s death, and heavenly salvation through Christ. The poem ends exhorting prayers to Mary, because of her singular honor, to “shield us from the fiendes bond”.
Rutter’s setting also interpolates two other passages; however, both of these have liturgical associations. In the third movement, Mary acknowledges God’s gift: “…he that is mighty hath magnified me; and holy is his name”, whereupon the Sanctus, derived from the Ordinary of the Mass, is inserted: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts…”. The seventh-movement addition is the penultimate statement of the work, and copies an antiphon used at feasts of the Virgin Mary; it is a prayer to Mary for support of humanity, including the needy, the timid, the clergy, women, and the laity. It is followed by the final Magnificat text: “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
Groves says of Rutter that “…Within this field [vocal music, particularly for choirs] he has become probably the most popular and widely performed composer of his generation, especially in the UK and the USA…”. The Chorus has in recent years performed other Rutter works including Requiem (in 1999), Gloria (in 2000), and two Christmas pieces– What Sweeter Music and Deck the Hall.
J. R. Fancher, Oct. 2003