Program notes

Magnificat for choir, opus 79 (2009)

The following program note for Magnificat is by Natalie Shea, Sydney Chamber Choir, and may be used with acknowledgment.

The Magnificat, the Song of Mary, is traditionally sung or recited every day as part of the Roman Catholic office of Vespers and its Anglican counterpart Evening Prayer. The notion of greatness is captured in the very first word, Magnificat: “magnifies” is the traditional translation, familiar to many from the King James version of the Bible, but possibly slightly obscure in meaning to contemporary readers who would normally only use the word in relation to telescopes or microscopes. And yet that literal meaning gives the key. Mary in her essential humanity is like a lens through which the vastness of God may be seen and understood: “My soul,” she says, “proclaims the greatness of the Lord.”

Andrew Schultz begins his Magnificat setting not with an exultant shout of praise but almost hesitantly, the plainsong-like melody unfolding from the bare interval of a fourth like the petals of a flower. Once in bloom, however, the parts fall away again and the music returns to the purity of single lines. Despite the delicacy of the writing and the softness of the singing, there is a sense of quiet determination which echoes the epigram that Schultz has inscribed at the head of the score: “No coward soul is mine” (Emily Brontë, Last Lines). Schultz’s Mary may be small, but she has strength and courage as she faces a future beyond her imagining.

The pattern of ebb and flow continues until “Esurientes implevit bonis” (He has filled the hungry with good things) which comes as a shout of triumph; at “Suscepit Israhel puerum suum” (He has come to the help of his servant Israel) the texture distils to a stark and tranquil beauty which recalls the mystical simplicity of Arvo Pärt.

The closing doxology, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”, is not part of Mary’s song but is traditionally appended to the Magnificat and indeed to all the canticles and psalms at Vespers and throughout the daily round of prayers known as the Divine Office. It is traditionally an occasion for forthright, confident affirmation, but Schultz takes a different approach. Time seems to slow down or even come to a halt as single vocal lines arch out over the stillness; the tower of bare open fifths on which the music finally comes to rest is balanced not on the tonic but on the fifth of the chord, leaving us suspended as the voices fade to silence.

Magnificat for unaccompanied choir was composed over the summer of 2008-2009 and was written in response to a commission from the Sydney Chamber Choir.

© Natalie Shea, 2009.