The gospel of Luke uniquely records several songs and prayers surrounding the birth of Jesus: Mary’s song (1:46–55), Zechariah’s song (1:68–79), the angels’ song (2:14), and Simeon’s prayer (2:29–32). Throughout the centuries, the church has sung these songs in personal devotions and congregationally as Gregorian chants, hymns, contemporary worship music, master choral works, and global songs. The Song of Mary, or the Magnificat (the first word in its Latin version), is often sung or prayed during the Advent season because it covers a wide range of human emotions—joy, anticipation, self-awareness, humbleness, trust, and hope.
As a prayer, Mary’s song has a similar structure to Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:1–10); in jazz terms, some people may say that Mary “riffs” off Hannah’s prayer. Mary’s song has four main sections: Mary glorifies the Lord and rejoices in God (vs. 46–48); she praises God for God’s mighty deeds (vs. 49–50); she describes how God brings justice to the world (vs. 51–53); and she declares God’s faithfulness to God’s promises (vs. 54–55). In his book Worship in the New Testament: Divine Mystery and Human Response, Gerald Borchert summarizes the themes of Mary’s joyful song as “an acknowledgment of God’s holiness and righteousness, of God’s mercy to those who honor God, of God’s loving care for the unfortunate, of God’s righteous indignation at the haughty and unconcerned rich and powerful, and of God’s goal in providing hope and peace for the chosen people” (2008, p. 34). With such a powerful, cross-generational, and cross-cultural message, no wonder the church has sung Mary’s song for more than two thousand years!
To learn more about the Magnificat, read Yudha Thianto’s article “John Calvin on the Magnificat” on pages 19–21 of this issue.
What follows is a selection of musical settings of Mary’s Magnificat to consider when doing your worship planning. Some of the information originally appeared in blog posts written by Paul Neeley at globalworship.tumblr.com. —RW
“Gospel Magnificat” Brown, Singing the New Testament 7
Grayson Warren Brown (1948–2023) was an internationally known liturgical composer, author, and recording artist. From his humble beginnings as an inner-city parish musician in New York City, he “learned early on how significant an authentic, Spirit-filled experience of worship can be to people in need of hope” (ocp.org). His arrangement of the Magnificat is an exciting version for choir in Black Gospel style. The song can be heard on YouTube. Use piano at minimum, adding organ and drums if feasible. Like a number of songs in this tradition, it goes through ascending key changes. Do them all if your choir’s range choir allows it; otherwise drop one or two key changes. The choir leader can point up to show the congregation and choir each time a key change is coming. Having the choir or soloist perform the song as a prelude will help the congregation learn it quickly when it’s their turn to sing it later in the service. This song has been published in three recent hymnals, including Singing the New Testament. See also RW 85:31.
“I Rejoice” and “My Soul Rejoices” Hart
Sarah Hart is one of my favorite contemporary composers. She’s created and recorded two musical settings of the Magnificat. Her settings capture the joy of Mary’s iconic prayer as she reflects on all the wondrous things God had done for her. In this nine-minute video, Hart first talks about the biblical passage and her first musical setting of it, then sings “I rejoice” (5:12) accompanied by piano. The chorus is easily singable by a congregation with a soloist or duet singing the verses. Find the score in several songbooks from Oregon Catholic Press. Hart also wrote a different Magnificat setting titled “My Soul Rejoices.” These two settings use variant paraphrases for singable lyrics. The songs are nearly the same tempo and can be performed with just piano or guitar or with more instrumentation, such as strings and woodwinds. Hear two recordings and get links for the score on my blog.
A Song for the Whole World
A setting in Spanish with contemporary music.
Sung in French by the Choeur des Moines de l’abbaye de Keur Moussa au Sénégal (Choir of the Monks of the Keur Moussa Abbey in Senegal) accompanied by balafon (xylophone) and other percussion.
“Jina La Bwana: African Magnificat” Warner blog
Composed by Steven C. Warner, director of Notre Dame’s Folk Choir, this choral setting is mostly in English with some Swahili words.
“Mary’s Salidummay” Kiley, Sound the Bamboo 102
The hymnal editor, I-to Loh, notes that “the meaning of ‘Salidummay’ [a Filipino word] has long been forgotten, but Christians have adopted the word to express the mood of joy.” Henry W. Kiley paraphrased Mary’s song and based the melody on a motif from the province of Kalinga in the Philippines. The song may be accompanied by Filipino bamboo sticks or other percussion instruments. —RW
Choral Arrangements of the Magnificat for Church Choirs
This a cappella (unaccompanied) song for four voices may be sung by a small choir or easily by the entire congregation. Performance suggestion: Have the sopranos introduce the main melody the first time through; the second time, have the basses join in, then the altos, and finally the tenors. The score is available at CCLI SongSelect (song no. 5507766).
This energetic, gospel-style rendition of the Magnificat is powerful and invigorating. To match the emotions of Mary’s song, the dynamic ranges from loud to quiet, and from contemplative to exuberant joy.
Lori True set the canticle for a solo voice or unison choir, with English verses interspersed with a repeated Latin refrain (Magnificat anima mea Dominum). There is an optional countermelody for men’s voices. The song is accompanied by piano with optional guitar and a C instrument.
Smaller church choirs may find John Rutter’s seven-movement “Magnificat” for solo, SATB choir, and full orchestra too challenging. But Rutter also wrote a choral anthem for SATB and organ, “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord (Magnificat),” in the style of English composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford that is suitable for trained voices.
A selection of choral repertoire of the Magnificat would not be complete without mentioning Bach’s “Magnificat,” BWV 243. While this Baroque giant wrote many elegant and extensive pieces of music for the church (think his Mass in B Minor), this Magnificat is considered a gem—twelve movements of the Latin text (plus Gloria Patri) packed with Bach’s signature superior composition techniques into a compact, thirty-minute masterpiece. An excellent choice for an Advent concert, mass choir event, or festival.
—Kai Ton Chau
“Sing Out, My Soul (Magnificat)” Taizé, GtG 646, PfAS 1018
The Taizé community in France offers a lovely Magnificat canon with its opening verses in Latin. There is also an English version from Bert Polman, “Magnify the Lord” PsH 622. To lead a canon, first have everyone sing in unison. Next, have them continue that while you demonstrate the next entrance. Next, break up the choir and congregation into several sections. A descant is also available. Not only are there lots of options musically, the text is also found in multiple languages. If you have a multi-lingual congregation, this is a great way to include other languages. For monolingual congregations with proper instruction singing in another language can be a great expression of the global diversity of the body of Christ. See scores, lyrics in multiple languages, and hear recordings on my blog.
“Wexford Carol / Magnificat” Getty et al.
Keith and Kristyn Getty wrote the melody to this lovely setting in a log cabin among the redwoods outside San Francisco, crafting the lyrics later on with Stuart Townend. It was poignant for Kristyn to sing Mary’s song while expecting their first daughter, Eliza Joy. This recording opens with a choral (but wordless) version of the Irish “Wexford Carol.”
“Magnificat” Oakes, Rain for Roots
An easy-to-sing version of the opening verses of the Magnificat is from the Rain for Roots musician collective, featuring Flo Paris Oakes and Sandra McCracken.
“My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout” Cooney, LUYH 69, SSS 68
“My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout” is a metrical canticle based on the Irish traditional tune STAR OF COUNTY DOWN. The four stanzas represent the four key themes of Mary’s song: joyful praise, God’s mercy and might, God’s concerns for justice, and God’s faithfulness through the ages. When Rory Cooney wrote the lyrics in 1990, he named the song “The Canticle of the Turning” because of a recurring “hook phrase” at the end of each stanza, and the refrain expects and affirms the change that God the Son will bring to the world. The “hook” begins with a question—“Could the world be about to turn?”—before proclaiming with surety in the refrain that we should “wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!”
A tip for congregational singing: The song is in a duple meter (2 pulses or beats per measure). If accompanied by a band, a steady beat of around 72 beats per minute could help express the song’s joyfulness and urgency.
For more information on this song, see tinyurl.com/RWMagnificat or RW 93:16, which also includes the score. —RW
“Mary’s Song (Our King of Peace)” Kimbrough
“Oh, behold, my Savior has come! And my soul will tell of his praise. For He who is strong has come to the weak, and at last he will reign as our King of Peace.” Wendell Kimbrough’s rendition of Mary’s song captures her response to Gabriel’s message: joy, fear of the unknown, obedience, and faith. Mary’s wonder is represented by the juxtaposition of the main melody’s 6/8 rhythm and the occasional duplets in the accompaniment. The song has multiple versions: lead sheet for the band and congregation, a piano and string arrangement, and a choral anthem. —RW
The Magnificat has been prayed and sung and proclaimed for two millenia. It “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” It is a call to root our faith in the promise of salvation found in the Old Testament, a New Testament miracle (the Incarnation), and the now-and-future miracle of God transforming the world through the Messiah. The Magnificat can be a worthy part of our church’s repertoire throughout the year.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Collected Sermons, ed. Isabel Best, 2012, pp. 116–18