Magnificat anima mea Dominum…“My soul doth magnify the Lord.” And so begins the Magnificat, taken directly out of the Gospel of Luke. The original language of the Magnificat as found in the New Testament was Greek, although it is most commonly found set in Latin. Yet in the 16th Century it could also be set in English by composers such as William Byrd. Byrd’s Magnificat is found on the 1987 release by The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury, director.
The story surrounding the Magnificat holds a special place in the Bible. Shortly after the Virgin Mary is told by an angel that she is to have God’s son, she visits her cousin Elizabeth who is also pregnant. When Elizabeth feels a stirring in her womb, Mary is inspired to sing what has come to be known as the Magnificat.
If you were to take a quick survey of the most popular Magnificat settings you would undoubtedly run into one by Claudio Monteverdi from his Vespers of 1610. Yet in Germany, a particular setting by Heinrich Schütz gives our Claudio a serious run for his money. This one is perhaps this most famous of any German composer until J.S. Bach. On their 1999 release, Christmas Vespers, the Gabrieli Consort and Players (directed by Paul McCreesh) perform Schütz’ setting.
Out of the hundreds of Magnificats from the Renaissance and Baroque eras we find that a few of the more interesting settings weren’t located in England, Germany, or Italy. One has to cross the Atlantic over to Mexico to get a taste of what the Spanish had imported to the colonies during the 17th century.
New World composer Francisco López Capillas created some of the finest of these works. As a native of Mexico and chapel master in Mexico City, his approach is of particular importance. A Magnificat composed by Capillas is recorded by Ex Cathedra (Jeffrey Skidmore, dir.) on the 2005 Hyperion release, Moon, Sun & All Things.
In France, we find Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Louis XIV’s own church composer, who set a number of Magnficats, one of which is performed by Les Pages & Les Chantres of the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles under the direction of Olivier Schneebeli (Vêpres pour Saint Louis, Alpha Records, 2004).
Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka was a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s who had one of the best jobs–court musician and composer in Dresden. One of his Magnificats was recorded in 1999 by the Bach Collegium Japan (directed by Masaaki Suzuki).
Our new release of the week features the viol consort Concordia directed by Mark Levy. The ensemble is joined by soprano Angharad Gruffydd Jones and harpsichordist Gary Cooper in a performance of music by Dowland, Sabbatini, Lawes, Locke, Jenkins, and others.
Here’s a video of baritone Christopher Maltman and Concentus Musicus Wien performing the aria “Quia fecit” from J.S. Bach’s Magnificat: