Singing the songs of Mary

The ‘treble’ parts in music are the highest parts, normally sung at Bristol Cathedral by the boy choristers or the girl choristers. Sung services are usually performed by the Lay Clerks, the six or more adult singers who take the lower lines of music (alto or countenor, tenor and bass), with either the girls’ choir or the boys’ choir taking the upper parts, now usually known as the ‘treble’ parts.

On Tuesdays the girl choristers take their turn singing the treble parts at Evensong. Last week the music chosen for the Evensong service caused me to think especially about girls’ voices in this context. As I’ve mentioned in another post, two key musical items that appear at every Evensong are the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. The Nunc Dimittis is the song sung by the prophet Simeon at the end of his life, when he has seen Christ and recognised him as the salvation of the world. The Magnificat is another song, sung by the Virgin Mary on the occasion of her visit to her cousin Elizabeth (the mother of St John the Baptist). The description of this episode is found only in the Gospel of Luke (chapter 1, verses 46-56). After Mary has been told by an angel that she is to become the mother of Jesus, she accepts God’s will in that matter by her words: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1: 38). As Luke’s Gospel then goes on to say, the angel who had told Mary what was going to happen to her left, and Mary went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who was then pregnant with her own child, John the Baptist. Elizabeth immediately recognised that there was something special about Mary at this point: her unborn child leapt in recognition of the presence of Jesus in Mary’s womb. Elizabeth praised Mary for her faith, and Mary responded with the words that we now call The Magnificat. The English translation, taken from the Book of Common Prayer, is the one used during Evensong at the cathedral. It reads as follows:

My soul doth magnify the Lord.

And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden: For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel :

As he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world without end. Amen.

(For the Latin text, opposite this Book of Common Prayer text, see here; For a more modern translation, see here)

The word ‘Magnify’ here is a fairly literal translation of the Latin ‘magnificat’, the first word (or incipit, the Latin word for ‘it begins) in the text which gives the song the name by which we know it. This practice of using the incipit of a piece of music or a text to identify it has been a common one since the middle ages. More modern translations of the Bible forego the word ‘magnifies’ however, and use the word ‘glorifies’ or ‘praises’ instead. The song is Mary’s praise of God, and of what he has done. She also recognises that she herself is particularly blessed, and will be recognised as such, in her status as the mother of God (‘from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed’).

The texts of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are unvarying, the same every time, but these words can be put to many different musical settings. Last Tuesday (13th June) featured the settings by the English composer Thomas Weelkes (1576 – 1623). Weelkes is said to have written more settings for Evensong than any other composer of his time: the one used on Tuesday evening was his Fourth Service of nine, and is often named the ‘Service for Trebles’. This doesn’t mean to say that the service is sung only by trebles, but that the technical strengths and elastic range of the young, treble voice are particularly showcased in these settings. However unlike other settings of this period – where typically the top two lines of music would be sung by treble and ‘mean’ voices (pitched a fourth lower) – Weelkes brings the top two lines of music much closer in tessitura and vocal complexity. For example, both the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis open with treble solos singing in canon, which repeat throughout the settings with solo treble verses. The organ accompaniment also doubles the top two lines, emphasising how exposed and challenging the treble vocal writing is. The effect produced by Weelkes in doubling the treble parts is electrifying. There isn’t a convenient recording of this available on YouTube or otherwise freely available on the internet, to my knowledge, but recordings are available, both in CD form, and via streaming services, and it is well worth listening to. That said, the two recordings to which I’ve had access – that by Durham Cathedral Choir and Portsmouth Cathedral Choir, are both a little marred by imperfect tuning, and the evident struggle of the trebles to manage some of the highest notes comfortably: it is very hard!

In Bristol’s latest rendition of this Magnificat ‘for Trebles’, all nine of the choristers that were present that evening sang a solo at some point. This made the piece a stunning demonstration of one of the most marvellous features of choral singing of this sort: a corporate unity of sound achieved by the bringing together of many individual voices. To be present in the Quire to see, as well as hear, the performance of this particular Magnificat was especially gratifying, as one could see the individuals who were singing each solo line, and watch the way in which they interacted with the conductor and with one another. This Magnificat opens with a single voice taking the first line: ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’, echoed by another voice, on the other side of the quire, joining in almost immediately, just after the first girl has sung the first word, ‘My’. The two solo voices, either side of the quire, weave around one another through the lines ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.’ Then another solo, a longer one this time, takes the third line ‘For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden’ before she is joined by another voice, again across the space of the Quire, to repeat and amplify the words ‘the lowliness of his handmaiden’. It was at this particular point that it struck me how apt it was to hear these words sung by girls. These particular soloists were the most experienced choristers, in years 9 and 10, and thus around 13 or 14 years old – just about the age that, according to tradition, Mary would have been when she became the mother of Christ. Suddenly, in the voice of these girl choristers, the words of the Magnificat sounded different, and quite strikingly beautiful and meaningful. This is not to say that the text doesn’t work in the voice of a boy chorister – after all, all church ritual and music is performed in a process of ‘standing in’, within a role. Priests and singers alike are not meant to be performing the liturgy ‘as themselves’. Nonetheless, there is something arresting in hearing the words of the young Mary, mother-to-be, in the voice of a young girl. This is not an effect that the composer would ever have imagined, since choristers were all boys at the time when Weelkes was writing. But it is a lesson in the ways in which the sound of such music can change as practices change, and in the ways that audience reception of such music can develop also, as different thoughts and reactions can be evoked by different performances and by different singers.





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University of Bristol / Brigstow Institute / Bristol Cathedral

2 thoughts on “Singing the songs of Mary”

  1. The Magnificat ‘works’ in so many different musical settings – and in different translations and renditions of its words too. My list of favourites is a long one.

    One modern setting I particularly like is Richard Shephard’s ‘Song of Mary’. The musical setting is written so that a wide variety of musical abilities can sing this version (so not the wondrous complexity of the Weelkes setting) and the words are a rendition, intended to give the ‘essence’ of the meaning (they are not a direct translation of the Biblical text).

    I love the way that the Latin text of the opening Biblical phrase ‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum’ (My soul doth magnify the Lord in the Prayer Book English text) interweaves with the English text of the verses.

    Some of the words are very moving – and some are also very challenging!

    ‘My Lord and Savour is my song,
    He fills my spirit with delight.
    To raise me ups his arm is strong,
    The lowly precious in his sight.’ …………………..

    ”For mercy is their heritage
    Whose hearts the Holy One confess’ …………………

    ‘He feeds the hungry at his board
    And sends the rich unfilled away’ ……………………

    And then, in the final verse and closing refrain, a triumphant declaration of the faith that transcends all boundaries of time and place:

    ‘With all the elders of our race,
    And those unborn who seek this birth,
    I sing the glory of his grace
    Who brings eternity to earth.

    Magnificat anima mea Dominum’


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