The Magnificat (Latin for "[My soul] magnifies [the Lord]") is a canticle, also known as the Song of Mary, the Canticle of Mary and, in the Byzantine tradition, the Ode of the Theotokos (Greek: ? ). It is traditionally incorporated into the liturgical services of the Catholic Church (at vespers) and of the Eastern Orthodox churches (at the morning services). It is one of the eight most ancient Christian hymns and perhaps the earliest Marian hymn. Its name comes from the incipit of the Latin version of the canticle's text.
The text of the canticle is taken directly from the Gospel of Luke where it is spoken by Mary upon the occasion of her Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth. In the narrative, after Mary greets Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, the latter moves within Elizabeth's womb. Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith (using words partially reflected in the Hail Mary), and Mary responds with what is now known as the Magnificat.
Within the whole of Christianity, the Magnificat is most frequently recited within the Liturgy of the Hours. In Western Christianity, the Magnificat is most often sung or recited during the main evening prayer service: Vespers in the Catholic and Lutheran churches, and Evening Prayer (or Evensong) in Anglicanism. In Eastern Christianity, the Magnificat is usually sung at Sunday Matins. Among Protestant groups, the Magnificat may also be sung during worship services, especially in the Advent season during which these verses are traditionally read.
Mary's Magnificat, recorded only in Luke's Gospel, is one of four hymns, distilled from a collection of early Jewish-Christian canticles, which complement the promise-fulfillment theme of Luke's infancy narrative. These songs are Mary's Magnificat; Zechariah's Benedictus (1:67-79); the angels' Gloria in Excelsis Deo (2:13-14); and Simeon's Nunc dimittis (2:28-32). In form and content, these four canticles are patterned on the "hymns of praise" in Israel's Psalter. In structure, these songs reflect the compositions of pre-Christian contemporary Jewish hymnology. The first stanza displays graphically a characteristic feature of Hebrew poetry--synonymous parallelism--in ascribing praise to God: "my soul" mirrors "my spirit"; "proclaims the greatness" with "has found gladness"; "of the Lord" with "in God my Savior." The balance of the opening two lines bursts out into a dual Magnificat of declaring the greatness of and finding delight in God. The third stanza again demonstrates parallelism, but in this instance, three contrasting parallels: the proud are reversed by the low estate, the mighty by those of low degree, and the rich by the hungry.
Although there is some scholarly discussion of whether the historical Mary herself actually proclaimed this canticle, Luke portrays her as the singer of this song of reversals and the interpreter of the contemporary events taking place. Mary symbolizes both ancient Israel and the Lucan faith-community as the author/singer of the Magnificat.
The canticle echoes several biblical passages, but the most pronounced allusions are to the Song of Hannah, from the Books of Samuel . Scriptural echoes from the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings complement the main allusions to Hannah's "magnificat of rejoicing". Along with the Benedictus, as well as several Old Testament canticles, the Magnificat is included in the Book of Odes, an ancient liturgical collection found in some manuscripts of the Septuagint.
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The first written variant of the Magnificat was in Koine Greek
In Eastern Orthodox worship, the Ode of the Theotokos is accompanied by the following refrain sung between the verses (a sticheron) and a megalynarion, which is the second part of the Axion Estin hymn:
The translation of the hymn into Church Slavonic is as follows:
The text forms a part of the daily office in the Roman Catholic Vespers service, the Lutheran Vespers service, and the Anglican services of Evening Prayer, according to both the Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship. In the Book of Common Prayer Evening Prayer service, it is usually paired with the Nunc dimittis. The Book of Common Prayer allows for an alternative to the Magnificat--the Cantate Domino, Psalm 98--and some Anglican rubrics allow for a wider selection of canticles, but the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis remain the most popular. In Anglican, Lutheran, and Catholic services, the Magnificat is generally followed by the Gloria Patri. It is also commonly used among Lutherans at the Feast of the Visitation (July 2).
In Orthodox liturgical practice, the Magnificat is usually sung during the Matins service before the Irmos of the ninth ode of the canon. After each biblical verse, i.e. as a sticheron, the following megalynarion or troparion is sung:
As a canticle, the Magnificat has frequently been set to music. Most compositions were originally intended for liturgical use, especially for Vesper services and celebrations of the Visitation, but some are also performed in concert.
As the Magnificat is part of the sung Vespers, many composers, beginning in the Renaissance, set the words to music, for example Claudio Monteverdi in his Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610). Vivaldi composed a setting of the Latin text for soloists, choir, and orchestra, as did Johann Sebastian Bach in his Magnificat (1723, rev. 1733). Other notable examples include C.P.E. Bach's Magnificat. Anton Bruckner composed a Magnificat for soloists, choir, orchestra, and organ. Rachmaninoff and, more recently, John Rutter also composed a setting, inserting additions into the text. Dieter Schnebel wrote a Magnificat in 1996/97 for small choir (schola), percussion and additional instruments ad libitum. Arvo Pärt composed a setting for choir a cappella. Kim André Arnesen's Magnificat for choir, strings, piano, and organ premiered in 2010. The Taizé Community have also composed an ostinato setting of the text.
Together with the Nunc dimittis, the Magnificat is a regular part of the Anglican Evensong. The "Mag and Nunc" has been set by many composers - such as Thomas Tallis, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Sumsion, Charles Wood and John Tavener - of Anglican church music, often for choir a cappella or choir and organ. Since the canticles are sung every day at some cathedrals, Charles Villiers Stanford wrote a Magnificat in every major key, and Herbert Howells published 18 settings over his career, including Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for St Paul's Cathedral.
Maria Luise Thurmair wrote in 1954 the lyrics for a popular German ecumenical hymn based on the Magnificat, "Den Herren will ich loben", set to a 1613 melody by Melchior Teschner (that of Valet will ich dir geben).
The oratorio Laudato si' composed in 2016 by Peter Reulein on a libretto by Helmut Schlegel includes the full Latin text of the Magnificat, expanded by writings of Clare of Assisi, Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis.
In Nicaragua, the Magnificat is a favorite prayer among many peasants and is often carried as a sacramental. During the Somoza years, campesinos were required to carry proof of having voted for Somoza; this document was mockingly referred to as a Magnificat.