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Magnificat, Op 36

First line:
My soul doth magnify the Lord
SSAATTBB + organ; written for Iva Dee Hiatt and Robert Beckwith and the Choirs of Smith and Amherst Colleges, Massachusetts, Christmas 1952
author of text
Luke 1: 46-55

The fact that Finzi’s Magnificat (1952) lacks both a Gloria setting and a companion Nunc dimittis is explained by its having been commissioned not for Anglican Evensong but for the celebration of Christmas Vespers at a college in Massachusetts, USA. This was an exceedingly busy period in the composer’s life, not least because he was living already in the shadow of Hodgkin’s disease, acutely aware that his time was short. The work was written in haste, but betrays this, if at all, through fleeting reminiscences of other works, not a lowering of quality.

The apparently rhapsodic freedom of the Magnificat is regulated by a technique whereby melodic contours either emerge as musical ‘anagrams’ of one another or give common prominence to certain intervals. Finzi’s exact contemporary and close friend, Edmund Rubbra, titled the first movement of his unconventional piano concerto a ‘corymbus’, in its botanical connotation of an ‘inflorescence of stalked flowers springing from different levels but making a flat head’. In musical terms, this meant that a seminal idea would be added to upon its reappearance, thus heading in a new direction after the initial element of repetition. Something similar often informs Finzi’s methods, which may well have been influenced by conversation with Rubbra (and vice versa).

The Magnificat’s seminal materials are set out in an expansive organ introduction, before a series of three declamatory choral entries, each confined to the canticle’s opening six words and the second entry echoing the organ’s opening motif. One prominent unifying element is a tendency to balance a wide rising interval with several narrower descending ones. ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’ recurs more than once in the work as a whole, constituting an emotional or dramatic subtext and eventually acknowledging the Blessed Virgin as its human source in a soprano solo version. Other aspects of long-range thinking include the balancing of the word ‘blessed’ (reiterated eight times) and, considerably later, ‘for ever’ (repeated ten times and suggesting a verbal elision into ‘blessed for ever’). Free counterpoint is energetically deployed in response to ‘And his mercy is on them that fear him’, while the putting down of the mighty from their seat is graphically evoked in a sequential series of descending sevenths. ‘Humble and meek’ brings the music eventually to a complete standstill and a subdued fresh start. The final Amen pacifies the questing music of the opening, its beatific retrospection perhaps drawing for inspiration upon its lengthier counterpart in Lo, the full, final sacrifice. Here, as elsewhere, conceptually the florid organ writing differs little from Finzi’s characteristic string ensemble writing.

from notes by Francis Pott © 2019


Finzi, Bax & Ireland: Choral Music
Studio Master: CDA68167Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Finzi: Choral works
Studio Master: CDA68222Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Track 6 on CDA68167 [10'25]
Track 1 on CDA68222 [9'53]

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