Mary's song of praise (Luke 11, 46-55) has been a source of inspiration to Christians for centuries. Many composers, in every period of music history, as diverse as the early French Baroque Marc-Antoine Charpentier, the staunch Lutheran J-S Bach, the high priest of Romanticism Franz Liszt, and the contemporary Estonian mystic Arvo Pärt have set the words of this canticle to music.
Luke, the author of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles was a companion of Saint Paul. He wrote his Gospel in excellent Greek. The name "Magnificat" given to this canticle of Mary refers to the first word of the Latin Vulgate translation of this text by St. Jerome: Magnificat anima mea Dominum. "My soul magnifies the Lord." Composers have found great inspiration in using the Latin text which was used for centuries in the liturgy of the Church. Even the German Lutheran Bach chose to use this Latin text. In its liturgical use the Magnificat was always sung at the close of Vespers.
An interesting characteristic of this song of Mary is that every line of it has an Old Testament reference. It is only of late, upon reading a French publication, that I came to realize the extent of the Old Testament sources from which it is drawn. Of special significance is the Canticle of Hannah in the first book of Samuel. Hannah was a sterile woman to whom the Lord granted a son. Luke presents Mary as a woman totally immersed in the sacred scriptures and aware of her place in the divine plan. His rendering of Mary's song makes us aware of the role of this "handmaid of the Lord" in our salvation history and how we can learn from her what it means to say "Yes" to God.
An analysis of each line of the Magnificat reveals its Old Testament source. Here are some selective references from which the text of the Magnificat is derived. I will use the translation from the New Jerusalem Bible:
Text of the Magnificat: (The New Jerusalem Bible and The Vulgate)
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
Magnificat anima mea Dominum
et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.
source: I Samuel 2, 1
My heart exults in Yahweh, in my God is my strength lifted up,
my mouth derides my foes, for I rejoice in your deliverance.
Habakkuk 3, 18
But I shall rejoice inYahweh,
I shall exult in God my Savior.
Isaiah 61, 10
I exult for joy in Yahweh,
my soul rejoices in my God.
Deuteronomy 32, 3
For I shall proclaim the name of Yahweh,
Oh, tell the greatness of our God.
(The Song of Moses)
Because he has looked upon the humiliation of his servant.
Yes, from now onwards all generations will call me blessed.
Qui respexit humilitatem ancillae suae,
ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.
source: I Samuel 1, 11
Should you condescend to notice
the humilation of your servant
and keep her in mind instead of
disregarding your servant....
the Almighty has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est
et sanctum nomen eius
source: Psalm 71, 19
You have done great things, God,
Who is like you?
I Samuel 2, 2
There is no Holy One like Yahweh,
indeed, there is none but you.
His faithful love extends age after age to those who fear him
et misericordia eius a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.
source: Psalm 103, 17
But Yahweh's faithful love for those who fear him
is from eternity and forever
used the power of his arm
he has routed the arrogant of heart
Fecit potentiam in bracchio suo
dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
source: Ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 10, 14
The Lord has turned mighty princes off their thrones
and seated the humble there instead.
Psalm 89, 13 (14)
Yours is a strong arm, mighty your hand,
your right hand raised high.
He has pulled down princes from their thrones
and raised high the lowly.
deposuit potentes de sede,
et exaltavit humiles.
source: I Samuel 2, 8
He raises the poor from the dust,
he lifts the needy from the dunghill
to given them a place with princes.
Job 5, 11
If his will isto raise up the downcast
or exalt the afflicted to the heights....
has filled the starving with good things
sent the rich away empty
esurientes implevit bonis
et divites dimisit inanens
source: I Samuel 2, 5
The full fed are hiring themselves out for bread
but the hungry need labour no more.
Psalm 107, 9
He has fed the hungry to their hearts' content
filled the starving with good things
has come to the help of Israel his servant
mindful of his faithful love.
Suscepit Israel, puerum suum,
recordatus misericordiae suae.
source: Isaiah 41, 8-9
But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen,
descendant of Abraham my friend....do not be afraid
I am with you.
Psalm 98, 2(3)
Mindful of his faithful love and his constancy
to the House of Israel.
Canticle of Esther 4, 17
You, Lord, have chosen Israel out of all nations
and out ancestors out of all before them.
to the promise he made to our ancestors
of his mercy to Abraham and his descendants for ever.
sicut locutus est ad patres nostros
Abraham et semini eius in saecula.
Genesis 15 and 17 for the promises made to Abraham and the
covenant with Abraham and his descendants.
Magnificat as sung in the liturgy ends with the doxology: "Glory
be to the Father..."etc.
which is sometimes omitted in other musical settings.
This canticle of Mary can be a source of great devotion and spiritual strength for the Christian. It teaches us about real humility which is rooted in truth. It gives credit where credit is due. Each of us can say with Mary that He who is mighty "has done great things for me." Luke's Gospel presents Mary as a woman of Old Testament faith who is open to the workings of the Holy Spirit within her.