Magnificat - John Rutter

A household name for his carols and other short sacred and secular pieces, John Rutter (b. 1945) has also written a number of larger scale works for choir and orchestra. Rutter, co-editor of the world-famous Carols for Choirs series, a composer, choir trainer, lecturer and conductor based in Cambridge, is also well known throughout the USA, where his works are frequently performed. He was born in London, and was educated at Highgate School and Clare College, Cambridge, where he later directed the Chapel Choir. Rutter holds a Lambeth Doctorate, and is an Honorary Bencher of the Middle Temple and a Fellow of Westminster Choir College. In 1981 he founded the Cambridge Singers, a choir which now performs all over the world under his direction.

According to the musicologist Dr John Bawden, Rutter’s intention was to write a Magnificat which owed something to the legacy of Bach’s Magnificat, but which also reflected the spirit and exuberance of the many colourful festivals held throughout modern Mediterranean Europe in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both intentions are equally identifiable in the music. The latter is reflected in the many syncopated and energetic rhythms, the colourful orchestration which requires three percussionists and includes ethnic instruments such as bongos, the strong melodic writing (a Rutter trademark) and a vivid expression of the text. The former is reflected in the use of Christmas interpolations, the use of a soprano soloist for the more tender and humble passages in the text and strong chorus writing for the more robust passages, the use of traditional plainsong melodies alongside original material and the recapitulation of the opening music at the very end. The Magnificat received its première in Carnegie Hall, New York in 1990. The UK première was a year later in Coventry Cathedral.

The opening movement uses verses 46-48 from St Luke. The energy throughout this vibrant opening is derived from the influence of the Latin American Huapango rhythm – the constant musical juxtaposition of two beats in a bar against three (3/4 and 6/8), a pattern perhaps best known in Leonard Bernstein’s song I Like to be in America from West Side Story. There are newer, more reflective, motifs for the phrases Et Exultavit, and Quia Respexit, and a more urgent rising sequence for Omnes Generationes.

The second movement, the first of three interpolations, is a poignant setting of the anonymous fifteenth-century religious poem Of a Rose, a Lovely Rose, which uses the image of a rose and its blossom and branches as metaphors for Mary, Jesus, and the message of Christmas.

Of a rose, a lovely rose

Of a rose is all my song.

Hearken to me both olde and younge,

How this rose began to spring;

A fairer rose to mine liking,

In all this world ne know I none.

Five branches of that rose there been,

The which be both fair and sheen;

The rose is called Mary, heaven’s queene.

Out of her bosom a blossom sprang.

The first branch was of great honour:

That blest Marie should bear the flower;

There came an angel from heaven’s tower

To break the devil’s bond.

The second branch was great of might,

That sprang upon Christmas night;

The star shone over Bethlem bright,

That man should see it both day and night.

The third branch did spring and spread;

Three kinges then the branch gan led,

Unto our Lady in her child-bed;

Into bethlem that branch sprang right.

The fourth branch it sprang to hell,

The devil’s power for to fell:

That no soul there-in should dwell,

The branch so blessed-fully sprang.

The fifth branch it was so sweet,

It sprang to heaven, both crop and root,

Therein to dwell and be our bote*:

So blessedly it sprang.

Of a rose, a lovely rose

Of a rose is all my song.

Pray we to her with great honour,

She that bare the blessed flower,

To be our help and our succour,

And to shield us from the fiendes bond.

* salvation

The third movement uses verse 49 from St Luke. It opens with a forceful phrase which builds up through the vocal parts before giving way to a more contemplative section led by the upper voices in a phrase reminiscent of plainsong. The movement ends with the second interpolation – that of the Sanctus from the Ordinary of the Mass, set for the sopranos and the tenors to the ancient Gregorian plainsong from the Missa Cum Jubilo and harmonised.

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,

Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

Pleni sunt caeli et terra, gloria tua

Hosanna in excelsis.

Holy, Holy, Holy,

Lord God of hosts,

Heaven and Earth are full of the Glory.

Hosanna in the Highest.

This leads without a break into the fourth movement, verse 50 from St Luke, which is a gentle, restful, yet fluid movement for solo soprano, accompanied sensitively by both the chorus and the orchestra with music which modulates effortlessly throughout the movement.

The fifth movement, verses 51 and 52, is aggressive and intimidating and uses musical devices such as pedal points, insistent repeated notes, jagged rhythms and dissonance in a threatening way to build tension. The music is briefly fugal in the middle before giving way to a more peaceful conclusion, built on a rising phrase to illustrate the words Et exultavit humiles.

This leads, without a pause, into the sixth movement, verses 53-55, which is a beautiful, reflective passage for soprano solo, accompanied by the choir and orchestra in an understated way reminiscent of the fourth movement.

The final movement, the Gloria Patri, includes the final interpolation, a Marian antiphon. Antiphons were short passages of plainsong sung at the beginning, and repeated at the end, of the Magnificat on feast days and Sundays in the Catholic church. Like the Proper of the Mass, they would change weekly to reflect the changing seasons of the Christian year.

The words of the antiphon used here are thus:

Santa Maria, succure miseris,

Iuva pusilanimes,

Refove flebiles.

Ora pro populo, interveni pro clero,

Intercede pro devoto femineo sexu:

Sentiant omnes tuum iuvamen,

Quicumque tuum sanctum implorant auxilium.


O Holy Mary, help, we pray, all in need:

Strengthen those whose spirit fails,

Comfort those whom grief assails;

Pray for Thy people here, for Thy Holy Church so dear,

Intercede for all Thy servants, Mother of all women:

Grant us all the favour of Thy gracious help;

Succour us, comfort us, we humbly implore Thee.


The antiphon falls in the middle of this movement and is given to the solo soprano, in a style reminiscent of plainsong, following an exuberant tutti opening built on fanfares and flourishes. Replicating the structure of the Magnificats by both Pergolesi and Bach, the Sicut Erat, as in the Pergolesi and Bach, is largely a reprise of the music of the opening movement with a coda to complete the work.

Notes by Peter Parfitt ©2010 Aberdeen Bach Choir