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The Magnificat (Latin for: [My soul] magnifies) —also known as the Song of Mary, the Canticle of Mary and in Byzantine tradition the Ode of the Theotokos; Greek: Ἡ ᾨδὴ τῆς Θεοτόκου—is a canticle frequently sung (or spoken) liturgically in Christian church services. It is one of the eight most ancient Christian hymns and perhaps the earliest Marian hymn. Its name comes from the first word of the Latin version of the canticle's text.
The text of the canticle is taken directly from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:46-55) where it is spoken by the Virgin Mary upon the occasion of her Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth. In the narrative, after Mary greets Elizabeth, who is pregnant with the future John the Baptist, the child moves within Elizabeth's womb. When Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary sings what is now known as the Magnificat in response.
Within 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 within Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism, and Evening Prayer (or Evensong) within Anglicanism. In Eastern Christianity, the Magnificat is usually sung at Sunday Matins. Among Protestant groups, the Magnificat may also be sung during worship services.
Mary's Magnificat, celebrated 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 (2:13-14); and Simeon's Nunc Dimittis (2:28-32). In form and content, these four psalms 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 Old Testament biblical passages, but the most pronounced allusions are to the Song of Hannah, from the Books of Samuel (1Samuel 2:1-10). Scriptural echoes from the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings complement the main allusions to Hannah's "magnificat of rejoicing" in l Samuel 2:1-10. 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.
The original language of the Magnificat is Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament. However, in the liturgical and devotional use of the Western Church, it is most often found in Latin or the vernacular.
In Eastern Orthodox worship, the Ode of the Theotokos is accompanied by the following refrain sung between the verses (a sticheron) and called a megalynarion, which is the second part of the Axion Estin hymn:
(present official Roman Catholic form):
(optional ending commonly used in Anglican service:
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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 (see Evening Prayer (Anglican)). 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 Roman Catholic services, the Magnificat is generally followed by the Gloria Patri. It is also commonly used (at least amongst Lutherans) at the Feast of the Visitation (July 2).
In Eastern Orthodox worship, 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, starting with the Renaissance, set the words, for example Claudio Monteverdi in his Vespers for the Blessed Virgin, 1610. Vivaldi composed a setting of the Latin text for soloists, choir and orchestra, as did Johann Sebastian Bach in his "Magnificat, BWV 243a", for the Visitation and Christmas vespers of 1723. Bach set the German words in his cantata for Visitation of 1724: Meine Seel erhebt den Herren, BWV 10. Anton Bruckner composed a "Magnificat" for soloists, choir, orchestra and organ. Rachmaninoff, and more recently John Rutter also made settings, inserting additions into the text, as Rutter inserted "Of a Rose, a lovely Rose" and other texts in his Magnificat. Arvo Pärt composed a setting for choir a cappella.
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 twenty settings over his career.
In Nicaragua, the Magnificat is a favourite prayer among many peasants and is often carried as an amulet. During the Somoza years, campesinos were required to carry proof of having voted for Somoza; this document was mockingly referred to as the Magnificat.
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