The Magnificat: Musicians as Biblical Interpreters
Samuel Terrien

New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995

Mary's Canticle, the Magnificat, is a cherished part of the daily prayer of all the churches. In addition to the various ecclesiastical chants, classical composers - from Dufay, through Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Telemann; to Vaughan Williams, Tippett and Penderecki - have set the text of the Magnificat to music. The purpose of this unique book of Scriptural commentary and musical analysis is to suggest that sometimes composers in their musical settings of the Magnificat have captured and "expounded more forcefully the meaning of the text than have scholars and theologians." 

For Samuel Terrien, longtime professor of Hebrew and cognate languages at Union Theological Seminary, the Magnificat was originally written in Hebrew. This becomes evident, he points out, when the present Greek text is translated back into Hebrew: several striking features common to Hebrew poetry appear. Fortunately, Professor Terrien provides a useful "Table of Parallelism and Assonances of Hebrew Words" of the Magnificat. The verses from the Gospel of Luke translated into Hebrew are as a "masterpiece of Hebrew poetry" with a structure similar to many psalms: a poem of four strophes centered around a core affirmation- Luke 1, 51. 

A commentary on each of the four strophes is provided. Because of the author's deep familiarity with the Hebrew poetry of the psalms, strikingly original interpretations are offered. For example, "All generations shall call me blessed," may sound like static affirmation. However, the underlying substratum for the word "blessed" refers to a happiness which is "ongoing, growing, and which includes others." It is a "summons to the voyage of life from a leader." Mary's declaration of happiness is a challenge to the Church to "prolong, continue, broaden, and incarnate Mary's expectation." Another example: God's mercy (v. 50) on those who fear him denotes his longing to be with humanity; the fear of humanity is that it cannot adequately respond to the selfless compassion of God. 

The climax is the core-verse (v.51): "He has shown strength in his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts." This verse relates the incarnation to justice, and points to the disintegration which must come to those who trust in themselves and their riches. 

After the commentary on each strophe, there is an analysis of a section of the Magnificat from one of the classical composers, showing how the musical passage conveys, in striking ways, a meaning of the text difficult to convey with words alone- solidarity , incompletion, and expectation. 

Those who wish soothing platitudes and gentle consolation are advised to avoid this book. On the other hand, those who read the commentary and listen to the suggested musical passages will find that the Magnificat will never be quite the same.

--Thomas A. Thompson, S.M.

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