17 The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis

In this chapter you will

  • discover whether “Mary’s Song” was in fact a “song” in its original context in the Gospel of Luke
  • learn why some composers have set this same text to music repeatedly

For as long as there has been liturgical setting or singing of parts of the Bible to musical accompaniment, the Magnificat has been part of that. Often called “Mary’s Song/Canticle,” Luke 1:46–55 does not say that Mary sang the words in question. It features in Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant liturgies. John Dunstaple set the Magnificat in the fifteenth century, and many more followed, including Tomás Luis de Victoria, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Antonio Vivaldi, J. S. Bach, W. A. Mozart, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt (as part of his Dante Symphony), Anton Bruckner, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Rutter, Krzysztof Penderecki, Arvo Pärt, and (as part of the Orthodox All-Night Vigil) Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninov.

The Nunc Dimittis has been set on its own less frequently. This is sometimes called “Simeon’s Song” and also derives from the infancy story in Luke’s Gospel.[1] For a particularly striking modern setting, have a listen to Sungji Hong’s “Nunc Dimittis.” She has also set the Pater Noster (Our Father / Lord’s Prayer) and has an ongoing project exploring the life of Jesus through multiple musical works.

It can be challenging enough to set words to music that have been set many times before. With the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis together becoming a main recurring feature of the Evensong liturgy of the Anglican Church (a daily service marking the end of another day), a further challenge was added for church composers: set these same words over and over again.[2] If adding to what others have produced with one new offering of one’s own can be daunting, what about when one has to add another new creation of one’s own with the same text? Anglican composers were not the first to face this challenge, of course. A number of composers in the era of Gregorian chant, for instance, made multiple musical arrangements for the designated psalm tones used for the Magnificat. Anglican composers did, however, face this challenge regularly, and without a specified melody to serve as a starting point. Charles Villiers Stanford provides a particularly good example, as he composed settings of the Magnificat in every key. Here are his Magnificat settings in G and in C sung by the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge; his Magnificat in A sung by the Manchester Cathedral Choir; and the one in B flat sung by the Choir of Winchester Cathedral.[3]

Hubert Parry has also composed a significant body of choral work for the Church of England, including settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. We have mentioned the music of Herbert Howells already in chapter 11 on David. He also composed twenty settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. Compare these two recordings.[4]

If you’d like to listen to still more contrasting examples by the same composer, George Dyson set the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis three times.[5]

Notice the way composers find a fresh approach to the same text. To begin with, they tend to write each new setting in a different key. Sometimes they opt for minor as a variation from major, immediately giving a different feel. If in one the melody begins ascending, they may make sure they are doing something different next time by descending initially. They do not simply hope that the new work will emerge and be different from previous settings; rather, they appear to have imposed constraints on themselves to move them in such directions. Even if your own creative endeavors during your life may not be musical in character, the same principles can help you find fresh approaches to what might otherwise be repetitive situations. If you are giving a talk on a topic that you have spoken about before or creating a commercial for a product that you have advertised before, forcing yourself to approach the familiar in a new way may make the difference between innovation and tedium.

If you’d like to listen to more, here are some you may enjoy, as they provide further evidence of just how different the mood and style can be even when setting the same words in the same era: Ruth Watson Henderson, Alan Hovhaness, Roxanna Panufnik, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Vladimír Godár, Bryan Kelly, James Whitbourn, Gabriel Jackson, Craig Phillips, Naji Hakim, Ruth Gipps, William Mathias, Martin Palmeri, and Oliver Tarney.[6] There are also settings in a contemporary song style (as opposed to those for choral singing), such as that by John Michael Talbot, as well as paraphrases such as the “Canticle of the Turning” by Rory Cooney, which is set to a famous folk tune often sung with the words “The Star of the County Down” but has an earlier name with a biblical connection, “Dives and Lazarus” (Dives being the traditional name for the rich man in the parable in Luke 16:19–31). That melody has been explored in a set of variations by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

For Further Reading

Hendrickson, Peter A., Bradley C. Jenson, and Randi H. Lundell. Luther and Bach on the Magnificat for Advent and Christmas. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015.


  1. As with “Mary’s Song,” the Gospel of Luke does not indicate that the words had a musical character when first uttered.
  2. The Episcopal Church in the United States is the US equivalent of the Anglican Church or Church of England in the UK.
  3. The Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, shared their music on their own YouTube channel. That choir has released complete albums with settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Evening Canticles). The performance by the Manchester Cathedral Choir was provided to YouTube by the Orchard Enterprises. The performance by the Choir of Winchester Cathedral was released by the Hyperion label. These videos were created by an anonymous YouTuber who combined the music in question with the score of the work.
  4. The Magnificat Collegium Regale is performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury, licensed to YouTube by UMG (on behalf of Universal Music). His 1918 setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis is performed by the Collegiate Singers. The music is provided to YouTube by the Orchard Enterprises.
  5. The Magnificat in C minor by George Dyson is sung by the Choristers of Lichfield Cathedral. Licensed to YouTube by the Orchard Music. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by George Dyson are here performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury. Licensed to YouTube by Kontor New Music Media. The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in F by George Dyson are performed by the Guildford Cathedral Choir, directed by Barry Rose, in a recording made at Evensong at Guildford Cathedral, July 17, 1967.
  6. See also the account of experiencing musical inspiration in connection with his Evening Canticles (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) by Howard Goodall, “Music and Mystery,” in Composing Music for Worship, ed. Stephen Darlington and Alan Kreider (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2003), 31–33.


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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