Extreme Topography of Human Emotion

marymagnificatA piece that features prominently on our upcoming holiday program is the 1983 setting (for piano, choir and soloist) of Magnificat by Imant Raminsh. One of our fabulous baritones, Dale Engle, contacted Mr. Raminsh by email, to let him know we would be performing the work, and was delighted to receive the following reply:

Dear Dale,

Many, many thanks for your e-mail and your kind words about my Magnificat. I do occasionally hear when my music is being performed, but not often. (Maybe that is just as well…it could lead to a puffed-up ego).

The Magnificat was commissioned by the British Columbia Choral Federation and premiered in 1983 at its annual “Chorfest” in the piano/vocal version. The orchestration was commissioned by Dr. Elmer Iseler and premiered by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir a few years later. At that time I was drawn to a number of the standard sacred Latin texts, not so much for their liturgical significance, as for their great humanity. The Magnificat is first and foremost about humility, and heaven knows, most of us humans have a lot to be humble about. However it clearly does not stop there but goes on to explore the extreme topography of human emotion. That may be all I really want to say about the work. Hopefully the music speaks for itself.

I hope you will let me know how your performance went…perhaps send me a recording if you make one.

Once again, many thanks, and all the very best.

~ Imant Raminsh

Raminsh was born in Latvia in 1943, but his family emigrated to Canada in 1948. A graduate of the University of Toronto, he went on to study composition, fugue, violin and conducting at Universität Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. Returning to Canada, he established the music department at College of New Caledonia in British Columbia. He is a two-time winner of the biennial Canadian National Choral Awards in the “Outstanding Choral Work” category. As a composer, he is particularly known for his vocal music. To quote Raminsh, from an interview elsewhere:

I could not live without the human voice. The oral tradition is strong in Latvian culture; there are millions of folk songs. Latvian influences in my music go deeper than just folk song and probably invade everything I write: melodies, stories, memories, etc.

In his note to Dale, Raminsh spoke of the quality of humility being at the heart of the Magnificat text, and there can be no doubt as to the truth of that. There is a lovely and pure, melodic exuberance Raminsh has brought to the music.

Another key toward understanding Magnificat in context comes in a line that occurs just before the Magnificat portion. In response to Mary’s question of how she could have a child when she hadn’t been with a man, the angel Gabriel says to her: “Nothing that can be named is impossible with God.”

Themes of impotence, barrenness and powerlessness are central to Luke’s story of how Mary became the mother of Jesus and her cousin, Elizabeth, became the mother of John the Baptist. Our text is the Latin translation from the original Greek. English translations frequently use the word “handmaid” or “servant” in the line where Mary describes herself, although the proper meaning of the original Greek word, “doulos”, is slave. By contrast, the Latin word “magnificat” has a range of meanings, including praise, glorify, celebrate, adore, enlarge and exalt.

To me, Mary’s song of praise to God springs partly from a realization that her purpose is not bound to any inevitable outcomes based on her station in life. An open and humble heart is a place from which various unexpected outcomes can occur, given the right conditions. Mary’s understanding of the world and her place in it has been enlarged by this epiphany, and, as the composer said, she cannot help but “explore the extreme topography of human emotion.”

Elisabeth Eliassen

P.S. The concerts are just a few weeks away. Book your tickets soon!

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