Any Howells Magnificat

In my mid-20s, a series of coincidences and minor miracles brought me to an audition for the choir at Chicago’s St James Cathedral.  I narrowly skated by the sight-reading audition — I was rusty, and I’ve never been great in music auditions. “You can practice at home,” the choir director told me after announcing my acceptance, sounding wary to my nervous ears. But while the audition had been anxiety-provoking, it was only in the way that any audition is anxiety-provoking. I wasn’t worried about whether or not I could hack it in the alto section. I knew my way around a choir.

Let me interrupt myself here and say: if I am a religious person, it is because of music. My first favorite movie was The Sound of Music, wherein a nun would rather spin and sing her prayers in the mountains than show up on time for mass. Another early (too-early?) favorite was Amadeus, the movie about Mozart as told by Salieri; in it, Salieri makes a deal with God in fervent hopes of being blessed with transcendent musical talent, but becomes obsessed to the point of madness when he finds that impious rude-boy Mozart has been blessed instead. A crisis to be sure, but Salieri doesn’t exactly lose his faith; he can’t, not fully. He can hear for himself that God is speaking through Mozart’s music.

I enjoy music in many forms, but church music is for me a kind of family heirloom. Sometimes singing sacred music feels less like a learned behavior than an inherited trait. As a young man, my father sang alongside his family in the church choir at Redeemer, their Lutheran parish in Albuquerque; my maternal grandmother was their choir director. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to my parents rehearsing at Resurrection Lutheran in Chicago. I joined them in the choir at Trinity Lutheran in Indiana a year before I was “supposed” to be deemed old enough, because I was always there on rehearsal nights anyway, doing my homework or playing with the stationery supplies in the organist’s office. I have gone to church regularly for most of my life, but I barely know how to worship from the regular pews. If I’m not sitting in the choir stalls, I’m likely not in church at all.

This particular choral pedigree meant that when I joined the St James choir, I had experience with a lot of “church music classics,” and I was good at chorus stuff: listening, blending, following. But one thing I did not learn growing up in the Lutheran church was the concept of a “Magnificat.” I’m sure I’d heard the word bandied about. But the Lutherans, in my experience, don’t talk all that much about Mary — as in the Virgin Mary. And the Magnificat is hers. She finds herself in that infamous predicament, and (according to Saint Luke) after she has some time to adjust to the idea, she sings:

My soul doth magnify the Lord
And my spirit doth rejoice
In God my savior…

I could go on. There is a lot more, and I know the words by heart at this point. In the Anglo-Catholic tradition, it’s an all-time greatest hit. Lyrics by Mary, music by everybody. The piece (along with its fraternal twin, the Nunc Dimittis) is the cornerstone of a particular sung church service called an “evensong.” Some cathedrals (particularly Anglican cathedrals in England) hold an evensong service most every day.

While the Lutheran churches in which I grew up bore many liturgical and theological similarities to the those of the Episcopalians, they didn’t have a place for this music in their regular repertoire.  And so, despite my years of choral experience, I landed at St James Cathedral having never had the occasion to sing — or even hear — a Magnificat by Herbert Howells. And this was the one area where my post-audition arrogance would prove unwarranted.

At the start of that first program year, we had an all-day Saturday rehearsal. I can picture it clearly, which is maybe the greatest testament to just how traumatically bewildered I was. We were in a basement parish hall instead of the choir room, spread out for some reason. (Comfort? Easy access to the kitchen? It doesn’t matter). We rehearsed some pieces that I recognized. When the Howells came out, what little reaction it provoked in my fellow choristers was only positive. We dove in.

Everyone else followed along like they knew what they were doing, but I barely got a note in. The meter changed every few measures. We kept switching between unison and 6-part harmony. Did the half-note get the beat, or the quarter? And what about now? It was, without a doubt, the most inscrutable choral score I had ever encountered.

I took it home.  I listened to recordings. I followed Margie, the unfailing section leader who (blessedly) sat on my right, like she was my musical Sherpa. And eventually, I figured it out. I cracked it.

A Howells Magnificat is a deeply satisfying thing to crack. Like any truly challenging piece of music, singing it with a group feels like entering some kind of synchronized swimming competition, or running a relay race where everybody is doing their bit at the same time. Or better yet: like climbing a mountain together. You reach the top and suddenly you can see what it was all for: the majesty of existence, spread out before you in every direction. You’re Fraulein Maria, spinning in the Austrian alps, knowing for sure that God is there.

I’m thinking of Howells this week because on Thursday, my current church choir — All Saints’ Episcopal Parish, Beverly Hills — had our first weeknight rehearsal in over 18 months. I hesitate to call it a “regular” rehearsal, because the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic continue to weird-ify things. We wear our masks at all times, on top of being 100% vaccinated. The doors stay open. We have to vacate the choir room for 15 minutes between halves. And, of course, our make-up is much different. The “pandemic restart button1” effect is not responsible for all of the changes in our ranks, but it certainly made its mark. And yet, it felt pretty close to the real thing. It was the most we’ve been able to sing together as a full choir for all this time.

The choir at All Saints’ is the most challenging one I’ve ever been a part of — and this is coming from someone who has sung in both an all-originals a cappella group and a choreography-heavy show choir. Many members of the All Saints’ choir have been singing there for decades, and know the repertoire by rote. Some are professional singers. Some are professionals AND they’ve been in the choir for decades. But we also have new members, and laypeople, and people like me who are just avid hobbyists who didn’t know who Herbert Howells was until 2009. Even so, the lack of a real rehearsal has meant that, when we do get to sing in church, we’ve been keeping the music fairly simple.

But on Thursday, we were able to get real for the first time in a year an a half. And, of course, we rehearsed a Howells Magnificat.

It was far from perfect. But what good is perfect? We got through it, we stayed together, we climbed the mountain. I was overcome with a sense of gratitude that we were together, and of awe that after 18 months we had not forgotten how to do something that was once — for each of us, surely — so very hard.

If you know about Herbert Howells already, you may be wondering which Magnificat we rehearsed, or which one I learned first. And I’m sorry (but not that sorry) to say, I don’t know2. You see, Howells wrote something like 17 Magnificats. And, yes, they all sound different. But they are all unmistakably his. When I learned how to sing that first one, I gained the power to sing any of them. They were unlocked; I understood now what he was saying, and how he liked to say it.

Now, over a decade after that crash-and-burn rehearsal, I get so excited when I am handed a Howells Magnificat to sing that I don’t stop to consider which it is. I know that it is a map to a summit, a map that I can read. At the top, there are very good things indeed. I can follow it, but not alone.

This past week marked six months of weekly Metaforia! If you’re enjoying it, please share this or any edition with someone you think might get something out of it. Thanks for reading!

- Marissa

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I just made this up, but you know what I mean, right? If not, let me know and maybe I’ll write a future newsletter about it. In short, the forced changes of 2020 meant that a lot of people moved to a new town or started a new career or otherwise made some major life-choice, either out of necessity or because…hell, as long as the world is upside-down, why not change everything?


I do think it’s the one that I attached here, but I wouldn’t swear it.