St. Mary Magdalene and John Rutter’s Gloria

St. Mary Magdalene and John Rutter’s Gloria July 22, 2017

When I was in high school, our choir performed a joint concert with a local community choir of two musically contrasting settings of the Gloria: the somewhat darker and gothic arrangement of Francis Poulenc (which is also beautiful and haunting and worth a listen in its own right), and the majestic, fanfarish arrangement (including brass ensemble accompaniment) of John Rutter. The contrast sparked my imagination, as I pictured the two Glorias as a sort of soundtrack to, respectively, the crucifixion and the resurrection.

That’s why the latter started playing in my head when I read today’s Gospel reading for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, who features prominently in the resurrection story of John’s Gospel – and that of Rutter’s Gloria in my mind’s eye. In the second and most subdued of its three movements (5 and a half minutes into the recording below), I imagined the women weeping softly as they come to anoint Jesus’ body, and then, as the music begins a gradual crescendo at “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,” beginning to see that something is not quite as expected. Then, with the swell to the glittering chords of “Rex caelestis,” I couldn’t help but picture light bursting forth from the open tomb. As the music and light suddenly fade, a perplexed Mary is left to enter the tomb, run a hand over the bodyless cloth at the soprano soloist’s “miserere, miserere nobis,” and exit, as the male voices take up the same text, to see a figure approaching, then after realizing his identity in shock, at the chorus’ final “nobis,” embraces him.

The third movement, with its lively shifting meter on the repeating “Quoniam tu solus sanctus, quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus dominus, tu solus altissimus, Jesu Christe,” had me picturing first Mary, then Peter and John, running to tell the other disciples what they had seen, and then in a larger group talking animatedly in a buzz of excitement and amazement and confusion. The end of the Gloria skipped forward in my mind to the ascension, with a growing crowd of followers gathering through the long series of amens, to see the risen Christ lifted up at the return of the line, “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” and after a burst of light at the final “amen,” leaving them staring up at a blank blue sky.

Much more can be and has been said about Mary Magdalene, as she’s been portrayed as everything from a harlot to a feminist icon. But for me personally, her gospel witness is indelibly tied to this piece of music. I venture that my young imagination can be forgiven any minor liberties with the biblical narrative as owing more to artistic imagery than textual precision.

St. Mary Magdalene, witness to the resurrection, pray for us.

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