Robert Parsons (circa 1535-1572): Magnificat

"Robt. Parsons was drowned at Newark uppon Trent
the 25th of Januarie, and Wm. Bird sworne gentleman
in his place at the first the 22d of Februarie
followinge, A° 14° Lincolne".

We don’t know why Robert Parsons, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, was travelling near Newark on that fateful night in January 1572 but it seems likely that he was visiting the rectories in the area whose livings he had been granted. The grant of such livings was a sign of the esteem in which the monarch held him. What his fellow musicians thought of him is clear from a Latin couplet found in the Dow partbooks:

"Qui tantus primo Parsone in flore fuisti
Quantus in autumno ni morere fores.
Parsons, you who were so great in the springtime
of life, how great you would have been in the
autumn, had death not come."

His setting of the Magnificat is in the tradition of the Eton Choirbook and must have been composed during the reign of Queen Mary I for performance during Vespers because:

1: It’s in Latin.

2: There’s no accompanying ‘Nunc DImittis’ which would have been required if he’d composed it for the Anglican service of Evensong.

3: Stylistically it’s in the tradition of the Eton Choirbook.

Given that he composed it during Mary’s reign it’s an early work but this by no means means that it’s lacking in beauty or polish, far from it, it’s a sublime piece of music that proudly stands alongside the settings of such luminaries as Robert Fayrfax, Nicholas Ludford and John Taverner. It’s a six-part setting that uses the traditional alternating plainsong and polyphony and makes use both of lenghty divisions — called ‘gimells’ and of canons (where one or more parts will repeat exactly a melody sung by an opening voice).

These canons are quite sophisticated and can clearly be heard in the sections:

• ‘Quia fecit mihi magna …’ (triplex and contratenor II),
• ‘et sanctum nomen eius …’ (tenor and medius),
• ‘et semini eius in saecula …’ (bassus and medius), and the three part canon at
• ‘Sicut erat in principio …’

It’s a curious blend of old and new because while Parsons clearly has compositions of the type found in the Eton choir book in mind for example the melismatic writing for the solo lines that he contrasts with the full-choir sections there’s no cantus firmus and he doesn’t give much attention to the plainchant melody. He also makes considerable use of symetry and he uses the canons I listed above to develop his themes in such a way that there’s a clear sense of forward movement throughout. He ends with a quite dramatic ‘Amen’ in which the bass and tenor parts are engage in a thematic dialogue whilst the other parts weave a musical covering as though it were a polyphonic baldachin above them. Enjoy :-).


Video and description Source: Robert Parsons (circa 1535-1572) Magnificat – YouTube Published on 17 Sep 2013 by markfromireland

Text & Translations: Magnificat

LatinModern EnglishTraditional Translation

Magnificat anima mea Dominum.
Et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae:
ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.
Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est:
et sanctum nomen eius.
Et misericordia eius a progenie in progenies
timentibus eum.
Fecit potentiam in bracchio suo:
dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
Deposuit potentes de sede,
et exaltavit humiles.
Esurientes implevit bonis:
et divites dimisit inanes.
Suscepit Israel, puerum suum,
recordatus misericordiae suae.
Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros,
Abraham, et semini eius in saecula.

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.
Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper,
et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

Luke 1: 46-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.
And my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.
For he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his handmaiden:
behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty has done wondrous things for me:
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is upon them
that fear him throughout all generations.
He has shown the power of his arm:
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has put down the mighty from their seat,
and has exalted the humble and meek.
He has filled the hungry with good things:
and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has sustained his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy.
As he promised to our forefathers,
Abraham and his sons for ever.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen.

My soul doth magnify the Lord: and my spirit rejoiceth in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded: the lowliness of his hand-maiden.
For behold, from henceforth: all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel:
As he promised to our forefather Abraham and to his seed for ever.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, and is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.