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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

SongStories 36: Canticle of the Turning (GIA, 1989)

Neither Hannah nor the mother of Jesus, this painting
depicts the "other" Miriam's dance. (Sandra Pond)
2014 is the 25th anniversary year of the publication of our first GIA collection of songs, Safety Harbor. As the page views on my blog inexplicably approach the 100,000 mark (someone who reads this post will move Google's hit counter past that marker), I thought that it might be a good idea to finally write a little bit about the best-known song of mine from the GIA catalogue, which was the first song on that CD. I'm speaking about my 1988 (written) setting of the Magnificat, "Canticle of the Turning."

Advent of 1988 was the beginning of a Luke Year (C) in the lectionary, and as it approached I was thinking about how I might write a song that my parish, St. Jerome in Phoenix, Arizona, might use to tie together the themes of Luke's gospel through the year, and in a special way to begin it in Advent. At the time we already knew a handful of Magnificat settings, including the Dameans' version from their Remember Your Love collection, "My Soul Rejoices," and Michael Joncas's wonderful setting of the Oosterhuis paraphrase that appeared in the same rich collection that gave us "On Eagle's Wings" and "I Have Loved You," a responsorial-choral version entitled, "Mary's Song." The more I thought about the task I had set for myself, though, to craft a song that contained some of Luke's main evangelical themes that could be used through the year, the more I came back to the canticle of Mary from the end of chapter 1.

According to some scripture scholars, the songs in Luke's gospel might have been pre-existing Christian hymn that he was writing back into the story of Jesus as if to say, "Here's how our songs got started; see them again as part of the bigger story." This is not to say he was rewriting history, just that he may have wanted his community to read its own history, including the "new song" of the Lord that its faith engendered, through the lens of his narrative of Jesus and his mission. The song of Mary known by its first word in the Latin version, "Magnificat," (Lk. 1:46-55) celebrates that story in the even wider context of Jewish song, as the Magnificat itself parallels the Song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, in 1 Kings 2. God takes action in the world on behalf of the powerless, the song goes, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, tearing the mighty from their thrones.

So in setting this canticle for my parish, I decided that I wanted to use music that suggested the revolutionary spirit of the canticle, that cosmic tables are being turned over, as it were. And who has better songs of uprising than the Irish? "Star of the County Down" is not a revolutionary ballad, of course. It's a love song about a man who aspires to woo Rosie McCann, a brown-haired beauty from "the banks of the Bann" near Belfast. The lyrics most of us know were written in the late 19th century, but the tune is much older, and in fact had among its many incarnations a military connection, as there was a lyric called "The Fighting 69th" about the Irish Brigade in the U.S. Civil War. The tune dances a bit, and there's both joy and excitement in the melody that I think fits the spirit of Mary's song well. Like many folks songs (and in the spirit of Martin Luther), it is a self-teaching melody, with a two-line refrain whose melody is expanded and paralleled in the verses (AA1BA1-BA1), making the tune easy to learn and remember. I kept the in-rhyme of the familiar Irish text as another mnemonic device ((aa)B(cc)B etc.)

The idea of "turning" in the title was both a nod to the inner conceit of "revolution," (derived from the Latin "volvere," which means "to turn") and to the message of Jesus's preaching in all three of the synoptic gospels, the core message of which was, "Repent, and believe the good news." "Repent" translates a Greek verb the noun form of which is metanoia, that is to say, a complete change of the self, of mind and heart, which might also be rendered as "turn around." The idea, of course, is that we are all walking a particular course dictated by the gods of "this world," for Jesus and his countrymen, the god's name was Caesar. Jesus was saying, "Look, how is that working out for you? Happy? Well, I have good news: a God with another idea, and his name is Abba. Let's "turn around" and walk in another direction." So the "revolution" is both interior (a change of heart-self) and corporate and visible (a new way of living together). It is, in fact, against the prevailing set of values in society, a revolution. But I want to emphasize that it is a peaceful revolution, a revolution of action, persuasion,  and justice. In the spirit of Miriam of Egypt, Hannah, and Miriam of Nazareth "Canticle of the Turning" invites us to sing around the fire in the darkness while we await the new world's dawn. has a great page about Canticle of the Turning, which I was surprised to discover while ego-surfing as I researched this post. You can click on the title just above and go to the page yourself. In addition to the original arrangement published in the Safety Harbor collection, "Canticle of the Turning" is also available in two different arrangements for choir and organ, both by august arrangers and composers whose sandals I am unworthy to untie, Hal Hopson and John Ferguson.

Songs get a life of their own after they're written. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I'm sure: I write songs because I need to. I need a specific song to be written, because there's some nagging ember inside me that, either out of my ignorance or chutzpah, thinks that there's nothing else serving a specific need of which I'm aware. What happens after I finish that song and start to share it, and occasionally publish it, is way out of my control, and perfectly unpredictable. While I was encouraged and grateful by its reception, early in the days after I had written in, by its reception in Ireland when Gary and I were working there on a Forum institute, I still felt some hesitation and self-doubt for using a completely secular melody with as beloved and sacred a text as the Magnificat, no matter how well-intentioned I was. But the fact that, twenty-five years later, it appears not just in Catholic hymnals, but also in Lutheran, Mennonite, and Presbyterian hymnals, and has been used by such titans (certainly to me, and I think in my world, by reputation) as Hopson and Ferguson in their own arrangements, says to me that maybe, for now, this was a good choice, and has "moved the deal along" a little bit, as songwriter Greg Brown might say.

It was a bit of a revelation to me to see the number of covers of this song that appear on iTunes - about a dozen of them (with a couple of reissues), and the variety in feel and tempo is really remarkable as each artist or group feels the song with the freedom-soaked independence suggest by folk music and the lyric itself! Just click through the right-arrow-in-a-circle audition buttons in the iTunes window below and get a feel for the creative energy of the different artists' interpretations of the Irish tune.

Thank you to everyone who has prayed with, sung, recorded, played, or published "Canticle of the Turning." Terry and Gary and GIA, happy 25th anniversary!

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