Mary visits Elisabeth; music ensues

“At the end of the day when twilight falls, and again at the beginning of a new day when the lustre of the rising sun becomes visible, the beautiful song of the birds is heard in the open. Accordingly it does not surprise us that in the twilight of the Old Testament dispensation and in the morning splendour of the New Testament dispensation we hear various persons, favoured by God, of Elisabeth, Mary, Zacharias and Simeon and the hymn of the angels.”

So wrote Norval Geldenhuys in his commentary on the Gospel of St Luke. This observation introduces his remarks on verses 39 to 56 of the first chapter of the Gospel, in which the story of the Virgin’s visit with her cousin Elisabeth is recounted. At the end of that portion of text, we read the song of Mary, a glorious canticle that we now know as the Magnificat, the first word of the Latin rendering of her hymn.

But before Mary’s song, Elisabeth bursts forth in an exited beatification of Mary, which begins: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” As Geldenhuys remarks, “In her salutation and beatification of Mary, Elisabeth is so inspired that we unmistakably hear the sounds of a hymn in these words. Thus she is the first songstress of the dawning new era.”

Since at least the thirteenth century, churches have honored the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the West, the Visitation was long celebrated on July 2, although some revised ecclesiastical calendars honor the event on May 31.

The Offertory traditionally sung on the Feast of the Visitation is Beata es, Virgo Maria. In this text, worshipping congregations re-affirm and echo Elisabeth’s Spirit-filled exclamation:

Beata es, Virgo Maria, quae Dominum portasti creatorem mundi:
   Blessed art thou, O Virgin Mary, who dids’t bear the Lord, the Creator of all things
Genuisti eum, qui te fecit, et in aeternum permanes virgo.
   Thou brought forth him who made thee, and for ever remainest a virgin.

Because this text is also sung as an Offertory on many other Marian feast days or in masses in honor of the Virgin, it has been attended to lovingly by many composers. (I recently wrote an article for Touchstone about this text and its musical renditions; subscribers to the magazine may read it online.)

Among the many settings of Beata es, Virgo Maria which have enriched the devotional life of the Church is a setting by William Byrd (1543–1623), sung by the Laudantes Consort conducted by Guy Janssens.

A more ornate setting of Beata es, Virgo Maria by Vincenzo Ugolini (1580–1638) employs twelve voices in three choirs and includes a brief setting of the Ave Maria sung by six upper voices, before the three choirs return to repeat the second half of the text. It is sung here by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury.

The six-part setting by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548–1611) is sung here by Ensemble Plus Ultra conducted by Michael Noone.

The seven-voice setting by the early Renaissance French composer Philippe Verdelot (1480?–1535?) weaves the traditional plainchant of the Ave Maria sung by one soprano into the polyphonic texture of the other six voices who are singing the text to Beata es, Virgo Maria. Verdelot thus combines the benedictions of both Gabriel and Elisabeth into one musical form. Verdelot’s work is sung here by the Tallis Scholars conducted by Peter Phillips,