It has long been common for Vespers or Evening Prayer services to include the singing, chanting, or reciting of the Magnificat, the Virgin Mary’s grateful song of joyful praise. And in many liturgies, the Magnificat is framed by the singing, chanting, or reciting of an antiphon, a short text that amplifies or complements the Psalm or canticle that it introduces and concludes.
During the final week in Advent, beginning on December 17th and continuing for seven nights, the “O Antiphons” have been part of many liturgies. Each of these texts begins with the word “O,” and addresses the Messiah with a biblical name, and invokes him to come.
The O Antiphon for December 17th is “O Sapientia.” Here is the Latin of the traditional text with an English translation:
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
reaching from one end to the other,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
Come and teach us the way of prudence.
In 1988, Arvo Pärt composed Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen, a setting of the seven antiphons, sung by a cappella choir. The work was written in German, as it was commissioned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the RIAS Berlin Chamber Choir.
These seven short movements of a structurally coherent, single work demonstrate the distinctive compositional technique that Pärt discovered in the late 1970s and 1980s, a technique he named — with reference to the sound of bells — tintinnabuli. While the entire composition sounds very simple, conductor and Pärt scholar Paul Hillier notes that it “is so richly detailed in its response to language, and offers a glimpse of so many technical subtleties, that it repays close attention.”
Over the coming week, I’ll present easily available (i.e., YouTube) performances of each of the movements, on the day for which the antiphon is scheduled. Of the recordings of the work I’m familiar with, my favorite is that of the Tallis Scholars, which is available from all the usual sources.
Here is a performance of O Weisheit (O Sapientia, or “O Wisdom”) performed by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers. The German text is presented below the embedded video.
“O Weisheit, hervorgegangen aus dem Munde des Höchsten,
“O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High,
die Welt umspannst du von einem Ende zu andern,
Thou encirclest the world from one end to the other,
in Kraft und Milde ordnest du alles:
Thou orderest all things with might and mercy:
O komm und offenbare uns den Weg der Weisheit und der Einsicht, O Weisheit.”
O come to us and reveal the way of wisdom and of understanding. O Wisdom.”