Mary at the spinning-wheel

At our next evensong, 5pm Saturday 10 September, we will be singing Stanford’s Evening Service in G major. This is perhaps his best-loved setting, featuring a soaring soprano solo in the Magnificat over rapid staccato arpeggios in the organ. 

Clergyman and scholar Edmund Fellowes proposes that Stanford’s compositional choices represent in music a particular image of Mary, pregnant with the Son of God: 

‘In writing this, Stanford had the idea in his mind that, in accordance with Jewish custom of the period, the Blessed Virgin might have been little more than a child at the time of the birth of Christ, so he pictured her with a spinning-wheel happily singing the Magnificat.’ 

Other composers before Stanford had represented a spinning-wheel with a similar arpeggiated figure, e.g. Schubert in his Lied, Gretchen am Spinnrade, and the pregnant Mary was occasionally associated with a spinning-wheel in mediaeval art, as the accompanying image ca. 1410 demonstrates, so Fellowes’ theory is quite possible. But are you convinced? Does anyone have any other suggestions? Let us know in the comments! 

Whatever its inspiration, Stanford’s Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in G is a truly stunning piece of music, and we hope you are able to join us as we sing it in our service of evensong. 

Quotation: H.E. Fellowes, 1941, English Cathedral Music, Methuen, London.  

Image: Maria gravida, from the Németújvár altarpiece, Hungarian National Gallery, artist unknown, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 

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