The Gospel of Mary
The Gospel of Mary
»Hugi Guðmundsson writes marvellously for voices [...] it is beautiful and extremely present« Seismograf
»A major piece of music. Absolutely recommended« Classical Explorer
With The Gospel of Mary, the Icelandic composer Hugi Guðmundsson brings to life a long-forgotten gospel that challenges the established narrative surrounding the role of Mary Magdalene. It portrays her as an apostle of equal importance to her male counterparts, inviting us to listen to a voice that was silenced by history.
The Lord Loved Her More
By Tim Rutherford-Johnson
For almost two thousand years her story was erased from the official tales of the Church. Although loved by Jesus more than all his other disciples, she became a shadowy, disputed presence: defamed as a prostitute, erased from the scene, diminished in stature. As it finally came to us, her story was contained – scattered and incomplete – on a papyrus codex, wrapped in feathers and said to have been hidden in the wall of a burial site in the city of Akhmim, Upper Egypt. The Berlin or Akhmim Codex, as this text became known, was purchased from an unnamed dealer at a Cairo antiquities market in 1896 by the German scholar Carl Reinhardt; from Egypt it made its way to Berlin, where it was studied by the renowned philologist Carl Schmidt. Even then, two world wars and numerous accidents ensured that its full contexts would not be translated until 1955 – and only then was the Gospel of Mary finally revealed.
The Gospel of Mary discovered in Akhmim is in fact a fifth-century translation into Coptic of earlier Greek texts, two of which have since been discovered, although they add little to the piecemeal story. At least ten pages of the Gospel are missing (just nine survive) and even the identity of Mary is a matter of dispute – she may be Jesus’s mother, or even a previously little-known sister. Many scholars, however, believe she is the disciple, Mary Magdalene, one of the few witnesses to both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Her story as it has come to us may be frustratingly incomplete, yet the text that has survived offers profound challenges to the patriarchal traditions of the Church. Religious historian Karen L. King describes its significance as follows:
‘[it] presents a radical interpretation of Jesus’s teachings as a path to inner spiritual knowledge; it rejects His suffering and death as the path to eternal life; it exposes the erroneous view that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute for what it is – a piece of theological fiction; it presents the most straightforward and convincing argument in any early Christian writing for the legitimacy of women’s leadership; it offers a sharp critique of illegitimate power and a utopian vision of spiritual reflection; it challenges our rather romantic views about the harmony and unanimity of the first Christians; and it asks us to rethink the basis for church authority.’
In composing his oratorio, The Gospel of Mary, Icelandic composer Hugi Guðmundsson and his librettists Niels Brunse and Nila Parly lean into the feminist interpretation suggested by King. Alongside the translation published in King’s book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (2003), they also set texts by the female mystics Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) and Julian of Norwich (c. 1343–after 1416), and original verse by Brunse and Parly, as well as two introductory lines from the Gospel of St Mark and the non-canonical Gospel of Philip, one of the few early Christian texts to grant Mary special insight into Jesus’ teaching. These latter establish Mary’s importance and authority among the disciples and as an apostle: ‘Mary Magdalene was called His companion. The Lord loved her more than He loved all other disciples’, Philip tells us. ‘When He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene’, Mark adds.
Mary’s Gospel outlines in dramatic terms the threat that she presented to the church. In it, she describes a vision that she has had of Jesus, in which he tells her of four wicked powers (including Wrath) that entrap the soul and keep it ignorant of its spiritual nature. These words challenge the Church’s conventional teaching that earthly suffering and death are a necessary step to entering Heaven, a challenge that is echoed in the first aria of the oratorio, which sets words by Teresa of Avila: ‘Seeking God would cost very dear if we could only do it when we were dead to the world.’ Indeed, Peter doubts Mary’s perspective, and demands that she share ‘the words of the Saviour that you remember, the things which you know that we don’t’. When she does so, eloquently describing the ascent of the soul past seven Powers of Wrath – darkness, desire, ignorance, zeal for death, the flesh, the foolish wisdom of the flesh and the wisdom of the wrathful person – Peter (urged on by Andrew) cannot conceal his jealousy. ‘Did He speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it?’, he asks, angrily. ‘Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?’ Only Levi comes to Mary’s defence, telling Peter that he has ‘always been wrathful … If the Saviour made her worthy, who are you to reject her?’
This fundamental conflict between Mary and Peter – the marginalised woman and the man who is known to us today as the Rock, the founder of the Roman Catholic Church – is the dramatic heart of the Gospel of Mary. The two competing visions of salvation and of what the Church should teach about God are encapsulated in Guðmundsson’s second aria, which sets words by Julian of Norwich: ‘wrath and friendship be two contraries’. This is a theological matter, notes Julian: since God cannot be both love and wrath, God cannot be wrathful. If Peter represents wrath, then, and Levi friendship, it thus falls to Mary to provide unity and thus the true path to God’s love.
Guðmundsson’s setting of the Gospel of Mary follows the Baroque tradition (familiar from the St John and St Matthew Passions of Bach) of interspersing dramatisations of the Gospel text with movements that comment upon it. In these sections, the words of Mary are given to the solo soprano, while those of the male characters (Jesus, Peter, Andrew and Levi) are given to the chorus. Notably, Peter and Andrew, as the male antagonists of the story, are set for lower voices, while Levi’s part is given to the female voices of the chorus only, reflecting his more empathetic position. (Jesus, whose words Mary reports in the first Gospel section, is sung by soprano solo and chorus.) The musical accompaniments further emphasise this division: Mary’s parts are mostly accompanied by soft strings and vibraphone (a rising vibraphone and flute motif is used to pick out her visions), while Peter and Andrew are accompanied by more violent figures for wind and brass.
As well as the two arias described above, the commentaries include three chorales, setting original words by Brunse and Parly, and five instrumental meditations, given to five solo wind instruments: bass clarinet, flute, bassoon, horn and cor anglais. The second of these is further dedicated to the memory of the Icelandic flautist Hallfriður Ólafsdóttir, who performed and recorded Guðmundsson’s LUX for flute and electronics, and who died in 2020. The chorale and aria settings resemble the ‘feminine’ orchestration of Mary’s music, while the five meditations are set apart somewhat in sound and manner. The opposing musical characters are only brought together in the oratorio’s extended Postludium, after the disciples, ashamed by their treatment of Mary, have set out to preach God’s word. The work ends like a beatification: as Mary reaffirms that ‘I saw a vision of the Lord’, the chorus restate the facts of her authority from the introduction: that she was Jesus’ companion, and that He appeared first to her after His resurrection. As descending vibraphone chords chime over her name, her story is restored once more to that of the Church.