Musical settings, of the Magnificat, -the song, of the most blessed, virgin Mary, stretch back, to the 14th century and beyond.
It seems that everybody and anybody, from the great and remembered, to the lowly and forgotten, have put their mind and their music, to pen a setting, of these these familiar words, from Luke’s gospel, chapter 1, verses 46-55:
‘My soul magnifies The Lord and my spirit rejoices, in God, my Saviour. For He has looked at the humble state of His handmaiden. From now on, all generations, shall call me blessed. For He that is mighty, has done great things, for me. Holy is His name. His mercy is for generations of generations, of those who fear Him. He has shown strength, with His arm. He has scattered the proud, in the imaginations, of their hearts. He has put-down Princes, from their thrones. He has exulted the lowly. He has filled the hungry, with good things. He has sent the rich away, empty-handed. He has given help, to Israel, His servant, that He might remember mercy, as He spoke to Abraham and his seed, forever.
Bach may have set this text many times and we recognise two versions, one set in Eb major, from 1723, and a ‘final’ revised version, set in D major, from 1728-30.
It is to this last version, that the following short notes refer.
No version can be considered ‘better’ than the other, or definitive, as the changes, as is mostly always the way, with Bach, were made, in the light of practical performance conditions, relevant, at the time.
The Eb version was written with a Christmas event in mind, with textual interpolations, relevant, to that season. The transposition to D major, has been made, in consideration, of a different set of pitched trumpets.
The standard orchestra, of oboes, -with d’amore, to hand, strings and continuo, and chorus, are joined, by 2 x transverse flutes with 3 x trumpets and timps. There are 5 vocal parts, with 2 soprano parts. The vexed question of a chorus, on top of the (solo) parts is a well asked…and a well answered one.
As in all Bach’s choral music, it is a question of carefully and correctly summing up the printed score, especially with reference, to the balance of the orchestration and, as always with Bach, as I mentioned before, taking into account, any practical considerations, concerning the building and the available players, etc etc.
Bach divides and sets this text, into 11 identifiable sections, Luke chapter 1:46-55 with an added doxology, movement 12, to end the whole.
Each verse is assigned, to one movement, except the 3rd verse, verse 48 of chapter 1, which is divided, between two movements.
It strikes me, listening to this whole setting, -as 1 rather than 12, that Bach covers every consideration and manifestation, of form, texture and mood, that humanity might ever hope to experience and in that, acknowledges, a miracle, theological as well as spiritual.
This music is certainly a high point in human achievement.
1/Magnificat: Luke 1:46 ‘My soul magnifies…’
Many musicians and composers have set the words of this important and far-reaching canticle, but surely none have set them, as magnificently, as has, J.S.Bach.
And that magnificence, is all, in and about the three rising trumpets, where the opening three-and-a-half bars, really, as one breathing whole, emphasise and punch-out, on those extremely strong first beats, that full splendour, of the D major harmony and tonality.
Breath/flutes and brilliance/trumpets, are working, together.
Notice bar 2, the ‘B’ pedal, underlying but not undermining this D major tonality and then an ‘F#’, with final ‘dominant’ A.
In this concerto-like movement, chromatic drops. at 20, bend the dominant harmony, around, towards the arrival of the chorus, 31, and they, when they do arrive, they are not, as we might have expected, imitative, of trumpet arpeggios. Semiquavers, reminiscent of opening oboes and flute figurations, remind us that, this is a dance. So much of biblical praise and thanksgiving, finds its expression, in the movement, of the body.
The difficult choral entry, needs to sound like nervous laughter, and it can do, for the wrong reasons, if the voices are not agile.
Bach wants us to hear the giggling and burbling, nearly nervous and uncontrolled laughter of a young girl in pregnancy.
And who better to know about that, than him.
This is helped along by a continuo, with more than just a bounce, punched with those trumpet inserts.
The dark side is apparent, at 52, with chromatic, rising basses.
Listen for the sustained and chromatic, first oboe part, hovering over the imitative choral writing, to be aped by trumpet 1, at 20. This originates, of course, from the bar 5 trumpet part.
These reflects a natural concern, for a great task ahead, all, of course, forgotten, as the harmony works its way around and through.
Bach, as he bounces his orchestra and chorus, up, down and along, is aware of his virgin, needing time to breath, in her breathlessness, and he gives a nice window for flutes to sing and breath, at 64.
The last ritornello really does set the seal this setting, as being essentially, one of a soulic magnification, the joy of a young woman, in the light of a great task ahead.
Perhaps Bach was one of the first composers to embrace feminism.
What a thought.
Please note, Bach’s last 5 bars, where he states the 3 rising quavers and a crochet, twice, without resolution, and the last, nearly 3 bars, which are devoted, to an extended and final resolution, -obvious, but I think needs pointing out, so we become conscious, of these sort-of, end-tags, without just accepting them, blindly.
2/‘Et exsultavit spiritus meus…’ ‘…and my spirit, has rejoiced…’
The joy and the dance continue, and remember, this is a young girl’s joy and dance.
The already outrageous continuo players, are now thoroughly warmed up and continue their liberties, indulging themselves here, in a pralltriller on their second note and continuing, to do so, whenever and wherever, they can.
This is infectious behaviour, transmitting onto and into, the strings, at 12 and eventually, the voice, at 30.
She loves her ‘…Savior…’, 39, and enjoys rejoicing in Him, again, at 62 through really, to the end.
3/Quia respezit humilitatem…. ‘…for He has looked at the humble state..’
This humility is real, and this beautiful section is subdued and sober, the oboe d’amore, bringing a woody, natural hue and smoothness, now and immediately, to ear and spirit.
Long long phrases, twist and turn, in honesty, rather than seduction and the tamed continuo, fit and support, as required.
A contemplative trio, of sound, beguiles us.
Bars 15 through 17, really do help this whole work to remain in the realms of the masterful.
The final bars, ‘…all will call me blessed,’ is a sound worl, of humility and understatement, declamatory almost, leading, directly and without any break, into
4/‘Omnes generationes….’ All generation…’
This is an aggressive appraisal, of the state of the generations, -those past, those present and those to come, and it must sound so.
The chorus must bark-it-out, all, of course, within the bounds of good taste.
A crowd scene, imitative, fugal, aggressive and in keeping and style with all the characteristics of the crowd, with crowd control, and out-of-control, compliance and rebellion. All this is reflected, in the false entries and wrong entries, and bad entries.
As always, Bach is aways in ultimate control of his pen and allows anarchy to rule, only, of course, in so much, as it fulfils the text.
Every bar has one of these ‘jungle-drum entries, and many have two and all on different beats.
Bar 21 has each voice ‘drumming-in’ with added rhythmic punch, over the space of 5 beats and grinding to a half close at 24.
He then has the audacity, to grind this on over a tonic, f# minor for a bar, before winding it all, regretfully, up, almost into a ball and throwing it, into his waste bin!
5/‘Quia fecit mihi magna…’ ‘He has done great things for me…’
A matter-of-fact setting, -three repeated continuo bass notes, with and ornamented plonk, 2 half repeats, and a descending scale, you might be inclined to think, but perhaps it is to do with faith, rather than action.
Face-value, rather than, on this occasion, metaphysics?
This downward scale, gives our bass solois,t time to indulge in operatic-wobble, at ‘…qui potens…’ and some great coloratura, at ‘magna’, 15, with a little bit of metaphysics, at 17 through 24, ‘sanctum nomen..’, ‘His holy name’, which has less of a ‘matter-of-fact feel’, than, Holy, is His name.
6/‘Et misericordia…’ ‘Mercy for generations, on those who fear him…’
This haunting siciliana, -marked, by Bach, as ‘con sordini’, with the mute, and doubled by flutes, a stroke of genius, imitates Vivaldi in Venice, rocks and cradles itself, as if on water, almost to sleep.
The writing, for both strings and vocals, tenor and alto, is tightly ‘packed’, being, if you transpose the viola part an octave higher, always within a fifth, or a third, of each.
‘Those who fear Him…’ brings F natural, bar 15, and Bb, bar 17 and similar, straying harmonies and soulic waling, 24, to the end.
7/‘Fecit potentian… ‘He has shown strength, with His arm…’
This is vocally difficult and a challenge, for any chorus. It is effective as a vocal solo quartet, but with the nature of the text, is also, most effective, en-mass. The coloratura weaves across all voices, sometimes appearing in two voices at the same time and sometimes singularly.
Trumpets reappear, at 13, reinforcing the orchestral line, but at 21, along with flutes, leading the orchestra, into an ornamented, semiquaver texture.
After the scattering, 26 through 28, the ‘mente cordis sui’, ‘…the imaginations, of their hearts’, is marked adagio, and set, in the way, really, that only Bach, could have imagined.
8/‘Deposuit potentes… ‘He has put-down princes, from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.’
This opening is strong, but neither proud nor pompous.
And neither is it without mercy. It has an air of the stately about it…and means business.
The continuo affirms, in agreement and submission, to an authority, bar 2, the opening pronouncement and the long ritornello sets the pace, of seriousness, ending with a flourish.
The tenor soloist, like the town crier, makes these proclamations very public. The exaltation, of those lowly ones, is certainly proclaimed, at 23 and more-so, at 42 onwards, where the lowly, get a very long and low(ly) F#, all to themselves.
9/‘Esurientes implevit bonis… ‘He has filled the hungry, with good things and sent the rich away, with nothing.’
We get the feeling here, of an organised ‘hand-out’, where the jaunty and rather pleased-with- themselves, lilting flutes, give to those who are poor, in bar 1, but, spot the rich, and just miss them out, with a laugh, bar 2, rest.
And all this, as a slow, march-past, of the assembled, lines of humanity.
As always, Bach’s 3-part counterpoint is worth more than just a close look and the off-beat flutes are almost pennies, dropping down, but not into those rich pockets.
10/‘Suscepit Israel…’ He has given help to Israel…’
This, a dark moment, with much weeping and waling.
It is a beautiful setting, three solo voices, weaving around a rising motive, creating of course, the possibility, of a drooping opposite.
The ‘recordatus misericordiae suae’, ‘Remembering His mercy’, is a moment of transfiguration, and here lies the point: Bach sees that help comes to Israel, in time of trouble, so that mercy, is appreciated.
The resulting 3-part, -with an accompanying bass line, and what about that ghost-oboe, lurking, in the shadows, is, in these days, a rare example, of peace through perfection.
Not so rare, perhaps, for Bach.
11/‘Sicut locutus est…’ As He spoke to our fathers…’
Fugal, with voice entries, bottom to top.
At 21, the voices enter the other way round, top to bottom.
From ‘…Abraham…’ the texture is more homophonic and 41 through 49 sees sustained and held voices, with overlapping harmonies, stacking up a range of colour and effect, as Abraham is joined and mixed with, his seed, in being spoken to, forever.
The last 12 bars, are eternal.
12/‘Gloria Patri…‘ ‘Glory ne to the Father…’
A tutti Gloria, minus trumpets + timps, in the first bar is followed by rising scale, at the minim, moving across all vocal parts, bottom to top.
A wall of sound is produced, sustained, persistent and energised.
This continues, descending and at the crochet, through ‘…to the Son…’ and at ‘…to the Holy Spirit…’ the trumpets and timps finally join in, with spectacular effect, reinforcing textually and theologically, and of course, musically and spiritually.
All of this has the character of a cadenza, or an ending.
Bars 20, to the end, are a reprise of the opening music, ‘…as it was in the beginning, is now and always, without end, Amen.’
The use of the opening music, gives this setting a cyclic structure and drive, the end being the beginning, like the doxology, itself and conversely, the beginning, being the end.
In this case, the beginning and the ending are one and the same.
Bach has found the key, to noting the eternal.