The "Magnificat" is the joyful prayer offered by the Virgin Mary after her visitation by the Angel Gabriel. It is found at Luke 1:46-55. It is used in the Roman Catholic Vespers services, and in the evening services of later traditions. In common with the rest of the Liturgy, it has been set to music many times.

This writeup refers to J. S. Bach's setting for a small orchestra, five-part choir and soloists. It is a masterpiece, which sees Bach in his element- pious subject matter, expressive subtle orchestration, beautiful, evocative choral settings tied up with Bach's mastery of counterpoint.

It was first performed in Leipzig on Christmas Day in 1723. Bach had just been employed as Kappellmeister ("choir master") by four Lutheran churches there, and this was his first major work for them. His career there lasted until he died, and he wrote 5 full years of original church music (59 pieces a year- one a week and extras for the feast days). Only about half of this output has survived.

The following is a description of the later and more widely performed D Major (BWV 243) version of the piece. The original E-flat Major version (BMV 243a) was interspersed with four German and Latin-language Christmas anthems and had a less elaborate orchestration. Although Bach was instrumental in the development of Equal Temperament, in those days it was still much easier to find instruments for some keys than others. Switching to D Major meant more trumpets, and removing the Christmas anthems meant year-round acceptance of the piece.

1. Chorus- Magnificat Anima

Magnificat anima mea dominum,       My soul magnifies the Lord,

The piece begins with a lengthy orchestral introduction on flutes, strings, pipe organ, timpani, continuo and with trumpets dominating. It is a grand and courtly music, reminiscent of Handel. Each part of its multi-layered melody falls and rises, eventually resting on trills to expose the other parts.

The choir join in, mimicking the established forms, lead by the sopranos. Their role here is a simple addition of vocal texture to the musical mix- they repeat the word Magnificat time and again, before the orchestra takes over and concludes the movement.

2. Aria- Et Exultavit (soprano II)

et exultavit spiritus meus in       and my spirit rejoices in
Deo salutari meo. God my savior.

This movement is a soprano solo, accompanied by strings and a sprightly continuo, usually a harpsichord. It is light, with a lively 3/8 rhythm. Frequent use is made of dotted notes and lightning-fast demisemiquavers to build a feeling of rejoicing. The centre of the movement is a section in a minor key which contains a 41-note run on the word salutari.

3. Aria- Quia Respexit (soprano I)

Quia respexit humilitatem           For he has regarded the low estate of his
ancillae suae: ecce enim his handmaiden: for behold, henceforth
ex hoc beatam me dicent... I shall be called blessed by...

The next movement is a solo by the higher of the two soprano soloists. It is meek and reflective. The singer is accompanied by an oboe d'amore and a a gentle pipe organ voice in the continuo role. The basic pattern is a regular phrase from the oboe taking up most of the bar and a minimal conclusion on the organ. The soloist's phrases are almost exclusively descending in pitch, and like the oboe part, are short and spaced apart. The qualities of the soprano voice in its comfortable range, the old-fashioned oboe and the organ are perfectly matched. Some variation is provided by the upward-driving tune of "ecce" (behold), but the rest of the movement continues the slow decent.... into...

4. Chorus- Omnes Generationes

...omnes generationes.              ...all generations.

... as if from nowhere, the full choir and more of the orchestra enter the fray. This movement begins at the same time as the last note of the previous movement, and is very different in tone. I see it as a musical description of the march of time, from Mary's day to our own. The basic unit of the movement is the repeated phrase "omnes omnes generationes". A sort of pun is used to connect the repetitions, with one part's "iones" lining up with the next part's "omnes", like the overlap of the generations. With the five voices all offset from each other, this linking happens regularly and frequently, driving the rhythm. The effect is desperate and insistent.

A feeling of acceleration continues through most of the movement, achieved using various devices. Most obviously, the opening "omnes" of each phrase switches into double time, i.e. is sung twice as fast. More of the orchestra switches from quaver phrases to semiquaver phrases. Then, with everything at full pelt, the five parts of the choir find themselves in step and in scrunchy harmony. The orchestra drop from 16 notes in a bar down to two, while the choir starts building up the piece, one part at a time, starting with the basses. After a gathering chord, the main phrase is repeated twice more at full complexity, ending on a minor chord.

5. Aria- Quia Fecit Mihi Magna (bass)

Quia fecit mihi magna               For he who is mighty
qui potens est, has done great things for me,
et sanctum nomen eius. and holy is his name.
This movement is much more sedate than anything that precedes it. The bass soloist is accompanied by pipe organ and low strings. Both the accompaniment and the singer's line is based on short phrases that begin with three repeated notes. The feeling is measured and controlled.

6. Duet- Et Misericordia (alto and tenor)

Et misericordia eius a progenies    And His mercy endures from generation to
in progenies timentibus eum. generation among those who fear Him.

This movement is the most openly mournful. The 12/8 time signature lends the continuo part a sobbing rhythm. The orchestration is led by the violins and flutes. The singers are mostly in thirds, and only occasionally offset from each other in time. The final phrase sung by the tenor has two groups of three repeated notes, which sound like someone crying. I'm not sure why such a despairing setting is used with words that should presumably be a cause for joy.

7. Chorus- Fecit Potentiam

Fecit potentiam in brachio suo,     He has shown strength with his arm,
dispersit superbos scattering those who are proud
mente cordis sui. of the imagination of their hearts.

This is a fiendishly difficult movement for the choir- each part is given a chance to shine with a long run of semiquavers on "in brachio suo dispersit". The other phrases are fanfare-like statements of "fecit potentiam". The trumpets and timpani are prominent. After everyone has a had a few goes at each type of phrase, each takes a turn at singing an overlapping "dispersit" (a scattered setting, appropriately enough) before a dramatic, staccato harmony on "superbos". The final three words are extra-ordinary. The movement changes gear completely, both slowing in tempo, and using longer notes. The counterpoint of the previous lines gives way to a remarkable harmonic conclusion, which trilling trumpets and great thumps of timpani.

8. Aria- Deposuit Potentes (tenor)

Deposuit potentes de sede           He has pulled the mighty down from 
their seats
et exaltavit humiles. and exalted the humble.

This movement is the most dramatic of the work. It starts with a great "taa-daa!" from the strings, and the dashing jangling of the harpsichord. These two instruments dominate the orchestration of the movement. After 15 brash scene-setting 3/4 bars, the tenor soloist begins, taking up the melodic and rhythmic devices established by the strings. He begins each phrase with a stabbing dotted rhythm, and most continue with fearsome semiquaver runs. The final line merits a 3-bar sustained note, before a final rapid phrase from the soloist. The violin and harpsichord continue for a few bars before their final cadence.

9. Aria- Esurientes Implevit Bones (alto)

Esurientes implevit bones           He has filled the hungry with good things
et divites dimisit inanes. and has sent the rich away empty.

This movement begins with a frolicsome flute duet, backed by a plucked string and organ continuo. The soloist part is flowing line, centered on a 57-note run on "implevit". The feeling is somewhat pastoral, and dwells on the "good things". The rich being sent away hungry warrants nothing more that a slight pause and a few unaccompanied syllables, before the happy spirit returns.

10. Chorus- Suscipet Israel (sopranos and altos)

Suscipet Israel puerum suum         He has helped Israel his servant
recordatus miserecordiae suae. in remembrance of his mercy.

This movement uses the traditional ninth psalm tone, the "tonus peregrinus" as an accompaniment by two oboes in unions. It is another mournful setting, the three high voices entwining, then breaking apart again to state "recordatus" in turn, before a series of repetitions of "miserecordiae suae" finishes the movement.

11. Chorus- Sicut Locutus Est

Sicut locutus est ad                As he spoke to
Patres nostros: our Fathers:
Abraham et semini eius to Abraham and his descendants
in saecula. forever.

Here at last is the fugue. This form fits the content- another statement about heredity and the passage of time. Unlike in the 4th movement, the march of history starts much earlier than Mary's time. The accompaniment is a simple, yet grand organ continuo.

The bases start, and their melody is taken up in turn by the tenors, altos, second sopranos and then first sopranos. This is a calm and orderly fugue at a moderate pace. It is stately and regal and concludes with the gentlest rallentando.

12. Chorus- Gloria Patri

Gloria Patri, Filio                 Glory be to the Father, the Son,
et Spiritu Sancto! and the Holy Spirit!
Sicut erat in principio, As it was in the beginning,
et nunc et semper; is now and ever shall be;
et in saecula saeculorum. world without end.
Amen. Amen.

The concluding movement is introduced by a loud clear "Gloria" in simple harmony from the full choir and orchestra. It then builds another complex "Gloria Patri" up from the five voice parts in turn, each with a triplet rhythm and a rising melody. This pattern is repeated for the other two persons of the Holy Trinity.

The remainder of the movement has the same tune and arrangement as the first movement. Highly suitable since the words describe the unchanging nature of God's creation which Bach's audiences believed in.

  • the Sony Classical recording at the Gedächtniskirche, Stuttgart, 1979 and its liner notes by Rüdiger Thomsen-Fürst
  • The 1956 Bärenreiter edition of the Vocal Score.
  • Programme notes from the San Francisco Bach Choir

Copyright (c) 2002 KENNETH KILFEDDER

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