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Length: c. 32 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 oboes d'amore, 3 trumpets, timpani, strings, continuo, mixed chorus, and soloists
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 19, 1975, Raymond Leppard conducting, with the Roger Wagner Chorale and soloists Ellen Shade, Susan Todhunter, Bonnie Hurwood, Jonathan Mack, and Richard Stilwell
Bach composed his setting of the Magnificat for the evening of his first Christmas Day as Leipzig cantor in 1723. The text, from the first chapter of Luke's gospel, is Mary's reaction to an angel's telling her that she will bear a son who "will be called the Son of the Most High." It became part of Vespers, the Catholic evening service, and was retained for the Lutheran evening service, where it was sung in Latin rather than German on major feast days.
Bach produced two versions of his Magnificat, and the one on this concert isn't exactly either of them. The first was in E-flat (an unusual key for festive music with trumpets and timpani) and contained, in addition to Luke's text, four movements specific to Christmas, based on texts extraneous to the Magnificat. Such Christmas interpolations had a long tradition behind them, though they had been officially banned in Leipzig in 1702.
Ten years later, Bach revised the Magnificat, probably to submit it to the Dresden royal court at the same time, and for the same reasons, that he submitted the 1733 Missa. He transposed it down a half tone to D, perhaps to make it easier to play and sound more brilliant, and perhaps because he had originally written it in E-flat only because of pitch considerations peculiar to Leipzig. Pitch levels in the 1700s were literally all over the map; one town's D might be the same actual pitch as another town's E-flat. In Leipzig itself the "church pitch" at which organs were tuned was a whole tone higher than "chamber pitch" at which most woodwinds were tuned; many of Bach's cantatas have parts in two different keys for this reason.
The E-flat Magnificat used a pair of recorders (the default flute choice in flat keys) in one movement; when Bach transposed the Magnificat he replaced them with transverse flutes (the default flute in sharp keys like D major) and then added the flutes to most of the other movements, making the whole work brighter sounding. Most importantly, he eliminated the Christmas interpolations, which made the Magnificat entirely Latin, and liturgically proper for Catholic Vespers.
The D-major Magnificat became the established version, but the E-flat version makes an occasional appearance, as does the more modern hybrid version heard in this concert: in D, but with the four Christmas interpolations included.
Christmas being a particularly joyous time, this Magnificat opens with a brilliant festive chorus and a confident soprano solo. The first Christmas interpolation is the chorale "Von Himmel Hoch." The chorale tune is in half notes in the soprano, with the lower voices singing variations of it in quarter or eighth notes.
The fourth movement returns to the Magnificat text. The oboe and second soprano sing plaintively of the lowliness of God's servant, but when the text comes to "blessed by all generations," all five vocal parts make a startling entrance, hurling out "omnes generationes" in dizzying close counterpoint that underscores the sheer number of generations involved. After a comparatively simple "Quia fecit" in which the bass, accompanied only by the continuo, asserts the might and holiness of God, comes another Christmas interpolation, "Freut euch."
"Et misericordiam" is a duet for tenor and alto, with the veiled sound of flutes doubling muted violins. The idea of divine mercy is set over a chromatically descending bass line which was often used to symbolize grief.
In "Fecit potentiam" Bach illustrates divine strength with a memorable six-note figure of Beethovenian force, suggestive of fanfares, and indeed the trumpets and drums reappear for the first time since the opening movement.
After the third Christmas interpolation (a shortened "Gloria in excelsis Deo" text), "Deposuit potentes" depicts God's bringing down the mighty (with rushing downward scales), and exalting the humble (with a climactic rising figure), over an aggressive bass line and equally aggressive violins and violas in unison.
In "Esurientes," the alto and two flutes sing contentedly about how the hungry will be fed and how the rich will be sent away empty, which the flutes illustrate by dropping out and leaving the last chord empty.
The final Christmas interpolation, "Virga Jesse," is a duet for soprano and bass that would be at home in any of Bach's cantatas.
In the plaintive "Suscepit Israel," the oboe plays the traditional Magnificat chant over the two sopranos and alto. "Sicut locutus est" is a fugue that would be at home in one of Bach's motets.
The Magnificat, like the cantata Gloria in excelsis Deo, ends with the Gloria Patri. Bach was not the first or last to use the musical pun in which the words "sicut erat in principio" ("as it was in the beginning") are sung to the same music as at the beginning. But the Gloria that precedes it, magnificent and spacey at the same, makes it dramatically effective.
- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.