Thursday, December 21, 2006

Musical Exegeses of the Birth Narratives

In this season of Advent 3, I find myself reflecting on musical settings of biblical passages within the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew.

Here is Bach's interpretation of the 1723 Magnificat in D Major (you'll need RealPlayer to listen):-

1. “Magnificat anima mea” (Luke 1:46)

2. “Et exultavit” (Luke 1:47)

3. “Fecit potentiam” (Luke 1:51)

4. “Deposuit potentes” (Luke 1:52)

Compare these excerpts with Arvo Part's Magnificat.

I'm no music critic but one can hear Bach's attention to individual words. Listen to the descending notes of the "Deposuit" to articulate the "casting down" of the mighty from their thrones. Commenting on the "Esurientes" of Bach’s Magnificat, for example—the passage proclaiming that the poor have been filled with good things and the rich sent away empty, Edward Tatnall Canby says the music "is both wistful and sly, as if in satisfaction at the justice of it all; note the curiously missing final note to the flutes’ ornamental melody, perhaps ‘taken away’ as from the rich!"

Part concentrates instead on syllables of words. Listen to the word "misericordia" in which each of the syllables is articulated but not all are given different notes. Individual words may not differ from other words. Paul Hillier says that Part's Magnificat is "one of the happiest meetings of tintinnabuli technique and words of a non-penitential character," conveying "the uplifted, tender joy of the Virgin Mother"; a "little masterpiece" that shows tintinnabulation "at its most supple and refined."

Hillier quotes Part:

Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises—and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Arvo Pärt is one of our faves and his Magnificat is simply equisite -- Lee and Anne (yes, from Vermont)

Merry Christmas to you both.