Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Bach's interpretation of the Magnificat

Discovering Music this week explores the musical background of J.S. Bach's Magnificat. I am particularly interested to learn more about the way the music interprets the text.

Sara Moore Pietsch is in conversation with the director of the Ancient Academy of Music, Richard Egarr. First they discuss the different versions of the Magnificat that Bach composed. First was the version in E flat and then it was transposed into the key of D major. Bach's audience would have known the text of the Magnifcat, whatever their social stations. It was sung in Latin on major church holidays. The text is divided into 12 sentences, each sentence or line carries a particular quality.

Bach wrote music as difficult and uncompromising for voices as it was for instruments. Specific words are emphasized in the music--the strings go against the voice in the second piece, "Et exultavit spiritus meus.." in which the singer starts and stops and then continues again so that the listeners reflect on the repeated text.  In this movement we hear melisma, the extension of one syllable over several notes: hear, for example, the words "exultavit" and "salutari."

The oboe d'amore was used in the second version of the Magnificat for instrumental color heightening religious contemplation in the next line.

Bach writes "humilitatem" as a falling line in the third line of the text. He also extends the text into the next line "ecce enim ex hoc beatem me dicent..." after which Bach stops. Then the chorus takes over the words "omnes generationes." There are 41 entries of the word "omnes." The name Bach adds up to 14; J.S. Bach adds up to 41 and Bach used this number to sign his name.

"Quia fecit mihi magna" is written for organ, harpsichord and double bass and cello giving a rich base for the music and the singer.

The line "misericordia" for two voices almost intertwining creates a personal intimate color. The strings underneath are reminiscent of the opening of the Matthew passion looking through the whole life of Jesus to the passion. The final phrase makes the two voices sing a vibrato, a nervous trembling on the word "fear," timentibus which echoes the word.

 "Fecit potentiam" is the beginning of part 2, movement #7, with a shout from the choir in a very energetic line. On the word "dispersit" three notes sung by each choral part fall down as if being scattered. The end of the line has some of the most beautiful music.

"Deposuit" is melismatic writing followed by the very simple musical coloring for the word "humiles" (humble).

Solo alto with 2 flutes and continuo is the setting for "he has filled the hungry with good things." The flute was the instrument of kings and queens and perhaps represents the rich. The word "implevit" is a very long melisma, indicating the extent of filling the hungry. The rich flautists aren't allowed to play their last notes but and the phrase on a dry "plop" in which the rich are sent empty away.


Magnificat: anima mea Dominum.
Et exultavit spiritus meus: in Deo salutari meo.
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae:
ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.
Quia fecit mihi magna, qui potens est:
et sanctum nomen eius.
Et misericordia eius, a progenie et progenies:
timentibus eum.
Fecit potentiam in brachio suo:
dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
Deposuit potentes de sede:
et exaltavit humiles.
Esurientes implevit bonis:
et divites dimisit inanes.
Suscepit Israel puerum suum:
recordatus misericordiae suae.
Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros:
Abraham, et semini eius in saecula.

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