Magnificat in D, BWV 243 - Johann Sebastian Bach

Despite his tremendous output of instrumental and keyboard music, it is as a composer of sacred choral music that many believe the true legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) is to be found. That Bach was a highly devout and deeply spiritual composer, totally committed to the dogma and doctrine of the Lutheran church, which he served faithfully throughout his life as both musician and employee, is revealed in the skill and care which he takes when setting Christian texts. During the periods of his life spent as court organist and Konzertmeister at Weimar and as Kantor and Kappelmeister at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, a significant part of Bach’s duty was to produce sacred cantatas to enhance worship throughout the changing seasons of the Christian year. During these periods he wrote literally hundreds of these, of which about three fifths survive. Add to this the two almighty settings of the passion story from the gospels of John and Matthew, lost and incomplete settings of the same from the gospels of Mark and Luke respectively, the three immense oratorios written for Christmas, Easter and Ascensiontide, the numerous motets, chorale settings, chorale preludes, mass movements, sacred arias, and the epic Mass in B Minor, it is, perhaps, surprising that Bach made only one setting of the Magnificat – particularly since the Magnificat was a central part of the Lutheran Vespers on Sundays and feast days.

Like Praetorius’s Quinto Tono, Bach's Magnificat in D was written to celebrate Christmas, a year and a century later, in the year of 1723 – Bach’s first Christmas at Leipzig. The original version was written in E major and, as was customary with public worship in Leipzig at the time, was interpolated with four other compositions (three popular Christmas carols and a Gloria in Excelsis Deo). It was performed in the Thomaskirche on Christmas Day 1723. Between 1728 and 1731, Bach revisited this Magnificat, transposed it down a semitone to D major (a more usual key for Baroque trumpets), withdrew the interpolations, and made significant other detailed alterations. An autograph copy of this new edition, in Bach’s own hand, exists in the Prussian State Library in Berlin. This is the version which is being performed this evening. Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes (doubling oboe d’amore), 3 trumpets in D, strings, timpani, continuo, and SSATB with soloists, the work alternates between exciting and vibrant tutti choruses (mostly fugal), and tender, reflective movements for soloists and much reduced orchestral forces.

Earlier Baroque examples of the Magnificat, notably those by Buxtehude and Schütz, had begun to treat the various verses of the text as separate movements, as opposed to the earlier and more through-composed examples by composers such as Palestrina, Gabrieli and Monteverdi. Bach’s certainly treats each verse of the text as a different movement, and each has its own distinct material, except that the second half of the final chorus returns us to the same material as the opening movement, so  bringing the work to a unifying and satisfying close. Individually, both the choral and the solo movements are short by Bach’s standard, certainly when compared with some of the considerably more lengthy solo movements, da capo arias and extended fugal movements in the cantatas and oratorios. The text is set highly effectively but with a concise brevity.

The work opens with a flamboyant and joyous chorus. The words are set to a musical motif which is reminiscent of laughter – the unconfined joy of a newly expectant mother perhaps? This is followed by two arias for soprano. The first, an upbeat one accompanied by strings, and the second, a more reflective and plaintive movement, accompanied by oboe d’amore. In this latter aria a minor key is used to give greater context to the meaning of the words. Bach draws our attention to the word humilitatem (the low estate), at each reoccurrence, by setting it to a motif which descends down a scale which includes the poignant interval of the falling augmented second. Through the second half of this movement, however, Bach sets the exclamation Ecce enim (for behold, from henceforth) to a much more optimistic rising phrase. This leads without a break into the vigorous fugal chorus Omnes Generationes. In two extended sequences in the middle of this movement, the fugal entries are skilfully arranged in a stepwise, ascending pattern, with each vocal part swiftly imitating the last, one degree of the scale higher and at an equal half-bar’s distance, providing a brilliant musical representation of the successive generations represented by the vocal parts rising gradually in pitch and superseding each other at a regular 2 beats’ distance, with the fugal subject.

The bass aria which follows this, Quia fecit mihi magna, is built over a ground, or repeating, bass pattern, although Bach is not consistent in his treatment of this motif as the movement progresses. The duet for alto and tenor which follows, Et Misericordia, has an immediate similarity with the opening chorus of the St Matthew Passion (1727), being in compound quadruple time and in E minor, and the two accompanying flutes have inversions of the vocal parts through much of this movement. Fecit Potentiam, another, large fugal chorus, follows, and here the fugue subject is accompanied by a fanfare figure in the other vocal parts and instruments at each repetition. Just before the movement closes, with a majestic, adagio, tutti passage with coloratura trumpet, the word dispersit is literally ‘scattered’ though the vocal parts, one at a time, from soprano to bass. A bold and defiant tenor aria, Deposuit, follows this and again Bach draws our attention to the words by providing a falling motif for the words Deposuit potentes and, contrastingly, a rising melismatic one for the words et exultavit.   Movement nine, Esurientes, is an alto aria, again accompanied by two flutes. The irony of the words et divites dimisit in anes (the rich He hath sent empty away) is played out in the final bar of the movement in which the two flutes are abandoned by Bach, midway through a perfect cadence, leaving the harmony incomplete and only a single note low down in the continuo to provide the resolution to the phrase.

The highly contrapuntal Suscepit Israel is accompanied by the oboes, which play, in augmented note values, high above the three upper voices, the ancient plainsong melody of the Magnificat as used in the Lutheran church. (Incidentally, this melody was also used by Mozart in the Lux Aeterna section of his Requiem Mass.)

Music example

Sicut locutus est is a fugue for voices and continuo only, in which the voices enter with the fugue subject in ascending pitch order, starting with the basses. The Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto, in which Bach gives a musical nod in the direction of the Holy Trinity by setting the voices of the chorus to a rhythm based on a repeated triplet rhythm, leads us into a recapitulation of the opening movement for the Sicut Erat  (literally, “As it was in the beginning”).


Notes by Peter Parfitt ©2010 Aberdeen Bach Choir