Magnificat in D Major BWV 243 – Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Magnificat anima mea Dominum
Et exsultavit
Quia respexit
Omnes generationes
Quia fecit mihi magna
Et misericordia
Fecit potentiam
Deposuit potentes
Esurientes implevit bonis
Suscepit Israel
Sicut locutus est
Gloria Patri
Aria (Soprano II)
Aria (Soprano I)
Aria (Bass)
Duet (Alto & Tenor)
Aria (Tenor)
Aria (Alto)
Trio (SI, SII & Alto)

In 1723, JS Bach was appointed as cantor of the church of St. Thomas, Leipzig, a position similar to the modern day director of music. It was a hugely demanding post, involving teaching at the church school, playing the organ, rehearsing the choir and composing the music for the city’s two principal Lutheran churches as well as supervising and training the musicians at three others. Despite this enormous workload and recurrent disputes with the city authorities, Bach composed some of his greatest and most enduring music during this period. His choral compositions alone include such towering masterpieces as the St John and St Matthew Passions, the Magnificat and the Mass in B minor, as well as the Christmas Oratorio and some 250 church cantatas.

The original version of the Magnificat was written for Vespers on Christmas day, was in the key of E flat and included three chorales plus a duet for soprano and bass – ‘Virga Jesse floruit’ – all particularly appropriate for the Christmas season. In about 1730 he revised the work, changing the key to D major and removing the four Christmas items, thus making it suitable for use at any festival. The liturgy for the Lutheran service was usually in German, but for special occasions, and in important churches, Latin was sometimes still used as is the case here in the Magnificat.

Bach was working with certain time constraints to provide music to fit into the Vespers service and so the numbers in his setting of the Magnificat are concise and not musically expansive, particularly in comparison to some of the other choral works written during the same period. The text, of course, comes from St. Luke's Gospel but Bach often treats each line, and often individual words, as separate entities. His interpretation rarely makes it apparent that these were the words of the Virgin Mary.

The work is conceived on a grand scale, requiring five soloists, a five-part choir and, for its time, an unusually large orchestra consisting of three trumpets, two flutes, two oboes, strings and continuo. In its grandeur and joy the piece anticipates the great choruses of the later Mass in B minor.

It begins with an extended orchestral introduction in which the trumpets and timpani feature prominently. This introduction leads directly into an equally jubilant chorus, ‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum’ (My soul doth magnify the Lord). The resulting succession of movements seems less crafted to inspire meditation than to entertain the listener. Adding to the sense of delight is Bach’s rampant use of word-painting, which underscores the text with descriptive musical equivalents. A listener readily grasps the rising notes of ‘Et exultavit’ (to depict rejoicing) and the descending theme of ‘Deposuit’ (‘He has put down’). In the chorus ‘Fecit potentiam,’ we hear the choral texture fragment at the word ‘dispersit’ (‘he has scattered’).

The twelve separate movements of the Magnificat work together to create a complete work, with each movement flowing, at times, seamlessly to the next, drawing only on the text from the canticle itself. Therefore, unlike an oratorio or passion, there are no additional texts incorporated, meaning there is no need for the inclusion of any recitatives. The lack of recitative has structural implications and in turn allows for a more extended exploration of the movements that have been included, the chorus supplying appropriate emphasis to sections such as ‘Fecit potentiam in brachio suo’ (‘He hath showed strength with his arm’), while the more reflective texts are assigned to the soloists. In the concluding chorus, Bach indulges in a touch of cleverness that was already growing traditional by that time: at the words ‘Sicut erat in principio’ (‘As it was in the beginning’), he revisits the music from the work’s beginning, a twist that not only underscores the momentary meaning of the words but also rounds everything off with a winning sense of balance.