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in D (E-flat) major, BWV 243(a)
Issue 67

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This article was last updated on
11 December, 2005

an Inktroduction by Chia Han-Leon


Detail from 'The Madonna of the Magnificat' (c.1480-85) by Sandro BotticelliSAY "MAGNIFICAT" and most will immediately think of the setting by Johann Sebastian Bach.

"Magnificat anima mea Dominum" - "'My soul doth magnify the Lord': The Virgin's answer to her cousin Elizabeth, who hails her as the mother of God, blessed among women." In retrospect, the brilliance of Bach's setting seems overblown, too ornate, and yet none can doubt the power of the music, nor the simple words. This opening chorus - the "Magnificat" of the Magnificat - is surely one of the most magnificent (as the name suggests), most spectacular of all Baroque choruses. Resplendent with 3 trumpets, timpani, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, strings and continuo, this 5-part chorus is a tour de force for all its participants. As they say, Baroque composers often seem oblivious to fact that their choirs and wind-players needed to breathe!

Detail from "The Madonna of the Magnificat" (c.1480-85)
by Sandro Botticelli.

One of the few works in which Bach used Latin text (another being the great Mass in B minor), the Magnificat was composed to be first performed at Vespers on Christmas Day 1723, at the Church of St Nicholas, Lepizig - 275 years ago. This first version is in the key of E-flat, the heroic key of Beethoven's "Eroica" and "Emperor". A fine recording of this original is available on Decca/L'Oiseau Lyre (see below). The more familiar D major version appeared around 1728-30.

J.S. Bach - 1746 portrait by E.G.Haussmann

Right: J.S. Bach - 1746 portrait
by E.G.Haussmann

Bach's great art is showcased in the structure of the work. Abandoning the Baroque staple of recitatives and da capo arias, he created twelve sections of paired texts, with the joyous choral fugue of No.VII "Fecit potentiam" at the centre. In addition, the final chorus repeats material from the beginning, echoing the music as it does with the words "As it was in the beginning" (Sicut erat in principio). The cyclical architecture of the work complements the concise writing, making the ½-hour work one of the most easily digestible and accessible of Bach's cantatas.

THIS VIBRANT sequence includes arias like the light and airy cheer of "Et exultavit", the wistfully sad "Quia respexit", both for sopranos. The latter is interrupted by the monumental chorus of "Omnes generationes", pouring forth a torrent of blessings of the generations. In fact it is not an interruption, but the combined chorus magnifiying the Virgin's blessing. No.VI is a duet for alto and tenor, featuring Bach's melancholic side, which is often his most powerful and moving.

Another gem in the sequence is "Esurientes" for alto. Introduced by a pair of lilting flutes, the singer (female alto or male countertenor) sings of the hungry being filled with good things while the rich is sent away empty. Bach wrote much beautiful music for the unique combination of countertenor and soprano, including the misty and meditative setting of "Suscepit Isrel" here.

The sequence of arias and choruses call to mind the balance Handel achieved in Messiah. If you have never liked choral works which fill up an entire CD (or two! Three!), the Magnificat's nicely paced series of short and precise movements is just the thing. Like the skipping momentum of "Fecit potentiam", or the anticipation of jubilation in the pentultimate chorus "Sicut locutus est", which leads into the final Gloria and Amen, the Magnificat combines the melody, grandeur and accessiblity of Messiah with the profound majesty of High Baroque art. Every pound of kettledrum, every blazing trumpet run, every flutter of flute, song of oboe, shimmer of string, every invocation of human voice in the Magnificat sings not only of the Virgin's celebration, but of the magnificence of J.S. Bach.

The Magnificat Text
1. Chorus
Magnificat anima mea Dominum.
My soul doth magnify the Lord
2. Aria (soprano 2)
Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour
3. Aria (soprano 1)
Quia repexit humilitatem ancillae suae; ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent.
For He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth [all generations] shall call me blessed.
4. Chorus
Omnes generationes.
All generations.
5. Aria (bass)
Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est, et sanctum nomen eius.
For He that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is His Name.
6. Aria (Duet - alto, tenor)
Et misericordia a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.
And His mercy is on them that fear Him from generation unto generation.
7. Chorus
Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
He hath shewed strength with His arm; He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
8. Aria (tenor)
Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
9. Aria (alto)
Esurientes implevit bonis et divities dimisit inanes.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He hath sent empty away.
10. Aria (trio - sopranos 1 & 2, alto)
Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus misericordiae suae.
He hath holpen His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy.
11. Chorus
Sicut locutus est ad Patres nostros, Abraham et semini eius in saecula..
As He spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
12. Chorus
Gloria Patri, gloria Filio, gloria et Spiritui Sancto! Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper et in saeculat saeculorum. Amen.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

CHIA HAN-LEON is looking for his magnifying glass.

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