Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bach and a Remembrance of Miracles

Bach felt comfortable with miracles.

For the Christmas season of 1723, Bach wrote a new cantata for each one of the three days that Christmas was celebrated in Leipzig at that time. This creativity also brought with it the Magnificat, composed for the Vespers service on December 25.

The text itself is remembrance of miracles; a soul that magnified, a spirit that rejoiced. A standard compositional genre during Bach's lifetime, the Magnificat text consisted of a musical setting of the Canticle of the Blessed Virgin (from the Latin Vulgate translation of St. Luke i, Verses 46-55).

Bach magnified also; composing an individual movement for each line of the text. Sometimes lines are expressed by using collisions between musical styles, as for example, the explosive and shocking choral conclusion to the third sentence ending in “omnes generationes,” where the instantaneously kaleidoscopic sound paints the immensity of transience.

Four tropes were added to the original text, each set in hymn style (Vom Himmel hoch, Freut euch und jubilieret, Gloria in excelsis, and Virga Jesse floruit). Spitta conjectures that these tropes were symbolic images of rocking the child, Albert Schweitzer as viewed them as “music accompanying the representation of the scene in the manger at Bethlehem.”

The often intimate and delicate solos, duets and trios provide a sense of human measure: our connection to individuals in compassion, gentleness, strength and dance-like joy. Listen to Christine Schäfer singing the Quia respexit conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Her performance is consolation, compassion and warmth in sound.

Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae; (he has considered my humble state;)
ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent (for look--now [they] will say that I am blessed)

These delicate solo sections are built between choral movements like structural pillars that mark using complex, elaborate and joyous figuration. The two concluding choral sections contrast an older musical style where instruments double the voice with a newer style in the concluding Gloria, where instruments play independent parts. In fact, after the tripartite invocations to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Gloria returns to the music of the opening movement to set the text, “as it was in the beginning.”

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