J.S. Bach—Magnificat BWV 243 & Ein feste Burg BWV 80 — Mar 2007

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Program Notes

J.S. BACH: Magnificat and Ein feste Burg

In the summer of 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach started what was to be his 27-year tenure as Kapellmeister for the main churches of Leipzig. Following his arrival at his new post after the main religious festivities around Easter, the next important occasion was the Christmas season. For that occasion he composed his first large-scale Leipzig work-the Magnificat in E-flat major, BWV 243a, which was performed on Christmas Day.

In Leipzig, the Magnificat (the Virgin Mary's Canticle sung during Vespers) was customarily sung in German, except on high feasts when it was sung in Latin and set to polyphony. When chanted, the canticle was often sung on the ninth psalm tone, the tonus peregrinus, which Bach incorporates in his Magnificat-in the "Suscepit Israel" movement, played by two oboes in unison. Since medieval times, the Magnificat was sung with interpolations of so-called Laudes (hymns for the Christmas season). Finding this local practice of "troping" (interpolating text or music or both), Bach adopted it for his Magnificat. He included four hymns to be sung at regular intervals between the traditional movements: "Vom Himmel hoch" between movements 2 and 3, "Freut euch und jubiliert" between 5 and 6, "Gloria in excelsis Deo" between 7 and 8, and "Virga Jesse floruit" between 9 and 10. These tropes are found at the end of the manuscript, with an indication of where to perform them within the Magnificat. From extant documents it appears that in St. Thomas there was a second choir, placed in a loft opposite the main choir, which was in charge of these four interpolated pieces, so as to create a stereophonic effect.

Ten years later, in 1733, Bach revised the Magnificat, most significantly transposing it to D major (a more traditional and easy key for trumpets), removing the additional movements, and adding transverse flutes (to replace the recorders) and oboes d'amore to the already rich orchestration. By removing the Christmas pieces, Bach made his Magnificat a piece suited for any time of the year, not liturgically specific. This is the version we are presenting today.

The Magnificat, like many other pieces by the great Thomaskantor, reveals his constant preoccupation with architectural symmetry. Only three of the 12 movements (Nos. 1, 7, and 12, i.e. the first, central, and last ones) call for the complete group-a five-part chorus and the mighty (for Bach) orchestra. Another two choruses call for the five choral parts and fewer instruments (No. 4) or only basso continuo (No. 11). Of the other movements five are arias, one each for the five soloists (No. 2 for the second soprano, No. 3 for the first, No. 5 for the bass, No. 8 for the tenor, and No. 9 for the alto). The remaining two numbers display a combination of timbres: a duet for alto and tenor (No. 6) and a delightful terzet for the upper three parts (No. 10).

Bach's attention to and respect for the text manifests itself repeatedly. The first conspicuous confirmation is the absence of operatic da capo arias-none of the arias has this form, which was too closely associated with the secular genre of opera. Other subtle and not-so-subtle instances include the return in the final movement, at the words "sicut erat in principio" (as it was in the beginning), of the movement that began the piece, thus matching the text quite literally. Another noteworthy instance is in the fourth movement, at "omnes generations" (all generations). Here the concept of "all" is conveyed by having all parts sing the four-note motive ("omnes, omnes [generationes]") on each other's heels, each on the next pitch of the scale, covering first one octave, from F-sharp to the next F-sharp, and then one and a half octaves. All things considered, this youthful work of the great composer is an unusually rich and expressive one, and one that will, in its D major incarnation, give Bach the inspiration and provide the model for his Missa (the Kyrie-Gloria pair that will form the initial portion of what has become known as the B Minor Mass).

Of the 12 movements, the first, scored for five-part chorus and full orchestra, consisting of three trumpets, timpani, two flutes, two oboes, and strings, is the grandest. Nos. 4, 7, and 12 include a similar texture (except that No. 4, "Omnes generations," includes no trumpets and timpani). These are all modern concertato movements, and they are all tumultuously polyphonic and rousing. The remaining choral movement-No. 11 "Sicut locutus est"-represents a significant contrast. This movement features the chorus and a basso seguente (a type of basso continuo that is not an independent line, but one that simply doubles, or "follows," the lowest note of all parts at any given moment). This archaic texture fits the then antiquated style of the movement-a Renaissance-like imitative motet, à la Josquin. The old style is chosen by Bach because of the text, which refers to what was long ago said to our forefathers.

Of the solo movements, No. 2 is an aria for soprano II and strings in a very festive mood, followed by a more meditative one for soprano I and oboe d'amore. The latter's plaintive tone lends a melancholic and meditative feel to the aria about humility, which is contrasted by the grandeur of No. 4 "Omnes generationes." No. 5 is a charming continuo aria for the bass, followed by a duet for the only two voices remaining: the solo alto and tenor. This duet ("Et misericordia") features the flutes and strings in a trio, interjecting and sometimes accompanying the voices. The lilting 12/8 rhythm of the duet (with its sobs in the bass) makes anybody sway left and right. No. 7, "Fecit potentiam," is one of the grandiose ones mentioned above. Notice how the continuo part keeps the momentum going by repeating ceaselessly the same rhythm (three sixteenths on the same pitch and two eights in an octave leap-a visual representation of God's arm). No. 8 is an assertive and strong aria for the tenor, accompanied by all violins in unison. The image of the mighty brought down from their seats and of the poor being exalted could not have been conveyed more effectively. The atmosphere changes dramatically with the next movement, "Esurientes," for alto and two transverse flutes. This movements exudes tranquility, the peace that comes from knowing that "the hungry have been filled with good things". The serene and otherworldly No. 10, "Suscepit Israel," for soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, oboes in unison and basso continuo, perfectly communicates Israel's memory of God's mercy. The instruments collaborate in the imagery: the basso continuo is a "walking bass," marking the eternal time of God. Meanwhile the oboe plays a very slow version of the tonus peregrinus, the ninth psalm tone, called peregrinus (wandering) because of its irregular shape. Bach probably chose this melody for "Suscepit Israel," "He helped Israel," because one of the few texts traditionally associated with it was "In exitu Israel de Aegypto," "When Israel left Egypt." The last pair of movements is the juxtaposition of the archaic "Sicut locutus est" and the festive and modern "Gloria Patri" (the lesser doxology), which includes the quotation mentioned above.

J.S. Bach's duties in Leipzig included the tasks of composing a new cantata weekly, having the parts copied, rehearsing it with solos, choir, and orchestra, and performing it. Bach's obituary lists five complete cycles of church cantatas among his compositions-each cycle including the 59 pieces needed for all Sundays and holidays in an ecclesiastic year. Unfortunately, half of those manuscript scores went to his oldest son, the composer Wilhelm Friedman, who auctioned them off, and they are lost. The other half went to his second son, Philipp Emmanuel, also a composer, who faithfully preserved them. We thus have almost 200 such church cantatas, from Philipp Emmanuel's inheritance and from that of the widow, Anna Magdalena, who kept the parts for the performers (as distinct from the scores) and later offered them to the city of Leipzig, where they still are kept.

The cantata was the most important form of vocal music of the Baroque period outside of opera and oratorio, and by far the most ubiquitous. The earliest Italian example of the genre were secular pieces for single voice, which gradually settled into an alternation of recitatives and arias, most often a pair of each. Up to the late 17th century, the cantata was predominantly a secular form, but the church cantata which included choral movements ranging from simple chorale harmonizations to complex, extended structures was a major feature of Lutheran music in early 18th-century Germany. The standard form of accompaniment gradually expanded from basso continuo alone in the mid-17th century to an orchestra including obbligato instruments in the 18th century. The German cantata stands apart from that of other countries, above all because it was cultivated primarily as a sacred genre and because its origins and development were largely independent of Italian models.

Cantata 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A mighty fortress is our God), for the Festival of the Reformation (31 October), is a revision of a Lenten cantata written in Weimar in 1715 for which the music is almost all lost (BWV 80a Alles, was von Gott geboren). The date of the later Cantata 80 is still doubtful. We only know that it originated in Leipzig and that it was performed in 1740. Cantata 80 is a chorale cantata, i.e. a cantata that incorporates in some of its movements the chorale tune "Ein feste Burg" by Martin Luther, which the congregation knew well. The text of the cantata, besides the four verses of Luther's chorale, was written by Salomo Franck (who paraphrased I John 5:4 for movement 2).

The Reformation Cantata has always claimed a special place in Bach's cantata oeuvre. This is partly because it was printed in score by Breitkopf and Härtel (Leipzig, 1821) before any other of his cantatas and even before the Passion settings and the B Minor Mass. Throughout the 19th century the repertoire of Bach cantatas continued to be so relatively small that Ein feste Burg acquired not only the character of prototype of his church cantata but also that of paragon of Protestant chorale composition. What doubtless contributed to this situation was the fact that the hymn which served as its basis had become the musical emblem of Lutheranism (it was, for example, included by Mendelssohn in his Fifth Symphony of 1830, the "Reformation" Symphony). Volume 28 of the complete Bach edition (Bach-Gesellschaft) of 1870 enlarged the original orchestration to include trumpets and timpani, after the revision by Bach's son Wilhelm Friedman. Unfortunately this also marked the beginning of embarrassing tendencies in its reception. The victory fanfares of the opening chorus and of the unison presentation of Martin Luther's "Revolutionary Hymn," (the fifth movement) were appropriated by the rise of hybrid national sentiments in the wake of the German-French War of 1870-71. Eventually the opening of Bach's Cantata 80 was degraded to serve as the musical signature of the special military news broadcasts on German radio during World War II. The cantata is still normally performed in the version of the Bach-Gesellschaft, even though Bach research has long recognized that the addition of trumpets and drums derives from W.F. Bach and post-dates J.S. Bach's death. It will be performed today in the original version without trumpets, which allows the delicate canon between the oboe and the bass strings on the cantus firmus in the first movement to be heard as intended.

The opening chorus-an immense chorale motet of 228 measures-is one of Bach's most elaborate choral compositions and one of the high points in the history of the chorale cantata. It is in D, the same majestic key as the Magnificat. It is written in a seven-part texture made up of three components: a two-part canonic framework in the outer voices (oboe and bass-violone and organ bass line); a four-part imitative setting of individual chorale phrases in motet style; and a continuo part providing continuity for the entire setting. The setting of the chorale tune in the uppermost as well as the lowest parts conveys the image of God's world-embracing power. Bach's choral language is not concerned here with technical virtuosity but with an expression of the incontestable might of the word of God-a central concept of the Reformation. All three choral movements include the chorale tune. The central movement (No. 5) is really an orchestral number including the unadorned chorale sung in unison by the whole choir. The concluding movement is the traditional four-part harmonization of the chorale tune, with instruments doubling the voices.

In between the choral movements Bach created a variety of textures and sonorities to delight the ear. No. 2 is a lovely duet for soprano and bass, with the violins and violas in unison weaving an intricate pattern against the basso continuo. The oboe either follows or embellishes the soprano line, which is in turn an elaborate version of the chorale tune. The text is the second verse of the chorale. No. 2 is in the relative minor of the piece (B minor). The bass part is a virtuoso one, and the instrumental parts, together with the bass, effectively depict the tumult of a battle. This is followed by a secco recitative for the bass, which goes occasionally into arioso passages. The next aria (No. 4), in da capo form, is for the soprano solo and it features the accompaniment of basso continuo alone, but with a lilting and elaborate line. The rhythm of 12/8, usually associated with sicilianas or gigues, lends the aria a serene and spiritual feeling. Following the central chorale movement is a short recitative/arioso for the tenor, followed by a spectacular duet for alto and tenor, accompanied by violin and oboe da caccia. The instruments engage in a duet and then the voices do, with the instruments in turn echoing them or chasing each other. The instrumental section that opened the movement closes it as well.

Cantata 131, Aus der Tiefen, from which we are singing the chorus "Ich harre des Herrn," is one of Bach's earliest cantatas, possibly the earliest, composed in Mühlhausen somewhere between 1707 and 1708. It was probably composed for the memorial service for the victims of a raging fine that in 1707 destroyed about a quarter of the city and killed several people. The text is that of Psalm 130 plus the second and fifth verses from the chorale "Herr Jesu Christ" by Bartholomäus Ringwaldt of 1588 (itself based on Psalm 51). It is a cantata for a penitential service. In it Bach explores the dramatic juxtaposition, so beloved by Baroque artists, between human misery (explored in Psalm 130) and the redemption and salvation through Christ (in the chorale).

On the program is also an instrumental suite by the French composer Jean-Joseph Mouret (1682–1738). This contemporary of Bach was well known for his extraordinary voice, which allowed him access to the best households in Paris and helped him become (later in his life) a singer of the king's personal group. He was the director of music for the Duke of Maine, who was a son of King Louis XIV and the Marquise de Montespan. Later he became the director of the orchestra of the Opéra, while at the same time composing operas and incidental music for the Comédie Française. In 1717 he was appointed composer-director of the Comédie Italienne (New Italian Theater). At the end of his life, however, he suddenly lost all his positions and found himself quite in dire straits. Though he is mostly known for his vocal works, his instrumental works are exceptionally interesting, especially because of their exploration of timbres. For example, the first suite is scored for a trumpet in D, two violins, oboes, bassoon, double bass and timpani. This group is unusual in the combination of treble and bass instruments, without instruments in the center range (such as violas, for example, or even cello).

The two major works on today's program, the Magnificat in D and Ein feste Burg, are among the most majestic of the great Leipzig Master's. They offer a staggering variety of textures and affects-from the most tender to the most martial, and everything in between-as well as a great many examples of different text interpretation, and of varied sonorities. In particular, the palette of the Magnificat is astonishing, and shows Bach's mastery of the older, mostly obsolete, Renaissance motet style, as well as his command of the newest concertato medium.

—© Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D., 2007.

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