Bach's Magnificat | CRB

Bach's Magnificat

On the program:

Prelude and Fugue in B-flat, BWV 890, from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier - András Schiff, piano

Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (tonus peregrinus, setting by Martin Luther) - Jacob Lawrence, treble

Fuga sopra il Magnificat, BWV 733 - Douglas Lawrence, organ (Rieger organ, The Scots' Church, Melbourne, Australia)

Magnificat in E-flat, BWV 243a (translation) - Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Ingeborg Danz, alto; Mark Padmore, tenor; Sebastien Noack, bass; Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe, conductor



Brian McCreath (BM): At the heart of this music is the word “magnify,” something you can hear from its opening notes, as trumpets climb higher and higher.


BM: But Bach’s Magnificat goes well beyond that one expression. As the text of Mary’s song continues, each line is exquisitely revealed in the music, from the meditative…


BM: … to the joyful.


BM: This astonishingly vivid depiction of an ancient text, is coming up on The Bach Hour.


BM: Hello, I’m Brian McCreath.  Welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston.  Through the course of almost half a century, J.S. Bach wrote sacred music for virtually every kind of occasion his faith called for. And among the hundreds of cantatas, the Passions, the masses, and the oratorios, Magnificat is unique. The “Song of Mary,” as it’s known, from the Gospel of Luke, is a rich statement of purpose and faith. And while it has inspired as many composers to write settings for it as virtually any other text, it inspired Bach to be more ambitious than he ever had before. And you’ll hear how that ambition turned out later in the hour, through a performance of the original version of Magnificat, written for the Christmas season.

Along the way, if you’d like to see a translation of the text of Magnificat, including the so-called “Christmas interpolations,” from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org. That’s also where you’ll find past programs available to hear on demand, as well as the 24/7 Bach Channel. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.

Before Magnificat, here is pianist Andras Schiff, with part of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. From Book 2 of that collection, this is the Prelude and Fugue in B-flat, here on The Bach Hour.


BM: The two books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier offer a limitless range of both technical difficulty and emotional expression. And this performance of the Prelude and Fugue in B-flat from Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier was performed by one of the most expressive of Bach interpreters, Andras Schiff.

Coming up, it’s a far more specific kind of expression, in the same composer’s setting of the Song of Mary, or Magnificat.

You’re listening to The Bach Hour from WCRB, online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Coming up, it’s the original Christmas setting of the Song of Mary, or Magnificat. Within that piece is one particular building block that connects Bach’s music to his predecessors. It’s called the “tonus peregrinus,” a Gregorian chant associated for centuries with the text of Magnificat. And well before Bach composed his own Magnificat, he wrote a short organ work based on that ancient tune. Here is organist Douglas Lawrence, preceded by the Martin Luther’s version of the chant itself, sung by the organist’s son, Jacob, here on the Bach Hour.


BM: Embedded within that short organ piece, written when Bach was in the early stages of his career, is the ancient tune the composer later used in a part of his Magnificat. You heard it in the lowest notes of the Fuga sopra il Magnificat, performed on the Rieger organ at the Scots’ Church in Melbourne, Australia, by Douglas Lawrence. And singing Martin Luther’s version of that ancient tune immediately before was Jacob Lawrence, the organist’s son. Since that 2010 recording, by the way, Jacob has gone on to establish a career as a tenor in Switzerland.

For the first Christmas of his new position in Leipzig in 1723, Bach’s ambition was at an all-time high. He had already dazzled his new community over the previous six months with a mind-boggling pace of cantata performances each week, only a handful of which weren’t completely new compositions. And on Christmas Day, this community heard his most elaborate sacred work to date, a setting of the Song of Mary from the Gospel of Luke, the Magnificat.

Not only was it the first time Bach wrote for a five-part choir; he also packed the piece with symbolism, like the opening, in which a simple rhythmic figure is played three times, growing - or magnifying - each time.


BM: Then there’s the humble character of a soprano solo on the words “For he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden,”


BM: Yet in the face of that humility, she knows she’ll be blessed, quote, “by all generations,” the chorus exploding into a fugue symbolising believers across eternity.


BM: And then there are the rushing downward scales in the tenor’s “He brought down the powerful from their thrones,”


BM: only to turn around and climb back up those scales for “and lifted up the lowly.”


BM: And Bach connected the music to the past, both in the ancient sense, by including the Gregorian chant you just heard, now intoned by a solo trumpet.


BM: And in his immediate surroundings, through four short pieces called “Laudes” that temporarily depart from the Song of Mary, in a tradition unique to Leipzig.

You can find a translation of all of this from Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you start at our website, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a Bach’s Magnificat, with soprano Carolyn Sampson, alto Ingeborg Danz, tenor Mark Padmore, and bass Sebastian Noack.  Philippe Herreweghe leads Collegium Vocale of Ghent, here on The Bach Hour.


BM: As J.S. Bach’s Magnificat enters its final chapter, the music returns to what began the piece, expressing what’s described in the text: As it was in the beginning, is now and forever.

This performance of Magnificat featured Collegium Vocale of Ghent and conductor Philippe Herreweghe. The soloists were soprano Carolyn Sampson, alto Ingeborg Danz, tenor Mark Padmore, and bass Sebastian Noack.

Remember, you can hear this program again on demand when you visit Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear the 24/7 Bach Channel.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.