Johann Sebastian Bach: Magnificat

The San Francisco Choral Society performed the Magnificat in D by J.S. Bach in 2004.

[J.S. Bach’s] music is a phenomenon of the reality of the inconceivable as is the cosmos itself. — Albert Schweitzer

In 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach, with his five children and his new wife of two years, Anna Magdalena, traveled northeast from Cöthen across the fertile plain into Leipzig. The city was in its prime as Germany’s intellectual capital. Its prosperity and appreciation of art lent it an international flavor that earned the city the nickname “Little Paris.” In moving to Leipzig, Johann ended employment at a series of courts under despotic or capricious princes to begin lasting municipal employment as Kantor of the Thomasschule and director of music for the city’s four main churches.

Once in Leipzig, Johann made the unprecedented decision to create a new cantata for every Sunday and feast day of the ecclesiastical year — 60 concerted pieces of music annually. He had been hired to make changes, and his intent in using his own music was to completely reshape Leipzig church music. In that task, he inventively perfected the art of counterpoint. He also had 12 more children, six of whom survived early childhood, to go with the surviving four of the seven children from his first wife, Maria Barbara, who had died in 1720.

In his first year in Leipzig, along with nearly 40 new cantatas and more than 20 reworked pre-Leipzig ones, Johann created the Magnificat in E-flat for Christmas. He revised it ten years later as the Magnificat in D for Easter. This first large-scale composition was premiered at a Christmas festival of sacred music. It is an exhilarating and innovative ride through swift contrasts, alive with freshness and vitality, embodying Mary’s youthfulness in light of her profound task.

Emphasis on the opening word, Magnificat, is followed by the soaring curve of the Et exultavit (My soul magnifies the Lord), and the jubilation carries through the entire piece. Animated rhythms express Mary’s joy, and a descending melody, accompanied by a discreetly melancholy oboe d’amore, gives voice to her humilitatem (humility).

The text Bach chose, Luke 1:46-55, was based on words attributed to Mary on learning both of her pregnancy and its significance to humanity. With the words omnes generationes (all generations), each voice part makes an ascending entrance and, in the last bars, the combined voices climax in a dominant chord, portraying the multitudes in a vast space.

The bass aria Quia fecit mihi magna, with its graciously flowing gentleness, ushers in divine mercy. The contralto and tenor duet Et misericordia, a Baroque masterpiece, sets off on a steady, somber E minor that changes on the word timentibus (them that fear him). Fecit potentiam is a gust of wind, taking perilous height on the word superbos (the proud ones) and then becoming reflective in a brief adagio, mente cordis sui (the imagination of their hearts).

The Deposuit potentes leaves no question that the mighty suffer a headlong fall while the humble are exalted. Expressing fulfillment of an ancient promise, the Sicut locutus est (As He spoke to our fathers) flows effortlessly while pinned to a five-part fugal structure. Finally, the Gloria with its seraphic trumpets draws the work to a dazzling conclusion, while a rhythmic change at Sicut erat asserts the duration of the ages.

At the time of J. S. Bach’s death in 1750 his students and sons had begun to spread his legacy, but even then his life’s work was unknown in its entirety. His music library was not recorded in the estate inventory, nor were the archival copies he made of his principal works, presumably because he was sure his family would preserve his musical estate. What passed to his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, survived intact, but much else was scattered and lost. Financially strapped, his widow sold a bundle of the cantatas for forty dollars, while his son Friedemann sold 60 others for ten cents each. The 18th-century public considered his work antiquated and soon forgot him.

Thankfully, the fact that the Thomasschule retained and performed 30 cantatas preserved a gleam of recognition for Bach. When the 33-year-old Mozart visited the school in 1789, he heard one of the cantatas performed and cried with joy, “Now there is something one can learn from!”

In 1802, Nikolaus Forkel, a friend of Bach’s sons, published a monograph that declared of Bach: “This sublime genius . . . dwarfs all others from the height of his superiority.” Publication of Bach’s music spread across the 19th century, thanks to a music society instigated by Robert Schumann for that purpose. Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Verdi and others were deeply influenced by the master of polyphony. Mendelssohn not only played Bach daily to an appreciative Goethe while visiting in Weimar, but also reintroduced the St. Matthew Passion to the public, an occasion that brought Bach’s name and legacy into their own at last.

Once found, such inestimable treasures sadly can be lost again. During the Nazi invasion of Europe, boxes of Bach’s manuscripts were evacuated from the Royal Library of Berlin and taken to secret locations. Some of them turned up in Poland decades later, but many are still missing or believed to be lost in fires.

We can take immense delight in what remains of Bach’s work. As Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach pointed out, the approach taken by his father “never reflected the tense, arduous, and compulsive attitude of a fanatic but served, instead, to provide him with fun and often a playful intellectual pastime” (Johann Sebastian Bach, the Learned Musician, Christoph Wolff).

— Carol Talbeck