FESTIVE CANTATAS: J.S. BACH MAGNIFICAT
Friday, December 16, 2022 at 7:30 p.m. - Christ Church Cathedral
Krisztina Szabo, alto
Jacques-Olivier Chartier, tenor
Sumner Thompson, bass
The boys’ choir of the St. Thomas church in Leipzig was founded in 1212, and to this day, it still is one of the most prestigious ambassadors of musical culture in Germany. Historically, the choir director had to prepare the services in four churches and organize the music for city functions. Bach held the position from 1723 to his death in 1750; he was appointed only after two of his colleagues, further up on the list, Telemann and Graupner, had declined.
One of Bach’s major tasks was to provide annual cycles of cantatas for each Sunday. In his first year of taking up the post, Bach set the text of the (Latin) Magnificat with four inserted (German) hymns for a performance at Christmas, giving birth to one of his most popular and festive compositions. In this performance, we pair the famous Magnificat with cantata 110, which Bach composed for Christmas 1725, in his third year as cantor and director of the St. Thomas church. Vancouver’s Pacific Baroque Orchestra is joined by three natural trumpets, as many baroque oboes, and a stellar cast of singers, under the inspired direction of Alexander Weimann.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Magnificat (1723 version)
Cantata BWV 110, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens
Bach’s Magnificat and Cantata 110 explore a wide spectrum of human responses to the Christmas story, from humility to ecstasy, sober consideration to laughing astonishment, and extroverted declamation to introspective affirmation. In them, we hear Bach amplifying the voices of different people and exploring their personal perspectives, especially that of an ordinary young woman, Mary, as she responds to the astounding news that she would give birth to the Son of God. The musical result is polyphonic – many-voiced – in every possible sense.
Musicians of the Baroque were deeply concerned with music’s relation to speech and its ability to heighten the impact of a text by magnifying its structure, rhythms, and mood, thereby touching the hearts of listeners more profoundly. Training in rhetoric, the art of communication and persuasion, was a pillar of eighteenth-century education that prepared boys like Bach for careers as lawyers, diplomats, court secretaries, city councillors, pastors, teachers, and musicians. One of the central rhetorical principles that Bach certainly learned was copia: abundant variety of expression. This aesthetic of copiousness inspired Bach’s highly contrasting settings of the twelve verses of the Magnificat, and his frequent repetition of text and musical figures, each repetition an opportunity for variation and contemplation of another nuance of meaning. Bach sets texts like an actor might explore a script, repeating phrases over and over, placing emphasis on different words to explore expressive possibilities.
So, in composing his sacred music, Bach began with the text. The Magnificat text, a canticle taken from the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, is the Virgin Mary’s song of praise celebrating her pregnancy with the promised Messiah, God’s faithfulness and generosity, and the transformation that the Messiah would bring by exalting the lowly and humbling the powerful. Martin Luther rejected the Roman Catholic Church’s veneration of Mary as a powerful intercessor. Instead, his commentary on the Magnificat emphasized her femininity, humility, humanity, and her singing voice, making her accessible as a mother, companion, and example of Christian virtue and of the chief use of music to glorify God and edify others. In Bach’s Leipzig, the Magnificat was sung in a simple German version every Sunday at evening vespers, reflecting Luther’s esteem for this text. On important feast days, the congregation expected an elaborate version for voices and instruments setting the formal Latin text.
Scholar Wendy Heller has demonstrated how closely Bach’s Magnificat reflects Luther’s commentary, especially his attention to Mary’s personal perspective. It opens with a jubilant chorus, for, as Luther noted, “she sang [the Magnificat] not for herself alone but for us all, to sing it after her.” In the following two verses, we hear Mary’s own voice in two soprano arias: the innocent, dance-like “Et exultavit” (My spirit hath rejoiced) and “Quia respexit” (For He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden) in which the descending shapes of the vocal line paint Mary’s humility, while the oboe continually exalts those falling melodic shapes to higher pitches. Bach sets the text “Quia fecit” (He that is mighty hath magnified me) as a muscular bass aria emphasizing God’s strength, following it with the tender, motherly lullaby “Et misericordia” (And his mercy is on them that fear him), and so on. So, Bach’s Magnificat does not offer a dramatic representation with the character of the Virgin Mary played by a single singer, but rather as Wendy Heller articulates “the sense of Mary’s subjectivity is split among the chorus and voices.”
On Christmas Day, Leipzig tradition dictated that additional hymn texts be interpolated into the Magnificat text to tell the story of the birth of Christ. Bach composed these hymns after he had completed his Magnificat, choosing to pay homage to the voices of his predecessors at the Thomaskirche through them. The first, “Von Himmel hoch” he set as an a cappella motet in the Renaissance style of Thomaskantor Valentin Otto; the next “Freut euch und jubiliert” he wrote in a lighter polyphonic style very similar to an early seventeenth-century setting of the same text by Sethus Calvisius. “Gloria in excelsis Deo” imitated the simple, chordal, declamatory style popular with cantors Johann Schelle and Johann Kuhnau in the late seventeenth century. Finally, Bach used the most up-to-date, operatic style of his own generation for “Virga Jesse floruit”. It is as if Bach brings together Mary’s song, with the chorus of singing Christians across time, and the specific compositional voices of Leipzig’s most beloved musical leaders.
The text of Cantata 110, created by poet and novelist Georg Christian Lehms, comprises biblical quotations with newly composed poetry, all prophesies about or reactions to the Christmas story. To begin his setting, Bach borrowed the overture from his Orchestral Suite No. 4, with its majestic opening and closing sections and its bubbling middle section that must have reminded Bach of the laughter of the text. Into this instrumental piece, he seamlessly integrates new choral parts as if they had been there all along. In the next aria, the tenor invites us to lift our thoughts to heaven along with the swirling flute lines to contemplate salvation, and the bass, perhaps the voice of the pastor, declaims a text from the book of Jeremiah in recitative. Bach chooses the poignant combination of alto voice and oboe d’amore to express for the central text about the pain of human separation from God and follows it with a love duet for soprano and tenor joining to praise God, adapted from the Magnificat interpolation “Virga Jesse floruit”. Then, the bass voice of the pastor returns, amplified by trumpet accompaniment, to admonish everyone to raise their voices in song. The cantata concludes not with the expected rousing chorus, but rather a heart-felt, introspective chorale verse.
Bach’s music invites us to inhabit the richness of subjective, human experience imaginatively and viscerally from the downcast position of a first-century servant girl to the awe and ecstasy of communion with the Divine. Luther’s evocative summary of the Magnificat text seems to anticipate the transportive power of Bach’s composition. “My life and all my senses float in the love and praise of God and in lofty pleasures, so that I am no longer mistress of myself; I am exalted, more than I exalt myself, to praise the Lord.”
GETTING TO CHRIST CHURCH CATHEDRAL
The Cathedral is located on Quadra Street at Rockland Avenue.
Street parking is available on Quadra Street, Burdett Avenue, and Rockland Avenue, as well as at the south entrance to the Cathedral off Burdett.