Bach Magnificat

Friday, September 23, 2016 at 7:30pm
Sunday, September 25, 2016 at 3:00pm
Symphony Hall

“If those original audiences got to hear anything like the performance Harry Christophers led Friday at Symphony Hall, they were very lucky audiences indeed.”
The Boston Globe

Joyous, sublime, endlessly inventive, and profoundly inspiring, Bach’s Magnificat ranks among the master achievements of our civilization. Set alongside these other jewels of Bach’s genius, there is no better way to experience Harry Christophers and H+H doing what they do best.

Harry Christophersconductor
Aisslinn Nosky, violin
Christina Day Martinsonviolin
Susanna Ogataviolin
Margot Rood, soprano
Sonja DuToit Tengblad, soprano
Catherine Hedberg, alto
Katherine Growdon, alto
Jonas Budris, tenor
Stefan Reed, tenor
Woodrow Bynum, baritone
David McFerrin, baritone

Program Notes


Lüneburg, where Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) was a student, was the largest city the fifteen-year-old had ever visited or lived in, and St. Michael’s—a church school with a reputation for academic and musical excellence—boasted a library with more than one thousand works, including some 30 compositions by Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672). As a singer with a fine soprano voice that developed into a good bass, Bach’s experiences at St. Michael’s were key to his development as a musician.

Born one hundred years before Bach, Heinrich Schütz was a choirboy at the court in Kassel before studying in Venice with the innovative choral and instrumental composer Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1554–1612). Soon after his return to Kassel, Schütz’s talents gained the attention of the court in Dresden, then the largest and most important city in Protestant Germany. Beginning in 1617, Dresden became Schütz’s new home. In part because the effects of the Thirty Years’ War were being felt in Dresden, Schütz returned to Italy in the 1620s where he met Claudio Monteverdi and heard a new style of composition that focused on declaiming the text. Schütz was captivated by this sound which he said was “still completely unknown
in Germany.”

In his motet Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener, SWV 432, written on the death of Elector Johann Georg I in 1657, Schütz sets the Canticle of Simeon, who had been promised he would not die until he had seen Jesus. Schütz’s setting of Simeon’s four-line proclamation repeats each line of text and carefully balances the structure of the whole. For the two inner lines, Schütz composes music that follows the natural accents of the language with little embellishment. He links these inner sections by subdividing the chorus into smaller groups. In the opening section, Schütz reserves embellishment for the word “fahren” (depart) and when this line is repeated, the same word is extended with even more beautiful flourishes. In the final section, which is about the same length as the opening, the voices weave in and around each other but the sound remains crystalline.

Bach surely thought about St. Michael’s in Lüneburg as he began his duties at St. Thomas in Leipzig in 1723. Leipzig was a large and important commercial center and St. Thomas School had its own proud history of high musical and academic standards. Bach’s job title was cantor and director musices; that is, he was in charge of music at the school and oversaw church music in the city.

The only one of Bach’s six motets to use a poetic text, Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229, was most likely written for a memorial service in 1730 for Maria Elisabeth Schelle. The motet not only honored Schelle but also acknowledged other members of St. Thomas’s, including the poet Paul Thymich (1656–1694), who had been a student and teacher there. His poem, originally written as a memorial for a previous St. Thomas headmaster, was first set by Johann Schelle, Maria Elisabeth’s husband and cantor from 1677 to 1701.

There are two sections in this motet for double chorus. The first, which sets the first verse of Thymich’s poem, begins haltingly, and with descending phrases, clearly depicting someone whose
“strength fails.” The bounds of earthly existenceare transformed toward the end of this section as faster and more complex passages suggest the anticipation of heaven. The second section, setting the last verse of the original poem, is a culmination which reflects the first section by means of a similar acceleration; however, it is now the celebration of a reward. The text for Bach’s Cantata 50, Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft, is from Revelation 12:10, one of the readings for services on St. Michael’s Day, September 29. The specific passage set in Cantata 50 is proclaimed after Michael, the only angel in the Bible specifically identified as an archangel, succeeds in expelling Satan from heaven. Equally significant is Michael’s role as protector and guide, as he conducts souls to heaven.

There are several questions surrounding Cantata 50, including why it was written and whether it is part of a larger, lost work. What we do know about the cantata lies in the music itself. This single movement, scored for two choruses, three trumpets, timpani, three oboes, strings and basso continuo, is a tour de force. The powerful opening, sung first in the bass of Chorus I, is next heard in the tenor, then alto, and finally the soprano parts. This passing of the same musical phrase in quick succession is not just imitation, but the opening of a fugue theme that permeates the entire work.

The first entrance of Chorus II comes shortly after and adds to the complexity of the movement even as it acts as a kind of stabilizing force: a musical allusion to the bqattle described in Revelations between the angels led by Michael and those led by Satan. Then, after all of the voices and instruments reach a climax at the text “weil der verworfen ist” (Since those [who complained day and night before God] have been cast out), there is a short pause that allows the listener to catch a breath for just a moment before the movement continues on.

Some of the texts for Cantata 149, Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg, first performed on St. Michael’s Day in 1728 or 1729, were written by Christian Friedrich Henrici (1700–1764), a poet also known as Picander, who was a friend of Bach’s and whose texts Bach used in other works, including the St. Matthew Passion. The seven movements of Cantata 149 follow a structure common in Bach’s cantatas from the 1720s: the opening and closing movements are for chorus and the inner movements alternate between recitative (short, speech-like settings of the text) and arias (longer and more ornate text settings featuring unique vocal and instrumental combinations). Music for the voice alternating with purely instrumental passages connects the opening movement with all three of the arias.

In the first movement, Bach sets the initial entrance of the chorus in imitation, suggesting great crowds. While the chorus in the rest of this movement sings in a more hymn-like style, a stunning exception occurs at “Herrn ist erhöhet” (The Lord is exalted). Here there is a beautiful, extended flourish in the chorus crafted from a rather short idea which rises before simply dropping off and starting again. With the whole chorus continually reiterating this line, the overall effect is that of a multitude, depicting not only the specific words of this text, but heightening the musical effect of the movement’s opening.

Bach closes Cantata 149 with the third verse of a hymn associated with the archangel Michael and often sung at funerals. Bach also used this hymn—written in the 16th century by the Lutheran reformer Martin Schalling—in two other cantatas and in the St. John Passion.

In Leipzig, the Magnificat was sung in German on Sundays and in Latin on feast days, especially, Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas. Bach’s Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243, (originally in E-flat and with added texts specific to Christmas) was first performed on December 25, 1723, the composer’s first Christmas in Leipzig. In later years, Bach revised his Magnificat so that it could be sung on any feast day. Following Leipzig tradition, Bach divided this text from Luke’s gospel into choruses and arias. He created contrast between individual movements and unified the whole work through instrumentation and his choice of keys.

The graceful elegance of Bach’s music complements and highlights Mary’s response to being called “blessed” and the mother of Jesus. In “Quia respexit” one literally becomes many as the soprano aria blossoms into the full chorus at the words “Omnes generationes” (all generations). Another literal representation of the text occurs in the final movement. Before the words “sicut erat in principio” (as it was in the beginning) are sung by the chorus, Bach brings back the instrumental music from the opening of the Magnificat.

Just as the text, beginning with Mary’s acceptance of her future, ruminates on how a single moment can have an impact in ways not easily imagined, Bach acknowledges the importance of the Magnificat in the Lutheran service. In “Suscepit Israel” he accompanies the voices with oboes playing long-held notes. This stunning counterpoint is from a melody traditionally used to sing Martin Luther’s German translation of this text.

 The Concerto for Three Violins in D Major, BWV 1064R, is a scholarly reconstruction based on another piece, the Concerto for Three Harpsichords, BWV 1064. Beginning in 1729, Bach directed an organization of university students and other connoisseurs called the Leipzig or “Bachische” Collegium Musicum (the director’s name was traditionally incorporated into the title). The group performed at Gottfried Zimmerman’s coffee house and, in order to supply instrumental music for these performances, Bach sometimes arranged compositions he had composed earlier. Such is the case with the harpsichord concertos, the foundation for the solo keyboard concerto as we know it today. The Concerto for Three Harpsichords, BWV 1064, was adapted from an earlier concerto for three violins. That first concerto, however, is lost and so modern musicians have reconstructed the Concerto for Three Violins, BWV 1064R using the Concerto for Three Harpsichords as a guide. Today we hear the concerto as transcribed by Charlotte Nediger in conjunction with Aisslinn Nosky and the various violinists who have performed the piece with Tafelmusik.

The texts set by Schütz and Bach on today’s program ponder ideas beyond day-to-day existence, whether it be what happens after we die, or being told, as Mary was, that our child will quite literally change the world. Here words are simply not enough, but with the addition of music, these passages from one phase of life to another and an individual’s response to those passages are poignantly voiced. When that music is composed by two masters of  17th- and 18th-century music, the bold and nuanced musical renderings of these pivotal movements in time are unforgettable.

© 2016 Teresa M. Neff, PhD
Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow

Join H+H Historically Informed Performance Fellow Teresa M. Neff forty-five minutes before your performance in Higginson Hall in the Cohen Wing for Musically Speaking with Teresa Neff, a pre-concert conversation of the pieces on the program.

J.S. Bach: Komm, Jesu, Komm
J.S. Bach: Concerto for Three Violins, BWV 1064R
J.S. Bach: Cantata 149, Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg
J.S. Bach: Cantata 50, Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft
Schütz: Herr, nun lassest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren
J.S. Bach: Magnificat in D Major

Audio Preview

“Magnificat Anima Mea” from Magnificat in D Major
The Sixteen
Harry Christophers, conductor

Cantata 50, Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft
The Sixteen
Harry Christophers, conductor

Allegro from Concerto for Three Violins in D Major, BWV 1064R
Cologne Chamber Orchestra
Robert Hill, conductor
Winifried Rademacher, Elisabeth Kufferath, Christine Pichlmeier, violins

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