Sunday, March 18, 2012


Statue of Mary and Elizabeth at the Church of the
Visitation at Ein Kerem in Israel, on the site where the
meeting between Mary and Elizabeth is said to have taken
place, with Mary singing her song of praise.
Johann Sebastian Bach had risen to the high point of his musical career when he was appointed Cantor of the Thomasschule at St Thomas Church in Leipzig in 1723, aged 38 – the position he held for 27 years, until his death.

Among his myriad teaching and performance responsibilities – including choirmaster and teaching Latin at St Thomas School, one of the oldest schools in the world (founded 1212) – his duties also included composition: cantatas for church services every Sunday and other holy days in the church calendar, as well as masses and motets for special occasions.

The Latin Magnificat was required to be sung at least three times a year, at Christmas Day, Easter Sunday and Whitsunday. Considering he was required to produce these pieces at least three times a year for almost 30 years, it’s surprising then that only one Magnificat still exists – the BWV243 in D major completed in 1733.

He originally wrote the Magnificat in E flat (BWV243a) for Christmas 1723 and reworked it in D major 10 years later, the form we sing today, but this time for use at Easter.

The Magnificat is notable for its brevity – at slightly less than 600 bars, it is considerably shorter than the Credo from Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

With the exception of the words “omnes generationes” From the Archives (every generation), which receive particular treatment, each of the 12 movements represents a stanza of St Luke’s narrative of the conversation between Jesus’ mother Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. Both are pregnant – Elizabeth with the future John the Baptist and Mary somewhat surprisingly.

Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith and Mary sings the Magnificat in response: “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit doth rejoice in God my saviour… for behold from henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed”. What a remarkable statement from a girl in her position, pregnant, vulnerable and liable to be punished or even stoned.

Half of the 12 movements in the Magnificat are choruses and the others for solo voices, including a rare alto-tenor duet.

We’ve all been intrigued during practice by the possibility of hidden numerological significance in the “omnes generationes” (No. 4 p. 17), perhaps relating to the numerological value of Bach’s name, or the 41 entries of that phrase coinciding with the generations of Jesus’ ancestry. Others postulate this is nonsense as the phrase (“all generations shall call me blessed”) clearly refers to future generations, not past.

Bach often included clever numerical conundrums so we can’t rule it out.

By Scott Blackwell

Don't miss City of Dunedin Choir's concert "Beauty of Baroque" where Bach's Magnificat will be the featured work. Friday 30 March, 7:30 pm in Knox Church, George Street, Dunedin

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