Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Step Bach in Time

The Bach Magnificat, which the City of Dunedin Choir will sing on March 30, is at the centre of an 800-year tradition of music at St Thomas Church, Leipzig, where Bach spent almost the last 30 years of his life and where his body lies to this day.

The Magnificat was one of the pieces he wrote in his first year as cantor of the school attached to the church – St Thomas School, one of the oldest schools in the world (founded 1212).

Among his teaching and performance responsibilities – including choirmaster and teaching Latin at St Thomas School – 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, on Christmas Day, Easter Sunday and Whitsunday.

He wrote a version of the Magnificat (BWV243) – the only one which still exists – in 1723, his first year in his new Leipzig post.

Considering the complexity of this music – and that he wrote the St John Passion shortly afterwards – we can only wonder at the musical skill of the choir, and particularly the nine-year-old boys who sang the high (treble) parts singing such difficult music with little rehearsal time.

Bach and his family lived in an upstairs apartment at the boarding school. After playing and conducting at church on Sunday (with services often three to four hours), Johann Sebastian would start work on the music for the following week, often finishing within a few days. The music copyists would come to his apartment on the Wednesday afternoon and then he would start rehearsals for the next Sunday.

The choir boys were chosen from throughout the region by scholarship exams. The successful few would receive food, board and education in Leipzig, a large university town in eastern Germany (in Bach’s time, about 30,000 population and a major centre of music) until, aged 20, they left the school with a small sum of money to help pay for their further education.

The school, church and choir continues the musical tradition today, 800 years after its founding, having survived the Reformation (Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door at Wittenberg, less than 70km north of Leipzig, in 1516), the unification of Germany in 1871, wars, Nazism, Communism and the re-unification of Germany after 1990. The Nazi and subsequent Communist regimes put great value on singing and used the church choir as a showpiece, touring the choir through Eastern and Western Europe. The school’s musical tradition was maintained and practice continued through revolution and war. Even during World War 2, when the boys were boarded outside the town, they continued to sing every Sunday in the church, where Bach’s remains are buried.

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

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, which the City of Dunedin Choir sang last year. With the exception of the words “omnes generationes” (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-to-be Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. Both are pregnant – Elizabeth with the future John the Baptist and Mary somewhat surprisingly.

Elizabeth praises Mary for maintaining her faith and Mary responds: “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”. The Magnificat is based on these words.

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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