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Some ten years later, possibly again for the Visitation service (which, in 1733 coincided with the end of the period of mourning for Elector Friedrich Augustus I), Bach produced a new version of the Magnificat, transposed down a semitone to D major. This version is the more well known, but there are several elements of the early version that were lost in the process of re-writing. Recorders, rather than the transverse flutes of the later version, accompany the ‘Esurientes’; a trumpet, rather than oboe, played the tonus peregrinus melody of the ‘Suscepit Israel’, and, at certain points in the earlier version, the harmonies are rather more pungent (e.g. the fermata chord just before the end of the chorus ‘Omnes generationes’). The difference in key also affects the layout of the string parts, in particular; this is most noticeable in the ‘Deposuit potentes’, where the opening scale is an octave lower in the violins and the open G string (the key note for this aria), the lowest note of the violin, is suitably employed. The triplet passages that appear three times between the block chord passages of the ‘Gloria’ were originally written without the sustained continuo notes that Bach added to the later version. These latter undoubtedly make the passages easier to sing, but the early version is arguably more exciting in the way that the vocalists are encouraged to direct their lines towards the next tutti passages.
The Magnificat—in whichever version—is one of Bach’s most vivid choral works. It contains such dramatic devices as the chilling harmonic depiction of the word ‘imagination’ (‘mente’) in the line ‘he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts’, and with its rapid alternation of choruses and arias (without da capos) it is also remarkably compact. The word painting is reminiscent of Bach’s very early cantatas, with sometimes startling changes of affect: for instance the dramatic interjection ‘Omnes generationes’ at the end of the ‘Quia respexit’. The return of the opening music for the ‘Sicut erat in principio’ (‘As it was in the beginning’) suggests that Bach was aware of a familiar pun in seventeenth-century Vesper settings.
The four Christmas interpolations seem specifically to have been a Leipzig custom. These so-called Laudes are settings of seasonal German and Latin hymns. Following the practice of Bach’s predecessor, Johann Kuhnau, each hymn tells a part of the Christmas story and is interleaved with the movements of the Magnificat. This mixing of texts—Latin and German, narrative allusion and a traditional canticle—did cause disquiet in some theological circles, and it is not certain how long the practice lasted after Bach’s first years at Leipzig. The first hymn, ‘Vom Himmel hoch’, relates the shepherds’ encounter with the angels. This is written in traditional Lutheran motet style with the lines of the original chorale providing the basic melodic material of the lower voices. Learned though it might be, the music creates a joyful effect, the close imitation between parts alluding to the descending angelic host; its clashing fragments are rather reminiscent of bells sounding together and across one another. The next interpolation concerns the message relayed by the angels: ‘Freut euch und jubiliert’. This is in a lighter, dance-like style highly reminiscent of the ‘Et exsultavit’ of the Magnificat itself: thus Bach makes a musical connection between the rejoicing of Mary’s spirit in the canticle and the rejoicing ordained by the angels. The third piece concerns the singing of the heavenly host, with the traditional text ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo!’. This is a rustic and celebratory piece, almost crude in some respects, and contrasting very markedly with the ‘Fecit potentiam’ fugue that immediately precedes it. The final interpolation is based on a Latin hymn relating to Mary and Joseph expressing their joy at the holy birth. This is set, not surprisingly, as a duet for soprano and bass, an amiable gigue that encourages effervescent coloratura. The last part of this is missing in Bach’s autograph, but the outlines are provided by a later version of the same piece in another Christmas work, Cantata 110.
One thing that is striking about these four pieces when they are heard as a group is the stylistic variety that Bach sets out to achieve: on the one hand, two kinds of choral piece, one in the older, imitative style and the other in a more modern homophonic idiom; on the other hand, two types of dance, one a modern minuet (‘Freut euch’) and the last a more traditional gigue. This contrasting of styles and pairing of historical elements seems typical of Bach’s increasingly emerging encyclopaedic tendencies. It also balances the variety of styles in the Magnificat itself, from a dramatic ‘rage’ aria (‘Deposuit potentes’) to the subtle parody of galant inanities in the ‘Esurientes’; from the dance-like ‘Et exsultavit’ to the supremely expressive ‘Quia respexit’. The choruses are characterized by the modern, celebratory idiom of the opening (and closing chorus), virtuoso fugue in the ‘Fecit potentiam’ and ‘old-style’ fugue in ‘Sicut locutus est’ (appropriate for ‘as he promised to our forefathers’).
from notes by John Butt © 2015
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