Bach's Magnificat, Part 1.  T. Herbert Dimmock discusses the first half of the work.  BDP #308.

<music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1>

Welcome to the virtual concert series of Bach in Baltimore. It is my pleasure to share with you now a piece that Bach wrote in 1723. By the way, if you know Bach’s biography very well, that is just when he moved to the Thomas Kirche in Leipzig, where he stayed until his death in 1750. But in 1723 he wrote his first oratorio, which is the Magnificat.

Now, just to be clear, the text of the Magnificat is actually a canticle, meaning a sung piece, from the gospel of Luke, the first chapter. It is spoken by Mary on the occasion that is called the “Visitation” to her cousin Elizabeth. In the narrative in the Bible, after Mary greets Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, the later moves in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith and Mary responds with what is now called the Magnificat, the text of the Magnificat.
Bach divides this piece into twelve texts, into twelve movements. It is a very big setting. It is for a full choir in five parts, soloists—soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and the biggest orchestra available to Bach: three trumpets, timpani, two flutes, two oboes, bassoon, strings, and the continuo which includes harpsichord.

So, it is a grand opening chorus that opens this piece. It is in the style of concerto grosso. Concerto grosso means a big concerto; big meaning for everybody. So, Bach begins by letting all of the groups of the orchestra have solo movements. This is interesting to me. Almost always they perform in pairs. Two flutes play together, two oboes play together, two voices in the choir, then a different two voices in the choir, then yet a different two voices in the choir, and that keeps happening over and over. Why two? Well, Mary is pregnant with Jesus, who is the second member of the Trinity. I think that Bach is alluding to the fact that Jesus is the second person of the Godhead.

After an exuberant, wonderful opening with all of the members of the orchestra, the first two voices sing together on the word “Magnificat.” [music]. And you have the line more or less goes up. [music] Bach is indicating that the praise should be directed upwards. “Magnificat” means let’s magnify or praise; direct that upward to God in heaven. Often in the beginning you hear these things alternate. They all come together in a grand conclusion. So that with a simple idea is presented in a very festive way is the opening, wonderful first movement.
The second movement is for a solo mezzo soprano and that singer is accompanied by the strings in the orchestra. The text here is “my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” The orchestra has a gesture that keeps falling down. It starts with a little joyful motion and then falls down. Mary is rejoicing in God her savior in a prayerful way, she is kneeling down. You keep hearing this  [music] The falling down of praise as is indicated with the low instruments.

Above it the strings are accompanying and she is talking about my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. Does this surprise you? It doesn’t surprise me. Bach comes up with a dance-like figure. [music] He does that again and again. [music] So, a little sort of dance rhythm, but yet within that dance a prayerful adoration by kneeling down. It is a beautiful combination of two ideas. Bach is thinking of the essence of how your spirit should rejoice in God your Savior.

That idea of humility is even stronger in the third movement. The third movement text is Quia respexit humilitatem. That text is “For he has regarded me with humility.” Again, we have this idea of falling down in a humble way. The bass instruments play [music] [singing]. These are falling figures. And above is again this idea of humbleness, the lines tend to go down.
Bach has also called for the oboe d’amore. The oboe d’amore is one of Bach’s favorite instruments in slower, expressive music. As you can see, the oboe d’amore is slightly longer than the oboe and there is a bulbous shaped bell at the end. It is a minor third lower, and I think that this bulbous bell at the end gives it a darker color. So, Bach has that oboe d’amore play this line [music] Again, there is a little joyful movement [music] followed by a humble bowing down. It is a lovely pairing of the oboe d’amore with the low instruments of the orchestra. I always perform this with a bassoon so that you have the color of the double reeds balancing each other.

After this movement we get to the fourth movement. This fourth movement is a gem. This is the only place in the entire piece where Bach alters the text. He uses the Latin text word for word out of the Bible. The Latin text here is Omnis generationes, all generations (will call me blessed). But Bach changes it by adding the work omnis the second time. Omnis, omnis generationes; all, absolutely all, generations will call me blessed. So, Bach emphasizes this word omnis. He does it first by having each of the five sections of the choir sing the word omnis on stubborn repeating notes. I really will be like this. [music] Then they sing in the sopranos [music]. And then the altos [music], tenors [music] and now basses again [music]. All this with repeating notes: all generations.

Well, how many is all? Of course, it is a huge number, so when Bach gets after the word “all, all” to the word “generations” he wants to show that the generations go through time. He does this by writing—the word we use in music is—a melisma. This is a long series of notes on one word, a melisma. Melisma comes out of the word melodic. Here for the word “generations” I will play just as it appears in the soprano. First is omnis, omnis, with the four repeating notes, and then listen to what follows. [music] That is one setting of one word “generations,” all generations.

So, we have the five sections repeating the emphatic note, coming one after another, the very long set of notes on the word “generations,” all generations. Is that all that we can do? If you are Bach, it is not. For Bach says there is another way to show all. That is, with all of the notes of the scale. [music] Right? And so now he is going to go through the piece and have each section come in one after another singing omnis, omnis. So, we have the first section coming in here [music] that is the second soprano. [music] There is the first soprano. Tenors down an octave [music], basses [music], second sopranos up an octave [music], first sopranos [music]. And that is the whole scale. We covered every note in the scale. All generations, emphatically said, and also up the scale to show all in every imaginable way. It is an amazing achievement in my opinion because all of that is harmonized in a way that is gorgeous. He managed to have these ideas and to write music in a way that brings them to life where it never sounds arbitrary or somehow constrained. It is just amazing!

So, with omnis, omnis, generationes, the choir has finished for a while. We have really finished the first big half of the Bach Magnificat. It has been a joy and I hope that you have enjoyed it. I hope that you will look for the video for our second half of the piece, which follows online.

<music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1>