The Bach Magnificat, although typically performed during the Christmas season, takes its text from 1 Samuel 2: 1-10, today’s first reading. Unique in the composer's output, was written originally in Eb Major and included four hymn tune arrangements interpolated within the Magnificat text. One year later Bach lowered the pitch to D Major and left out the hymn arrangements. That is the version that we perform this morning.
Bach sets the Magnificat in twelve movements. Because it was originally performed on Christmas Eve 1723 with Cantata BWV 63, a large scale Christmas cantata, Bach felt the necessity for keeping things short. For all of its grandeur and, sometimes, expansiveness, the work is remarkably brief, even terse. The first movement is a good example. After a rather lengthy orchestral introduction and a big flurry from the chorus, the movement seems like it is over almost before it starts. The first two arias, for two different sopranos, are a wonderful example of Bach's portrayal of the young Mary. The first, energetic with boundless enthusiasm; she has the rest of her life before her. The second is plaintive and middle-eastern sounding, the properly demure young maiden is shown here. The second aria is interrupted by the fiery "Omnes generationes" chorus.
The angular bass aria is suceeded by the ravishing duet for alto and tenor accompanied by muted strings with flutes. This is characteristic of Bach's use of the maximum contrast within this relatively confined space.The "Fecit potentiam" is one of Bach's most energetic and difficult choruses, but is over in about two minutes. The tenor aria "Deposuit" is again fiery, followed by the adorable "Esurientes" with two flutes. Notice the emptiness at the very end illustrating the text. A treble trio sings the ethereal "Suscepit Israel" with the oboes softly intoning the Magnificat chant tune. The "Sicut locutus est" is a rather pro forma choral fugue but is followed by the stirring "Gloria Patri," a big buildup to the clever introduction of the opening material on the words "as it was in the beginning."
©Craig Smith, with Ryan Turner