theBachWorks The Magnificat Cantata #39

Choral Evensong at Church of Our Savior:
Program Notes

The Church of Our Savior in Brookline, Massachusetts, is fortunate in its music program.  Several times a year, the choir conducts an Evensong service.  This is centered on a single musical work, larger in scale than could be accommodated during our usual Sunday morning service.

Evensong is not a concert; it is a worship service.  It is worship by means of music.  We would sing, and praise God thereby, even if no one sat in the pews to hear us.  But in fact our Evensong services have developed a reputation for musical quality that draws many otherwise unchurched visitors from the surrounding neighborhood.

I've sung tenor in the choir for five years now.  We are doubly fortunate in our conductor, a young graduate of New England Conservatory, and two years' Tanglewood Fellow, named Bryon Grohman.  Under his direction, the choir has taken on increasingly challenging works, including the two listed at the top of this page, for whose performances at Evensong I wrote these program notes.

J.S.Bach: Magnificat, BWV 243

A Choral Evensong at the the Church of Our Savior,
Sunday, November 17, 1996

The Vespers service at St. Thomas' in Leipzig, on Christmas day of 1723, probably lasted several hours. The new Cantor, if he was going to write his own music for the service, was going to have to keep it short. One always did the Song of Mary, of course. That was a Christmas tradition. For ordinary occasions, one would use Luther's German translation "Meine Seele erhebt den Herren"; but on high feast days such as Christmas, it would be in Latin, with instruments: fiddles of course, some flutes and oboes, brasses if you could find any. A real production: Magnificat anima mea dominum

The new Cantor, a Bach named Johann Sebastian, decided to make his own music for Christmas that year. He needn't have; he could have used any of several Magnificats (one by his predecessor there, Johann Kuhnau) in the school's music library. Since his installation in June, he had written almost one new piece every week until the middle of November. Now he had six weeks to write a Magnificat. 

Thank God for that decision; it gave us the music for tonight's Evensong service at the Church of Our Savior. The musical setting of the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) that Bach worked up during that Advent season 273 years ago is intimate, immediate, dense with musical imagery, achingly tender, startlingly powerful - and unique in the long, long catalog of the man's masterpieces. 

Literally, yes, unique. Bach never did another piece of music quite like this Magnificat. For one thing, it's dense. In spite of - maybe because of - its small scale, it's packed with intensity, in a way that his larger choral works couldn't be. And each part of it is short. Each verse is set as a separate musical movement, but none of these are built to any sort of standard pattern or form: there are no da capo arias, no recitatives, and no "big" choruses of the sort that he would have used to open a cantata, for example. Each of the twelve movements is a tiny musical gem whose only purpose is to exhibit, with the utmost conviction, clarity, and vividness, its text:

Magnificat anima mea dominum.
My soul praises the Lord highly. 

The music of this first verse is supremely joyous, exultant, and light and tender. Here, in this movement, everything is lightness and grace, even in the highly charged rhythm of the repeated word "magnificat".

The music modulates as directly and innocently as if each new key center were being discovered here for the very first time. Each cadence, as it arrives, brings a new inflection, a stance: "ah, we will magnify the Lord in A major, and - look at this - in E, and - my goodness - in b minor too."

Picture the choral writing, if you will, as though it were a tiny Vivaldi concerto, with repeated shouts by the choral tutti `magnificat' alternating with florid little episodes in the individual parts.

Et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.
And my spirit has exulted in the God of my salvation.

The keyword here is `exultavit'; listen to how important a role is given to rising melodic phrases such as the very first one. So the music itself rises, exults.

Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae; ecce enim ex hoc
    beatam me dicent omnes generationes.
For he has been mindful of the lowly status of his handmaiden; surely, henceforth
    I will be called 'blessed' by all generations.

Here is a picture of `humilitatem', exquisitely chiselled, sculpted lines of heartrending expressiveness. Listen to the exclamation `ecce, ecce'. And prepare to be surprised at how "literally" Bach sets the words for "all generations"; the choir enters, one layer piled on another without end, one generation after another.

Quia fecit mihi magna, qui potens est, et sanctum nomen eius.
For He who is mighty had done great things for me, and His name is holy.

The operative ideas are `magna' and `potens'. So the setting must of course be for baritone, accompanied only by a bass line built of strikingly rhythmic and - well - powerful gestures.

Et misericordia a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.
And there is mercy from generation to generation for those who fear Him.

`Misericordia' and `timentibus'. Working from these ideas, Bach elaborates a duet of astonishing sweetness and depth. Listen, in the final vocal cadence, to the interrupted tenor notes on `timentibus'.

Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
He has showed the strength of His arm, He has scattered the proud by the thoughts of His heart.

 Powerful harmonic motion exhibits `potentiam'; a curiously shaped melody (sung first by the tenors, and eventually by each voice in turn) seems to have elbows in it like a `brachio suo'. Listen for `dispersit' - it chases itself through the whole choir. And the full power of the divine `mente cordis' is revealed, awesomely, in the final measures.

Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles.
He has cast down the mighty from their seats, and has lifted up the humble.

Almost every individual word of this verse has its illustration in the music. It's not hard to hear at all; what's remarkable is that Bach, unpretentiously, in all innocence, can express the simplest of musical imagery. On `deposuit', the melody falls; on `de sede', bumps like humpty-dumpty; on `exaltavit' rises, and on `humiles' gentles out in the lower part of its range. 

Esurientes implevit bonis, et divites dimisit inanes.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent away the rich empty-handed.

Notice how the words `implevit bonis' become gradually "filled" (with notes) as the movement progresses, and the words `dimisit inanes' are "emptied" (of notes). Just how far would Bach go to illustrate a point? One of the better-known examples comes at the very last measure, when the flutes omit their last note: the rich are sent away "empty-handed".

Suscepit Israel puerum suum, recordatus misericordiae suae.
He has raised up Israel, His servant, and has remembered His mercy.

References to "Israel" or "Abraham" are often represented by Bach in archaic or old-fashioned styles. Here, the vocal writing for the trio is in a Palestrina-like style, while the accompanying instruments intone the traditional plainchant melody of the Magnificat.

Sicut locutus est ad Patres nostros, Abraham et semini eius in saecula.
As it was told to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed for all ages to come.

A fugue, a blocky, four-square, very Old-Testament fugue about Abraham. Deliberately, it does nothing to excite the emotions. Bach is holding back a little, so as to increase the musical impact of what's coming up:

Gloria Patri, gloria Filio, gloria et Spiritui sancto!
Glory to the Father, glory to the Son, and glory to the Holy Spirit!

Like all the angels in heaven praising the Holy Trinity, in musical triplets, building each shout of praise in turn_

Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.
As it was in the beginning, so also now and for all ages of ages to come. Amen.

_until all things are made anew. The music that was "in the beginning", i.e. that made up the first movement, returns and persists for all eternity. Notice that the themes are those of the beginning, but what actually happens to them is different: there's a long-held chord just before the final exultant cadence, on the word `saeculorum'. Of course.

Jim Michmerhuizen

Cantata 39,"Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot"

A Choral Evensong at the Church of Our Savior,
Sunday, March 26, 2000

Trinity Sunday, June 16th, 1726, sometime after the service: the pastor of St. Thomas’ church in Leipzig is making a few notes for next week’s sermon. And, in his residence at St. Thomas’ School, next to the church, the new Cantor (people still refer to him that way, even though he’s been there three years already) is beginning to plan next week’s service music.

The readings for the first Sunday after Trinity are, according to the Lutheran lectionary in use at the time,

the Epistle: 1 John iv. 16-21 (God is Love)
the Gospel: Luke xvi. 19-31 (Dives and Lazarus) 

For the third time since his arrival in Leipzig three years ago and resolving to compose at least three cycles of music for the church year, the cantor Johann Sebastian Bach has to choose how – or even whether – next week’s music should relate to the readings.   Three years earlier, for his very first Leipzig cantata (which by coincidence had also fallen on the first Sunday after Trinity), he had chosen God’s Love.  He had introduced himself, as it were, to the St. Thomas’ church congregation with an unusually long and elaborate piece in thirteen movements. (That cantata has come down to us as #75, Die Elenden sollen essen, “The needy shall be fed”)  A year ago, 1725, he had done up a real hellfire-and-damnation piece, from the Gospel’s description of Dives’ selfishness and its punishment.   (This cantata has also survived, as #20, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, i.e. “O eternity, thou word of thunder”.)

But in June of 1726 Bach had no heart for such a theme. His three-year-old daughter Christiana lay dying in her bed. He could only pray, daily, that he and Anna might be spared yet another visit to the graveside.  He had already been there too often. The twins had lived only a few days; Leopold had died before his first birthday; his beloved first wife Maria Barbara had been taken suddenly, in his absence, he’d not been able to so much as bid her farewell.

He reached for his concordance and his Bible, and took for his theme the charity that is enjoined upon Christians by the Love of God: break bread with the hungry…

The service music that Bach created for Sunday, June 23rd, 1726, is the music that we sing this evening, the 26th of March, 2000.

The opening chorus contemplates, first with quiet compassion and inexpressible tenderness, and then with increasingly animated wonder, the sharing of food and substance which is more pleasing to God than elaborate and carefully circumscribed ritual sacrifices and ceremonies; and it sings of the spiritual dawn, the healing of the soul, the strength in God that grow from such sharing.

If ever a musical texture, all by itself, could be an image of such charity, then it is to be found in this opening chorus.  About two minutes into it, the tenors, alone, discover a melody of breathtakingly bittersweet expressiveness, colored with what today we would have to call “blue” notes,   They sing the words und die, so in elend sind, führe ins Haus: “and they who are needy, take them into your house.”   The altos take up this melody, in a choral duet with the tenor section.  And then the sopranos make it a trio, and the basses make it a quartet.  Each new entry is born out of the existing voices like a flower from a bud; on each entry the theme seems sweeter than before.  How can a tune be both full of compassion and painfully needy at the same time?

Each successive clause in the text is then given a separate musical exposition: the words so du Einen nakkend siehest, so kleide ihn: “when you see one going naked, clothe him.” are treated in ten measures of sturdy 4/4 time, and then at the words alsdann wird dein Licht hervorbrechen wie die Morgenröte: “for then your light will break forth like the dawn” the tenors break into a more spritely 3/8 rhythm which everyone maintains to the conclusion. Unmistakeably, the mood brightens, and by the time we have sung for the last time und die Herrlichkeit des Herrns wird dich zu sich nehmen: “and the Majesty of the Lord will take you in” we are well-nigh exuberant. The music itself has become an image of the joy, the spiritual bounty, that is the reward of true charity.

The bass recitative that follows meditates on God’s charity towards us his children. We are enjoined to be kind to each other because God is kind to us, giving us every good thing.  In giving to the poor we are only passing on what God has given to us.

Arnold Schering wrote of the alto aria Seinem Schöpfer that it “derives its charm above all from the arresting combination of violin, oboe, and the alto voice… . Were it not for the text, the voice part might be regarded as ideal for – say – an alto oboe.”  In other words, the aria is a trio: the violin and the oboe are not just an “accompaniment” to the human voice, they are its equals.  Three instruments, one of them a human voice.

As though to emphasize the nature of true charity, stripped of all pharisaical pomp and external show, Bach set the words of Hebrews 13:16 for a baritone voice and continuo, unencumbered by any “fancy” instrumental decorations.  The vocal line is sinewy, strongly rhythmic, and also – miraculously – compassionate and expressive.

The aria Höchster, was ich habe, for soprano and flutes, expresses once again the conviction that everything we have is a gift from God, to be willingly returned to Him at the end.   The music is alive, it glows with a tranquil, all-accepting thankfulness.

And the last solo voice we hear is an alto recitative, a final reflection: we can only give what we have –   compassion and substance to our neighbor, our very soul to God.

As with most of his cantatas, Bach ended the service music for that Sunday in 1726 with a hymn tune familiar to his congregation.  Perhaps they sang along with it. He chose the sixth verse of a hymn written by David Denicke 78 years earlier, Kommt, lasst euch den Herren lehren. The tune is glorious: solid, well-formed, confidently moving toward its final cadence in Bb major. It was still being sung – to different words – in the church of my childhood in Michigan, during the 1950’s.

The score of cantata #39 was complete by Wednesday. Anna and the two oldest boys copied out the voice and instrumental parts on Thursday. There was a rehearsal on Friday and again – with the band – on Saturday.  When the Sunday service was over, the Cantor Bach rolled up the score and parts, tied a string around them, and put them in the choir cupboard along with the other 150 or so cantata scores he’d already accumulated during the past three years. You never knew when one of them might come in handy again. He started to think about the music for next week.

On Saturday Christiana Sophia Henrietta Bach, aged 3 years and several months, died. She was the first child of Bach and his second wife Anna Magdalena.  They buried her on Monday.

Jim Michmerhuizen


Copyright © Jim Michmerhuizen 2005    Contact