In June 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach officially took the position of Kapellmeister and Cantor et Director Musices at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, a position he would hold for the next 27 years until his death. At the time, Leipzig was predominantly a Lutheran city, and St. Thomas was the most important church in Leipzig. Accordingly, the Thomaskantor was responsible for the religious music of all churches, large and small, within the entire city, and was tasked with preparing and directing musical performances during the Sunday services for both the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches in the city. In the first year following his appointment, Bach devoted himself to composing religious music, writing cantatas based on various themes for the special festivals within the liturgical year of the church, and conducting the performances.
The Christmastide and the week leading up to Easter are the two most important festive periods in the traditional Christian calendar, and this was true, too, in Leipzig. For Bach, who took up this important position in June, the first major festival before him was the Christmas season. In line with the local Christian traditions observed in Leipzig, wherein the Magnificat was sung in German during regular Sunday vespers and performed in Latin on high feasts in the concerted form, Bach wrote a new Magnificat for that year’s Christmas period.
The Magnificat is one of the most ancient Christian hymns, its name deriving from the incipit, or opening phrase, of the Latin translation of the canticle, with the text taken directly from the Gospel of St. Luke of the New Testament of the Bible. Countless versions of the Magnificat had been written by different composers in the past. Under Bach’s pen, however, the canticle was transformed and expanded into a five-part choral setting. In order to enhance the festive atmosphere, Bach inserted into his Magnificat four seasonal laudes popular among citizens of Leipzig at the time, relating biblical accounts preceding the birth of Jesus Christ.
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The first interpolation is a hymn composed by Martin Luther, titled Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”), referring to the angels’ annunciation to the shepherds of the birth of Jesus. The second and third laudes, Freut euch und jubilieret (Rejoice and celebrate) and Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest) are messages relayed by the angels, for which Bach respectively utilizes polyphonic and chordal styles to emulate the works of his predecessors. The former is a sprightly minuet, the latter a rather rustic chorale. The fourth laude, Virga Jesse floruit (The branch of Jesse flowers), is an operatic duet written in gigue by Bach for soprano and bass, representing Mary and Joseph expressing joy on discovering that Mary is expecting a child.
Bach had originally envisioned his Magnificat to be performed on the large organ loft in the West Wing of St. Thomas, facing the main altar, and that the four seasonal laudes would be performed by a second small orchestra and choir on the smaller loft in the East Wing of the church, with the intention that this would create a stereophonic effect. Despite the fact that the piece was eventually performed in St. Nicholas Church, on the choir loft next to a smaller pipe organ, the sheer force of Bach’s choral arrangement was still able to produce the joyous, lively festive atmosphere.
As the piece was drawing to its close, at the part where the lyrics were declaring sicut erat in principio (as it was in the beginning), Bach re-introduced the opening melody, elucidating through music the profound meaning of the lyric. The ingenious orchestral scoring and choral arrangements, the faithful musical setting of the Bible, the insertions of lyrics from diverse sources, the application of different Baroque dances, all enhanced the richness of the music and achieved an imaginative musical interpretation of the meaning of the words. These characteristics would become important elements employed in the Passion music that Bach would write the following year.
(Translated by Paul Cooper, Taipei Times)
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