In May 1723 Bach was appointed Kantor of St Thomas, Leipzig - we would probably call him the Director of Music - where he remained until his death in 1750. It was a hugely demanding post, involving teaching at the church school, playing the organ, training the choir and composing the music for the city’s two principal Lutheran churches as well as supervising and training the musicians at three others. Despite this enormous workload and recurrent disputes with the city authorities, Bach composed some of his greatest music during this period. His choral compositions alone include such towering masterpieces as the St John and St Matthew Passions, the Magnificat and the Mass in B minor, as well as the Christmas Oratorio and some 250 church cantatas.
The Magnificat - the canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke I: 46-55) - traditionally formed part of the ancient Roman Catholic service of Vespers. After the Reformation it was incorporated into the evening services of the Lutheran and Anglican churches, in which it was linked with the Nunc Dimittis. The Magnificat has been set to music more often than any liturgical text other than the Mass itself, in settings that vary enormously in style, from the purity of Palestrina’s exquisite four-part unaccompanied compositions to Monteverdi’s grand, dramatic settings written for St Mark’s, Venice, and later the almost symphonic conception of Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, of which the Magnificat forms the final movement, composed in 1780 for use in Salzburg Cathedral.
Bach’s Magnificat was written in Leipzig for the 1723 Christmas Vespers. This original version was in E-flat and included several additional Christmas texts inserted at various points in the piece. Some years later he revised it, removing the Christmas interpolations to make the piece suitable for use throughout the year and transposing it into D, a much brighter and more satisfactory key for the trumpets in particular.
The extraordinary impact of Bach’s great choral works derives essentially from his remarkable ability to balance, yet at the same time to exploit to the full, the spiritual and dramatic elements of each text, whether it be one as concise as the Magnificat or as monumental as the St Matthew Passion.
The Magnificat is conceived on a grand scale, requiring five soloists, a five-part choir and, for its time, an unusually large orchestra consisting of three trumpets, two flutes, two oboes, strings and continuo. In its splendour and jubilation the piece anticipates the great choruses of the later Mass in B minor. It begins with a brilliant orchestral introduction in which the trumpets feature prominently. This leads directly into an equally impressive chorus, ‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum’ (My soul doth magnify the Lord). The ten verses and Gloria that comprise the Magnificat canticle form a continuous and homogenous whole, in contrast with the libretto of an oratorio or Passion with its wide variety of extracts from many different Biblical and poetical sources. For this reason there are no recitatives in the Magnificat. Instead, each verse receives extended treatment, the chorus supplying appropriate emphasis to sections such as ‘Fecit potentiam in brachio suo’ (He hath showed strength with his arm), while the more reflective verses are assigned to the soloists. In the trio, ‘Suscepit Israel’ (He hath holpen his servant Israel), Bach gives the oboes a plainsong melody traditionally associated with the Magnificat. It appears as a cantus firmus,i.e. a melody in greatly extended notes, against which the three soloists weave decorative vocal lines. For the final verse, ‘Sicut erat in principio …. Amen’ (As it was in the beginning …. Amen), Bach appropriately mirrors the words by recalling the music that was heard ‘as it was in the beginning’, the Magnificat therefore ending as exuberantly and dramatically as it began.
-John Bawden, MMus
University of Surrey, UK
The earliest version of Vivaldi’s Magnificat in G minor was probably written for the Pietà around 1715 and is preserved in a copy made for the Cistercian monastery of Osek fairly soon afterwards. In the 1720s Vivaldi revised it, rewriting the tenor and bass parts in some places to make them more suited to male voices and adding a pair of oboes. One movement, the terzet ‘Sicut locutus est’, was considerably expanded in order to give the oboes a chance to appear as obbligato instruments. Vivaldi wrote instructions on the score of this second version (RV610) which assigned each movement to either (or both) of the cori. However, the work remains absolutely ‘monochoral’ in its musical conception and there is little to be gained in using two cori.
The Magnificat is notable for its conciseness. As it is a setting of the canticle sung at every Vesper service, it was inevitably destined to be repeated time after time, and this is perhaps the reason why Vivaldi exercised such restraint. It opens – strikingly – with the favourite chromatic passage set to the first verse. There follows an ‘aria a tre’, a movement in which the text of each of the three succeeding verses is sung by a different voice. Even the choir makes a brief appearance, repeating the alto’s ‘omnes’ (‘all’) with punning effect. This is followed by the most extended and memorable of all the movements, a chorus on the verse beginning ‘Et misericordia eius’. Here Vivaldi expresses great poignancy through chromaticism and ‘anguished’ melodic intervals such as the major seventh. The next two verses are set as a pair of choral movements: ‘Fecit potentiam’ dramatically demon-strates the Lord’s strength over a splendidly busy bass line, and the mighty are put down and the humble exalted in graphic fashion. Next, to illustrate the filling of the ‘hungry with good things’, Vivaldi inserts a charming duet for sopranos supported by a prominent ostinato figure in the bass. The ‘Suscepit Israel’ is a brief interlude, leading to the surprisingly cheerful ‘Sicut locutus est’ terzet – not quite the solemn homage to the biblical forefathers which this verse usually produces. The Doxology begins with a condensed version of the work’s opening bars (the punning possibilities of the words ‘As it was in the beginning’ are rarely overlooked!), followed by a vigorous double fugue in traditional style.
This season, Kentucky Bach Choir will present virtual performances of chorales and newly collected recordings of arias from Bach's Christmas Oratorio. The virtual concert will premier on Facebook and YouTube on
Sunday, December 6 at 7:00 pm.
The choir is comprised of current and former members of the Kentucky Bach Choir who now reside in locations throughout the US as well as in New Zealand and South Korea. The choir is accompanied by organ and string quintet. Soloists are previous prize winners in the choir's Audrey Rooney Vocal Competition. The concert is offered free to the public.
(in order of performance)
Conor Angell, bass
Miguel Ángel Ortega Bañales, tenor
Joseph Kingsbury, countertenor
Angela Carr, soprano
Abigail Santos Villalobos, soprano
Ryne Cherry, bass
Elizabeth Toy Botero, soprano
Zackery Morris, tenor
Visit kentuckybachchoir.org for links to both the Facebook and YouTube premier pages.
Herbert Howells studied the piano and organ with Sir Herbert Brewer, organist of Gloucester Cathedral, and composition with Sir Charles Stanford at the Royal College of Music. His anthems, and in particular his many wonderful settings of the canticles, place him as probably the greatest composer of Anglican church music.
In 1935 Howells’ son Michael died at the age of nine, a tragedy which inevitably cast an immense shadow over the composer’s life. Until quite recently it was thought that the Requiem was composed in response to Michael’s death, but we now know that Howells composed it in 1932 or 1933, originally intending it for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. For some reason the music was never sent to King’s, and its existence remained unknown until its eventual publication in 1980, only three years before the composer’s own death. After the tragic events of 1935, Howells increasingly associated the Requiem with his lost son, so much so that a few years later, when he was composing Hymnus Paradisi, a work specifically intended as Michael’s memorial and without doubt Howells’ masterpiece, he used substantial parts of the earlier Requiem, re-scoring it for soloists, large chorus and orchestra.
Fauré and Duruflé did not adhere strictly to the standard liturgy in their Requiems, and before them Brahms had gone even further in Ein Deutsches Requiem by using his own selection of texts taken from the Lutheran Bible and the Apocrypha. Though musically Howells’ Requiem could scarcely be more different from the Brahms, there is perhaps a similar spirit at work in the composer’s very personal choice of devotional psalms and scriptural passages from both the Catholic and Anglican liturgies for the dead.
Howells’ music is much more complex than other choral music of the period, most of which still followed in the Austro-German tradition that had dominated English music for two centuries. Long, unfolding melodies are seamlessly woven into the overall textures; the harmonic language is modal, chromatic, often dissonant and deliberately ambiguous. The overall style is free-flowing, impassioned and impressionistic, all of which gives Howells’ music a distinctive visionary quality.
The Requiem is written for unaccompanied chorus, which in places divides into double choir. There are six short movements which are organised in a carefully balanced structure. The two outer movements frame two settings of the Latin ‘Requiem aeternam’ and two psalm-settings. Howells reserves his most complex music for the Latin movements, in which he uses poly-tonality, chord-clusters and the simultaneous use of major and minor keys. In contrast, the psalm-settings are simple and direct, the speech-rhythms of the plain chordal writing arising out of the textual inflections.
One of the earliest and most fundamental influences on Howells was Gloucester Cathedral, with its immense, vaulted spaces and glorious east window. Howells wrote of it as ‘a pillar of fire in my imagination.’ He consciously set out to mirror these essentially architectural elements of spaciousness and luminosity in his music, and these characteristics can clearly be heard in the Requiem.
Significantly, the main climax of the work occurs at the words ‘et lux perpetua luceat eis’ – ‘let light perpetual shine upon them’ – a symbol of hope and comfort, confirmed in the closing pages by the final release of tension and the gradual transition to a simple, peaceful D major.
-John Bawden, MMus
University of Surrey, UK
Jesu, Meine Freude
JS Bach • BWV 227
Although the motet (derived from the French mot) came into being in the thirteenth century (when words, often secular, were added to the upper parts of passages of organum), its flowering into the central genre of church music was not until the sixteenth century. By then, the use of a plainsong cantus firmus as the foundation of the music had largely been replaced with imitation and the use of counterpoint to illustrate each phrase of text. The points of counterpoint were frequently unrelated and the structure of the whole piece was, therefore, determined by the text rather than by adherence to an existing musical line. By the early eighteenth century, the word motet was often used loosely to describe any piece of church music that fulfilled the former liturgical function of the sixteenth century motet.
Although such works might today be described as cantatas or concerti (they would often involve instrumental continuo, solo voice sections and obbligato instrumental passages), in Bach’s day, there was an understanding that a motet, even in the Protestant tradition, would draw on some or all of the features of the stile antico. Bach’s motets might have been performed with continuo and instrumental doubling but, as distinct from his cantatas, would not normally have included obbligato instrumental parts. They were still written as a succession of unrelated points of counterpoint, but sometimes more modern elements were introduced such as fugal technique or the ritornello plan.
All of Bach’s six authenticated motets were written between 1723 and 1727 for St Thomas’ Church, Leipzig, where Bach was appointed as director of music in 1723. During this period, Bach’s major output consisted of the majority of his cantatas, and it seems likely that for ordinary Sunday services he used existing motets from the seventeenth century tradition, reserving his own motet compositions for special occasions; four of the six were written for funeral services of prominent members of the congregation of St Thomas. ‘Jesu Meine Freude’ (BWV 227), the longest, most musically complex and earliest of the six, was written in 1723 for the funeral of Johanna Maria Käsin, the wife of Leipzig’s postmaster.
It uses as its basis the eponymous chorale by Johann Crüger (words by Johann Franck), but includes passages from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. It is set in eleven short movements arranged in a symmetrical musical structure which can be divided into three groups of settings: choral tune and text (nos. 1, 3, 7, 11); free settings of the chorale (nos. 5 and 9) and settings of the extra biblical text (nos. 2, 4, 6, 8, 10). The whole piece is centred around the fugal number 6; either side of this are two groups (nos. 3–5 and nos. 7–9) containing a chorale, a trio and an aria-like movement. Numbers 2 and 10 have material in common and numbers 1 and 11 use identical music
Collegium Musicum of London