J.S. Bach – Magnificat (Song of Mary) in D, BWV 243 (1723)

The Magnificat is the Song of Mary. It derives from Luke 1:46-55, and is one of the oldest Christian hymns. It is the Virgin’s response to the faith of her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist.

Michelangelo: the Bruges Madonna, c. 1504

Michelangelo: the Bruges Madonna, c. 1504

There are several ways to participate in this work: (1) as oneself, one’s own soul magnifying the Lord; (2) as if listening to another, whose soul seeks to magnify the Lord; and, (3) as if listening to the Virgin Mary singing this magnification of the Lord. Although the last is the intent of the work, it is quite possible to experience all three participations simultaneously, while concurrently recognizing each of the different perspectives.

Bach: Magnificat, opening chorus

Bach: Magnificat, opening chorus

This is one of Bach’s exceptional works. It is in twelve sections, each setting one sentence of the Marian canticle. The twelve sections are arranged in four groups of three, and each of the four groups begins with a chorus and is followed by two arias, with the exception of the final group, which is comprised of three choruses.

The music structure is very carefully articulated. The third movement’s concept of being suffused with blessing is expanded to the understanding by all generations in movement four, with its extraordinarily forceful and repeated declamation of the words Omnes generationes.

With a similar intent of expansion, the sixth movement is an aria cast as a duet—one female, and one male, voice—broadened in the chorus that is the seventh movement to insist that in all the generations the ‘mighty will be put down’ and those of low degree ‘exalted.’

The two arias of this third group employ the same voices as the duet that is the sixth. The ninth movement, the aria for alto, is the emotional locus of the work: Esurientes implevit bonus et divites dismisit inanes; that is to say, “He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He hath sent empty away.” 

Thomaskirche and Thomasschule, Leipzig, where Bach was Thomaskantor

Thomaskirche and Thomasschule, Leipzig, where Bach was Thomaskantor

The final group, with its three choruses, then opens with a chorus for the two female choirs that is effectively a compassionate awareness of the truth of the preceding aria, and the essence of true mercy. This the eleventh movement, with the full chorus, elaborates into a fugue, not only to include all generations but also to emphasize that the magnifications of the soul recur and remain innately themselves always. The final chorus constitutes the glorification of the Trinity. At the words Sicut erat in principio et nunc: As it was in the beginning, is now: the music of the beginning of the work returns: and continues to et semper et in seculorum: and ever shall be, world without end: to proclaim the endlessness of the world of the spirit.

In one way, the work is about the endlessness of ending. It seems to me that this conception of Bach’s is as entirely valid in this its Christian context as it is in the conception of others’ and in other religions and philosophies, and it is unnecessary to hold faith in this particular religion in order to recognize and experience the depth of the understanding that is presented. I remain amazed by the artistry of Bach, who had such faith in the Lutheran church and who served it without stint; and yet is so remarkably able to enlarge towards universality through his musical settings the spiritual discoveries that have come to humankind and that it too infrequently attends to. There is something creatively extraordinary in the fineness and relevance of hymnal words of great composition and in the spiritual revelations that music, in its entirely profound and unique way, is able to communicate.

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