Concert Notes

Bach’s Magnificat

Notes by TŌN oboist Shawn Hutchison

Curious Dichotomies
The music of J.S. Bach contains many curious dichotomies which have, no doubt, contributed to its enduring popularity and appreciation. It is at once abstract yet approachable, specific in its intended audience yet overwhelmingly universal in its message, and grounded in the earthly toils of human life while pointing towards a transcendent spiritual reality. These seemingly oppositional forces find profound synthesis in Bach’s setting of the Magnificat canticle. 

A Mature Style
Initially composed in 1723 as a set of twelve movements with added Christmas hymns, the Magnificat BWV 243 was completed in its current form in 1733, during the height of Bach’s career as the Thomaskantor in Leipzig. As such, it exemplifies the composer’s mature style, exhibiting the flowing counterpoint, clever text-painting, and deep emotional pathos so central to his writing. The Magnificat occupies an intriguing place in Bach’s liturgical output, as it is (alongside the Mass in B Minor) one of the few large-scale sacred works which he composed in Latin; being himself a Lutheran and operating professionally within the context of the German Reformation, Bach primarily composed vocal works in German.

Refined Skills
The year 1723 is significant in the life of J.S. Bach as it marks the outset of his creative life in Leipzig, where he was appointed as the Thomaskantor, a position which included the duties of composing music for church services, leading the musical direction of church performing ensembles, as well as teaching at the adjoining Thomasschule. Prior to his arrival in Leipzig, Bach held myriad posts—both within the church and for secular patrons such as Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen—and it is from this extensive working experience that he refined his compositional skills to the heights reached in works such as the cantata cycles, the Passions, and the Magnificat.

Text and Translation

Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.Magnificat anima mea Dominum.

Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae;
ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent 

Omnes generationes.

Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est, et sanctum nomen ejus.

Et misericordia ejus a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.

Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.

Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles.

Esurientes implevit bonis,
   et divites dimisit inanes.

Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus misericordiae suae.

Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros.
Abraham et semini ejus in saecula.

Gloria Patri, et Filio,
gloria et Spiritui Sancto!
Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper
et in saecula saeculorum.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.

And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

For he has looked with favor on his humble servant;
From this day [they] will call me blessed

in every generation.

The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things,
   and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy.

the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and will be for ever.