Bach’s Magnificat

In a note written for a concert in January 2009, Simon Wright talks about Bach’s Magnificat.


The Magnificat has long been a favourite of mine since I sang it as a young treble. It has always struck me as one of the most straightforward and joyous pieces in the choral repertoire; not straightforward to sing or to play by any means, but this music simply jumps off the pages of the score. One of the joys of this music is the ‘word painting’ that Bach uses throughout the piece. In the first movement the elation and excitement of the words of the Virgin Mary Magnificat anima mea Dominum is truly captured in running phrases:

Bach_ex1

and in full choral outburst:

Bach_ex2

In the fourth movement (Omnes generations – all generations) Bach ingeniously uses two musical devices to suggest the words. The theme of the movement is first used in canon, that is, each part entering as in a round:

Bach_ex3

Then in the 5th bar, in order to build up the musical tension, he brings in the 5 vocal parts in a rising scale, beginning with the altos:

Bach_ex4

One of the simplest and most obvious descriptive word settings comes in the tenor solo (Deposuit potentes – He hath put down the mighty) where the mighty are put down in a descending scale:

Bach_ex5

and the humble are exalted with a rising phrase:

Bach_ex6

– simple but so effective!

Another joy of this music is in the orchestral writing. Bach was able to employ a large orchestra for the Magnificat, including two oboes d’amore (one of which has a hauntingly beautiful solo in the third movement) and trumpets and drums. The trumpets of Bach’s time were rather different instruments to those of today. Thanks to the industrial revolution, brass instruments are now equipped with valves, something that Bach’s trumpeters could only have dreamed of. Their instruments were nothing more than refined metal curtain rods usually bent round twice, although sometimes coiled, with a mouthpiece at one end and a bell shape at the other. However, Bach had no sympathy for the players when he was writing the Magnificat (nor, in fact, the Suite in D). He had a virtuoso trumpeter in Leipzig, Gottfried Reiche, for whom he wrote staggeringly difficult parts. This does not look like a normal trumpet part:

Bach_ex7

No wonder that trumpeters were held in very high regard in those days!

Trumpeters nowadays play these very high parts on piccolo trumpets, half the size of a normal trumpet you see in shop windows and with four valves instead of the normal three. It doesn’t mean that Bach’s trumpet parts are now easy to play – they certainly are not – they are just one of the many challenges for musicians who perform this wonderful music.

© Simon Wright 2009
Leeds Festival Chorus

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