Praise & Glory: Monuments of Musical Rejoicing
By Thomas May
The impulse to rejoice takes on countless musical forms in J.S. Bach’s works. By happy coincidence, it was the Christmas season of 1723 that provided what the eminent Bach scholar Christoph Wolff describes as “the first opportunity for an exhilarating musical statement” since the composer had taken on his new job in Leipzig, where he would remain until the end of his career 27 years later.
The ambitious Magnificat that Bach produced for the occasion was intended to give the city and his bosses an indelible impression of the role he expected music to play under his tenure — a role he would foster by replacing stale convention with innovative, challenging new compositions and musical practices. It stands out as a resplendent example of the remarkable artistic feats Bach set himself to accomplish as soon as he took over his duties in Leipzig, when he resolved to furnish complete annual cantata cycles of his own for each Sunday and feast day. The Magnificat originated as Bach’s special response to that first Christmas Vespers service in Leipzig, and it is in its longer original form that we hear the work on the second half of our program.
A shorter piece by Bach meanwhile provides a fitting entrée to another iconic work of celebration and joyful praise from the Baroque, the beloved Gloria in D major of Antonio Vivaldi (see sidebar). In Bach’s milieu, the motet — a shorter sacred vocal composition that was a cappella or accompanied by organ — had been eclipsed by the cantata, so it’s not surprising that only six surviving individual motets are conventionally attributed to him. This doesn’t take into account motet-like movements incorporated into the cantatas or some of the choruses of the St. Matthew Passion. Bach’s authorship of Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (“Praise the Lord, all ye heathen”), BWV 230, has actually been contested by scholars; some meanwhile infer from its unusual degree of virtuosity that this brief piece might even be an excerpt from a longer cantata, since lost.
In any case, Lobet den Herrn, like Bach’s other surviving motets, is in the vernacular German rather than Latin. The text elaborates only the first two lines of Psalm 117 in an intricate design that juxtaposes polyphony and homophonic writing. The first two sections are closely interconnected, introducing two fugue subjects (one for each half of the first line). Their busy textures yield to a simpler style for the second line (“Denn seine Gnade und Wahrheit”), with the polyphony then resuming for its continuation as Bach amplifies the implications of “eternity.” Another fugue on “Alleluja” concludes this motet for four-part choir and continuo.
Vivaldi’s Paean to the Cosmos
Vivaldi gained his international celebrity from his well-publicized concertos. Many of these he produced for the highly talented musicians of the Ospedale della Pieta (Hospital of Mercy). The Pieta was a charitable institution for foundlings and orphans where the girls stayed on to develop desirable skills — such as musical training in the case of those with an obvious gift. This elect group offered concerts of such quality that they were useful in attracting donors, earning the Pieta a reputation as a first-rate conservatory in its own right.
Because of frequent music-related gigs that took him on the road, Vivaldi had a contentious relationship with the Pieta’s administration, but he spent many years teaching and writing music for these students. His duties at the Pieta included producing sacred music, though they never enjoyed the widespread circulation of his concertos, and they quickly fell into oblivion following Vivaldi’s death. It wasn’t until the 1920s that a trove of Vivaldi’s sacred music unexpectedly turned up in archives. Pieces like the Gloria, which had its “modern” premiere in Siena in 1939, have therefore had a much less extensive “afterlife” than many other famous works from the Baroque. (Vivaldi’s operas have taken even longer to find their way onto the radar, and the process of rediscovery of this prolific catalogue is ongoing.)
Thus there is scant information about the context of the Gloria in D (RV 589), which shares some features with another, less-well-known Gloria by Vivaldi that has also survived (RV 588); a third Gloria setting referred to in a catalogue of his works has meanwhile been lost. Most likely the familiar Gloria would have originally been written for and performed by the young women at the Pieta, and it is generally dated around 1715. All the soloist parts are for female voices, and the choir, as some scholars claim, would have even taken on the male lines, transposing up the bass line as needed. Yet Vivaldi had excellent singers and instrumentalists at his disposal, using them to paint a spectacular musical canvas with his Gloria. Along with the four-part choir and soloists, the ensemble calls for oboe, trumpet, strings, and continuo.
Vivaldi’s stand-alone setting of the Gloria (one of the prayers from the Mass) divides the text into twelve distinct movements, in essence crafting a kind of cantata or vocal concerto that encompasses astonishing variety, in keeping with the prayer’s far-ranging paean to the divine force of the Christian cosmos.
Vivaldi’s lively, fluid style makes the sequence of musical imagery easy enough to follow. Yet essential to that style is a note of unpredictability which makes the Gloria especially engaging. The opening chorus resounds in a triumphant D major but veers into murky harmonic regions, foreshadowing the uncertainty to come in the chromatic, inward-directed “Et in terra pax” in B minor. Vivaldi’s experience from his alternate career as an opera composer is apparent in the enchanting soprano duet “Laudamus te” and in the lilting pastoral soprano aria “Dominus Deus, Rex caelestis.”
The stern homophony of “Gratias agimus” preludes a tightly woven fugal style in “Propter magnam,” with yet another choral style of declamation to be heard in “Domine Fili.” Vivaldi combines solo aria with chorus in “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei”. The deep shadows of the choral “Qui tollis” lead into another B minor movement in the alto aria “Qui sedes,” preparing the way for a concentrated reprise of the D major Gloria — this time without its harmonic complications. Vivaldi then caps the work with an impressively woven concluding fugue (adapted, as it happens, from his older Venetian contemporary, the opera composer Giovanni Maria Ruggieri).
Bach’s First Milestone for Leipzig: The Magnificat
Both the Magnificat and St. John Passion, which followed several months later and rounded out Bach’s audacious first year in Leipzig, were landmarks in his plan to revitalize sacred music. Even more, notes Christoph Wolff, they helped set the stage for “the conceptualization and grandiose design” of the St. Matthew Passion, whose extraordinarily monumental dimensions remain among the most ambitious in Western music. Because Easter and Pentecost had already been celebrated before Bach took up his new post in 1723, he had to wait until the Christmas season to unfurl his first large-scale musical canvas for the Leipzigers.
Unlike Monteverdi’s great Vespers of 1610, we know the precise context of the Vespers service for which Bach’s Magnificat was originally composed over a century later. The text he sets is the Canticle of the Virgin Mary (from the Gospel of Luke), representing a prayer or monologue Mary spontaneously utters during the episode of the Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. After Elizabeth declares that “the babe leapt in my womb for joy” when Mary greeted her, Mary responds with the lines comprising the Magnificat. This prayer marks the culmination of the daily Vespers service but of course would have special significance on the day celebrating Jesus’ birth itself.
According to the tradition that had developed in Leipzig (in Bach’s time, such matters varied from one municipality to the next), the German translation of the Magnificat made by Luther would be sung during a regular Vespers service — the evening part of the daily liturgical cycle of prayers. However, the Latin text was still reserved for such important feasts as Christmas. As a result, the Magnificat, which is Bach’s only setting of this text, represents one of the comparatively few occasions — including the B minor Mass — on which the pious Lutheran Bach resorted to the language of the Roman Catholic Church for a musical setting.
Bach pulled out all the stops for his Magnificat, scoring it for an ensemble of recorders, oboes, trumpets, timpani, strings, and continuo and for five solo singers and an unusually expansive five-part choir that anticipates the choral layout of the B minor Mass. In addition, he interpolated four extra numbers among the twelve movements into which he divided the Magnificat text. These “extras” (known as laudes, or “songs of praise”) were specifically oriented to the Christmas season: three choruses (between Nos. 2 and 3, 5 and 6, and 7 and 8, respectively; two of them in German and the third in Latin), as well as a Latin duet for soprano and bass, “Virga Jesse floruit” (between Nos. 9 and 10).
Sometime in the early 1730s, Bach revisited the score, excising the laudes so that the Magnificat could be performed at other high feasts besides Christmas; he also transposed the original home key down a half step from E-flat to D major and replaced the recorders with modern flutes, created what became the standard repertory version. For this performance, Music Director Grant Gershon has decided to present the original Magnificat written for Christmas Day of 1723 with the laudes, but using the later transposition to D major.
The grand scale of Bach’s thinking in the Magnificat is apparent from its embarrassment of riches and maximal variety. Yet even the full choral movements have a swift-moving concision that causes the paradoxes expressed in Mary’s prayer to emerge in high relief. Bach’s moment-bymoment word painting and musical symbolism are, as expected, ingenious, drawing his listeners deeply into the prayer through rhythmic patterns that underline the motions of joy in “Et exsultavit,” for example. Bach likewise uses melodic shape and instrumental color to bring the words to life, as in the poignant oboe d’amore accompaniment to the soprano’s humble phrasing in “Quia respexit,” which suddenly opens up to the expansive vision of “omnes generationes.”
The voice of the deity is channeled through the bass in “Quia fecit,” while the following sequence of numbers further dramatizes the paradoxical effects of his interventions. In “Esurientes implevit,” for example, Bach allows the alto to sing with operatic luxury but slyly omits the charming flutes at the very moment the rich are “sent away empty.” The familiar chorale setting of the German Magnificat is woven into the exceptionally beautiful trio “Suscepit Israel,” while the fugal design of the ensuing chorus equates ancient musical tradition with the Law represented by Old Testament prophecy.
The timelessness of praise is signaled by a cyclical return at the end of the final chorus to the music from the opening, with its festive trumpets and timpani and concerto-like “instrumental” treatment of the vocal lines. Like a musical mosaic, the Magnificat’s diversity of perspectives, of close-up details and intricate designs, coheres into a beautifully unified construction — and an unmistakably resounding hymn of gratitude and praise.
Thomas May is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale
Bach Meets Vivaldi
Our Rejoice! program’s combination of music by Bach and Vivaldi is fitting in two senses. First, although Bach is routinely juxtaposed with his great worldly “twin” born in the same year, George Frideric Handel, what’s often overlooked is the significant influence exerted on Bach’s evolution by the long-neglected Vivaldi — who was in fact only seven years his senior. The German composer famously transcribed a group of Vivaldi’s concertos (during his Weimar years, about a decade before coming to Leipzig). And what he learned from the process, remarks Wolff, “represents a critical moment, perhaps ways of musical thinking.”
Another reason the opening Bach motet is especially apropos is that Vivaldi himself composed a shorter motet, Ostro Picta (RV 642), a combination of aria and recitative praising the Virgin Mary, which likely was intended to preface the diverse textures of the Gloria; in its Italian context, this genre of prefatory motet is known as an introduzione. Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden thus serves a similar purpose here, while its intricate polyphony makes for a fascinating comparison and contrast with Vivaldi’s choral methods in the Gloria.