by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Few celebrations in Lutheran Leipzig elicited more festival liturgical splendor than that of Reformation Sunday. The music of this celebration embraced the Latin Kyrie and Gloria, a Te Deum and, among others of Luther's hymns, that national paean "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" (A Mighty Fortress is Our God). The festival reached a significant climax when, on October 31, 1730, it commemorated the 200th anniversary of the Confession of Augsburg. For this festival Bach added to his earlier setting all the verses of Luther's hymn.
Some comments from Gilles Whittaker's The Cantatas of J.S. Bach will furnish us with appreciative insights. Luther's hymns always stimulated Bach to put forth his fullest powers. In this Cantata 80 no independent orchestral treatment was allowed to interfere with the declamation of the well-known melody. It is always unmistakably prominent and the congregation could not help but recognize it even with Bach's variations throughout.
The soloists and quartet in various combinations serve largely to enhance the non-chorale movements. These movements are likewise furnished with varied and highly illustrative instrumental accompaniments. The developed orchestra of 1730 comprises three trumpets, two oboes d'amore, oboe da caccia, organ taille doubling mostly the violins and violas, timpani and strings, all in effective combinations with the organ's colorful and varied voices.
Recognized as probably the greatest of Italian Baroque composers, Antonio Vivaldi was born into a poor family in Bragora, a small town near Venice. Having inherited his father's red hair, he was, throughout his life, referred to as "il prete roso", the red priest. After ordination to the priesthood, Vivaldi two years later ceased to celebrate Mass, apparently due to his severe attacks of asthma. However, he remained a fervent cleric throughout his life.
Following a solid grounding in violin provided by his professional violinist father, Vivaldi secured a position as instrumental teacher at Venice's famed female orphanage, the Ospedale della Pietá. Here he wrote, for these versatile girls, a great number of his concertos. However, his output of choral works was limited until between 1723 and 1739, after he ceased his employment at the Ospedale.
After his death at Vienna in abject poverty, Vivaldi's name and music disappeared from public view for nearly two centuries. Their principal resurrection commenced at a small but noteworthy festival held in the Great Hall of the University of Siena, Italy, in September, 1939! After World War II the concert-going public and the recording industry gave tremendous impetus to the knowledge and performance of his stunningly innovative and beautiful Baroque repertoire. Of his compositions, three in particular have captivated audiences, the instrumental Four Seasons and L'estro armonico, and the choral/orchestral Gloria (RV589). This Gloria has thus emerged, in the words of H. C. Robbins Landau, as his most frequently performed choral work because it is his most immediately comprehensible.
Gloria is scored for two soprano and one contralto soloists, mixed choir, two oboes, a trumpet, strings and organ continuo, embracing twelve diversified movements. These movements exhibit wide emotional variety from the solemn festive opening through the tragically somber, majestic contrapuntal choral exposition mixed with homophonic declamation coupled with virtuoso solo renditions. In all of these movements, Vivaldi makes stunning use of his instrumental accompaniments. It is to be noted that the closing chorus "Cum sancto spiritu" presents Vivaldi's distinguished reworking of a closing fugue from a Gloria of 1708 by C.H. Ruggeri.
The whole composition well illustrates the Vivaldi research scholar Michael Talbot's judgment that in this sacred music, Vivaldi revealed a combination of fervor, exaltation and mysticism. Similarly, Robbins Landon believes that Vivaldi's sacred music is at the core and center of his artistic thought.
Handel composed his Coronation Anthems in 1727 for the coronation in Westminster Abbey of King George II and Queen Caroline, his lifelong patrons and friends. He chose his own texts for these choruses from the Psalms of the King James version of Scripture and produced works of unsurpassed majesty and beauty. Zadok the Priest acclaims the king at the moment of coronation and The King Shall Rejoice expresses the joy of the whole occasion at the end of the ceremony. In these anthems Handel demonstrates his complete assimilation of the English choral style which was to become so effective in his subsequent oratorios. All or some of these anthems have been sung at subsequent coronation rites of British sovereigns.
Bach began his Magnificat in 1723 when he wrote the first version for Christmas of his first year as Cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Subsequently, between 1728 and 1731, he revised the work, changing its key from E flat to D and omitting several specifically oriented Christmas movements.
The famed German Bach scholar Albert Riemenschneider has observed that this Magnificat "is without doubt one of the greatest choral works ever written. It is the one work in its dimensions which ranks in every way with the very greatest of Bach and is the one composition of his which might well carry the caption 'Mulrum in parvo' (Greatness within limited dimensions)."
Scored for a virtuoso quartet of soloists, chorus and an orchestra comprising three trumpets, oboes d'amore, flutes, timpani and strings, Magnificat presents a detailed exposition of each of twelve movements with their adroit instrumentation backing the vocal score. Except for the three festal choral movements utilizing full orchestra (Magnificat, Fecit potentiam, Gloria Patri), every one of the other movements shows Bach accompanying the singer with varied orchestral forces designed with superb skill to highlight the particular text sung. Moreover, his selection of voice combinations, whether solo, duet or trio, similarly enhances his textual vision.
Magnificat indeed stands as one of Bach's most majestic, joyous and expressive works.