Monday, January 5, 2015

Word Painting in Bach's "Magnificat," Part 3 of 3




Autograph manuscript of Bach's Magnificat (c1732–35)
First page of Movement 1
Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin


Movement 9: Esurientes

Movements 7 and 8 of the Magnificat have focused upon the proud and the mighty, whom Bach musically disperses, diminishes, and deposes. Movement 9 shifts focus to persons of low degree, in particular, to "the hungry":

          Esurientes implevit bonis, et divites dimisit inanes.
          He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.

Correspondingly, Bach's music shifts from intense and deprecating to a mood that is worlds apart. In my readings I have found a variety of characterizations: "jaunty," "insouciant," "impertinent," even "flippant." 

The key is major. Two flutes cavort, now tripping along together, now tumbling one over the other. To Albert Schweitzer these perky flutes suggested "lively resentment"; to my ear they recall the taunting of a children's ditty. Beneath the flutes the bass plays pizzicato, that is, with strings plucked not smoothly bowed, which adds to the jaunty atmosphere:



In bar 8 the alto soloist enters, echoing the flutes' melodic lines. On the word implevit, "he hath filled," the alto line rises (bars 9 and 11). On divites dimisit, "the rich he has sent empty away," the alto line descends (bars 12 and 13). A fleeting cloud darkens this sunny landscape at the first occurrence of inanes, "empty," where Bach includes a discordant tritone (bar 14).

In bar 24 Bach continues his word painting by filling bonis, "good things," with a melisma of thirty-four notes, allowing the alto no space for a breath. Up above, the flutes seem oblivious to the prodigious demand this places on the singer. They toot trite tones with abundant space for breath after each:



At bar 27 Bach's word painting goes further. On implevit, "he hath filled," Bach literally fills the alto line with an astounding melisma of sixty-three notes, again allowing no opportunity for the singer to take a breath.

In the alto's final phrase of the movement Bach abruptly suspends the melodic lines at the word inanes, "empty" (bar 35). Flutes and bass instruments fall away, momentum falters, and the alto sings inanes in isolation and on two minor intervals, a minor 6th and a minor 2nd. Then, like a momentary shudder, Bach's familiar device of the diminished chord suggests itself in the solitary bass note that follows.

The music quickly recovers, the alto sings a final cadence, and the flutes resume their insouciant theme to conclude the movement.  Bach has yet one more surprise in store, however. It is a humorous touch, yet it expresses sobering religious insight.

The two flutes make their complacent way through a conventional cadence to a final delicate flourish in the key of E major that will conclude the movement. But they never finish that flourish. At the last moment Bach suspends the flutes in mid-flight. They never get to play their final note. Bach relegates the concluding note to a dull plunk from the bass alone:


As with a slap on the wrist for the smug self-satisfaction that the well-filled hungry have expressed throughout the movement, Bach sends the flutes "empty away."

Bach has been called "the fifth evangelist." Here his word painting can remind us that the four Gospels of the New Testament almost never portray Jesus criticizing persons whom we might label "bad." Jesus's anger is reserved for self-righteous persons, whether among the superbossated and pompous amidst their plenty, or among the humiles delivered from their deprivation yet deficient in gratitude and mercy. Bach's word painting here is a somber reminder deeply rooted in biblical tradition:

       Those of low estate are but a breath,
           those of high estate are a delusion;
       in the balances they both go up....
                                           ...Psalm 62:9


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Word Painting in Bach's "Magnificat," Part 2 of 3


Johann Sebastian Bach
Painting by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, c1748
City Hall Museum, Leipzig


Movement 8: Deposuit

As we have seen in the first part of this three-part posting, Movement 7 of Bach's Magnificat leaves "the proud in their conceit" reposing royally in the key of D major. Bach does not allow them to posture there for long.  "Pride goeth before destruction," says Proverbs 16:18, "and an haughty spirit before a fall." Mary's hymn and Bach's musical setting observe this same moral logic. Movement 8 opens with a precipitous fall.

At the end of Movement 7 the resplendent trumpet's concluding flourish ends on an F-sharp, the note that defines its D chord as a major chord. Bach opens Movement 8 by giving the violins that same note, but this time as the platform for a plunging scale in F-sharp minor:






Notice that the violins' threatening downward sweep terminates in a jagged upward interval (bar 2). The interval is a "tritone," so named because it spans three whole tones. In the middle ages the tritone was judged so discordant that it earned itself the nickname of "the devil's interval."

A second downward sweep by the violins follows immediately, this time terminating (bar 4) with the four upward notes of a diminished chord—familiar to us from the previous movement where Bach has used it to disperse and diminish the superbos. We might note that the diminished chord is comprised of two dissonant tritones superimposed.

In the space of four vehement bars Bach has cast down the proud from their triumphant D-major chord.

The violins conclude the instrumental introduction with an upward sweep (bar 14), like a dismissive gesture of the Almighty hand:





Then, echoing the violins' opening pattern, the solo tenor introduces the text:

          Deposuit potentes de sedes, et exaltavit humiles.
          He hath cast down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.

After a downward plunge of deposuit, "he hath cast down," and a downward tumble of de sedes, "from their seats," the tenor paints exaltavit, "exalted," on a swirling and ever-ascending melisma climaxing on a high A (bar 27). The vocal line then descends gently on an A-major scale to humiles "the humble."

Following another upward-swirling exaltavit later in the movement (bars 43–47) the tenor again descends to humiles, this time with a surprise:



The cadence (1st beat of bar 48) is not the expected chord of A major but a genial modulation to D major. Thus Bach grants to the humiles, as their rightful due, the tonality that was fleetingly claimed by the superbos at the close of the preceding movement. Thereupon Bach slows his pace and paints humility's quality of patient endurance by having the tenor sustain the final syllable of humiles for three measures on a single note (bars 48–50).

The sustained note is an F-sharp, the resplendent trumpet's note that ended Movement 7 from which Bach hurled the superbos. But the sustained F-sharp of humiles is modest and unassuming, being two octaves lower than the trumpet's.

Above the tenor's sustained humiles the violins continue to recall the fall of the superbos with descending melodic lines. After a final exaltavit humiles the opening instrumental motifs return to bring the movement to a close.

Thus in Movements 7 and 8 Bach has dispersed, diminished, and deposed the conceited. In Movement 9 he will depict the humble. 


(Concluded in Part 3 of this posting)


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Word Painting in Bach's "Magnificat," Part 1 of 3


The Visitation
Rogier van der Weyden (c1445)
Museum der Bildenden K√ľnste, Leipzig


Movement 7: Fecit potentiam

It is said that to sing a prayer is to pray twice. The power of a musical setting to enhance and elucidate the meaning of a religious text first became vivid to me in Bach's setting of the Magnificat, Mary's hymn of praise (Luke 1:39–56). The hymn appears amidst Luke's narrative of the pregnant Mary's visitation to her kinswoman Elizabeth, who is also carrying a child, conceived miraculously in her old age.

At a certain stage in my education I had been made aware of the Magnificat's central theme of "social inversion": God's casting down the mighty and exalting the humble and meek. But I had never studied the Magnificat very closely, and I was vaguely aware that one of its phrases remained obscure to me. The phrase was this: "He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts." I had never puzzled out what scattering people in the imagination of their hearts might mean—for so I was trying to read the phrase.

Then one day, without my even asking, Bach's musical setting of those words made their meaning clear to me. Let me describe how Bach cleared away my puzzlement.

Here, in the King James Version, is the verse containing the phrase in question:

       He hath showed strength with his arm;
           he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

Or in the Vulgate, from which Bach worked:

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

In the 7th movement of his Magnificat, Bach conveys the energy of the opening words Fecit potentiam in a number of ways simultaneously. He composes overlapping vocal and instrumental lines consisting of strong intervals, angular and widely spaced, and ending in a robust dotted rhythm on potentiam:

On that same word potentiam Bach launches the tenors upon a vigorous melisma, that is, a single syllable extending throughout many notes. Simultaneously, and persistently throughout the movement, the bass instruments repeat an obsessive five-note figure—rather like the powerful motif with which Beethoven, three-quarters of a century later, would open his Fifth Symphony.

As the movement progresses, Bach gives each of the other four voices of the five-part chorus a turn at the tenors' opening melisma, all the while keeping his combination of energetic motifs constantly at work. In each of its appearances the melisma concludes with the phrase in brachio suo, "with his arm." Then each vocal line moves on to the word dispersit, "he has scattered" or "he has dispersed."

With increasing concentration the consonants of dispersit thump and puff, hiss and tut amidst the choral texture. And then Bach does a remarkable thing. He has each choral part, in turn, sing dispersit alone: bass, soprano 1, soprano 2, alto, and tenor. Bach literally disperses the word dispersit throughout the chorus:



This choral dispersal leads to the first occurrence of the word superbos, "the proud." Again Bach does a remarkable thing. With superbos Bach has the chorus leap to a chord that is unexpected and unsettling (above, final measure). One commentator has described the chord as "remote and scathing."

The chord is termed "diminished" (German: vermindert). It differs from a simple minor chord because the fifth is diminished, that is, lowered, by a half step. The result is harmonic dissonance and instability. With this diminished chord Bach pulls the harmonic rug out from under the superbos. His music portrays the unsoundness of their pride.

A diminished chord is harmonically ambiguous. Until a succeeding chord is sounded, a diminished chord cannot be assigned to any specific key. Thus the pause after superbos crackles with harmonic tension. For the duration of that highly charged moment Bach leaves the proud suspended in mid-air.

What will come next? How will Bach further characterize the superbos in his musical setting of the concluding words of the text—the phrase that had me puzzled: mente cordis sui, "in the imagination of their hearts"?

With the music's resumption, the earlier, energetic tempo changes to adagio, "slow." The relentless bass pattern ceases. The tonality is neither quite major or minor, but the music is broad and grandiose. It is the kind of music that might accompany a royal procession, music that would seem to exalt the "proud." But on the first occurrence of the word cordis, "heart," Bach employs the same diminished chord that we have heard on superbos:


Then Bach introduces pounding tympani and blaring trumpets, and the music passes beyond grandiosity to pomposity. On the second syllable of cor-dis the trumpet leaps up to what I am told is the highest note that was available to trumpets of Bach's time. Again the music might seem to express exaltation. But Bach accompanies this highest peak of pride with a third occurrence of his diminished chord, in a particularly harsh voicing.

Upon singing this chord amidst a performance of the Magnificat by my university choir, I realized that my puzzlement over the text had ended in an instant. Of course: the superbos are proud only in the imagination of their own hearts, an imagination that Bach has earlier dispersed and now duly diminishes with his dissonant chords.

The wording that had me confused—"in the imagination of their hearts"—is from William Tyndale, who published the first Bible in English translation (1526).  Tyndale's wording predominated for centuries, through the King James Version (1611), the American Standard Version (1901), and the Revised Standard Version (1952), which was the version I studied in the 1960s.

I would have been spared puzzlement could I have known the Magnificat's text in more recent translations of the Bible. For example, the New International Version (1973): "He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts." Or the Book of Common Prayer (1977): "He has scattered the proud in their conceit." In the absence of these translations, Bach's music was the medium of my clarification.

After his diminished chord on cordis, Bach concludes this 7th movement of the Magnificat grandlywith a trilling trumpet and a resounding D-major chord. Does Bach leave the superbos in this concluding triumphant state? Not for long, as we shall see in the upcoming 8th movement.

(Continued in Part 2 of this 3-part posting)

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