Monday, January 5, 2015

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

The Visitation
Rogier van der Weyden (c1445)
Museum der Bildenden Künste, 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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