Monday, January 5, 2015

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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