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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