Johann Sebastian Bach

Magnificat in D major


Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Johann Sebastian Bach was named director of music in the city of Leipzig and cantor at St. Thomas Church in May 1723. By December he had already composed 30 cantatas, and on Christmas day his choir presented three newly written works: Cantata No. 63, "Christen ätzet diesen Tag," Sanctus in C for the morning service, and a Magnificat in E flat for Vespers. The last of these pieces was the original draft of the Magnificat in D major, BWV 243, which, in its final form, has become one of Bach's best-loved and most frequently performed choral works. Revisions, completed between 1728 and 1731, included the addition of flute and trumpet parts, which explains the transposition to the more trumpet-friendly key of D and the excision of four interpolated movements that were not part of the canticle text.

The Marian canticle "Magnificat" had been part of the evening service from the earliest days of the church. In Luke's infancy narrative, when Gabriel informed Mary that she was to bear the son of God, all she could say was, "I am the servant of the Lord. Do with me what you will." It was not until she visited her cousin Elisabeth that she allowed her elation to overflow and sang, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my savior." Composers have always found this joyous text a rich inspiration, and Bach's setting is one of his finest choral works. Bach divides the text into 11 parts, roughly corresponding to the ten verses of the canticle (with a separate setting for "all generations shall call me blessed," the second half of verse three), and adds the Gloria Patri (lesser Doxology), in accord with established liturgical traditions.

The Magnificat in D major, BWV 243 is scored for five-part chorus, soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists, two flutes, oboe, oboe d'amore,oboe da caccia, bassoon, three trumpets, timpani, strings, and continuo. A sense of exultation is evident throughout, tempered with modesty and awe. The two festive outer movements mingle imitative elements with emphatic rhythmic impetus.The brilliant vocal counterpoint above pedal points in the "Gloria," twice rising, then falling in triplets through the sections blurs the perception both of harmonic and metric structure, swirling and rushing like the restless wings of the heavenly host. The excitement of "et exultavit," set in a bouncy triple meter and replete with rippling passagework, is countered by the broad peacefulness of "quia respexit," with its plaintive oboe d'amore obbligato. In contrast to "et exultavit," where the lines leap upward, here the melodic phrases tend downward in humility. A lengthy fughetta for full chorus is followed by a bass aria, with its repetitive, bold insistence on strength. A duet section suggests yearning, while the character of the next two movements is undeniably martial, especially reinforced in the tenor aria by a unison string accompaniment. "Esurientes" is lazy and humorous, and the ensuing trio is exquisite, with a wandering melody played by unison oboes, the voices twining around it in slow counterpoint. The piece ends as it began, with trumpets and kettledrums blazing.