Notes From the Podium
David Griggs-Janower’s thoughts regarding Albany Pro Musica’s current concert.
BACH MAGNIFICAT IN D MAJOR
User-Friendly Bach, or, What To Listen For
The Magnificat is, for me, a perfect 25 minutes of Bach. There are twelve movements, which averages out to hardly more than two minutes per movement! Bach says what he has to say–expressively, elegantly, heroically–and moves on. (There are no da capo arias, for instance, with those long repeats, such as in the standard Handel Italian two-hour opera that takes four hours to perform, or so it seems! There is, however, a sort of global da capo, as we shall see.) Furthermore, each aria (aria meant “soloist movement” for Bach, whether for a single soloist, or two or three) is different: An aria for high soprano and oboe d’amore; one for middle soprano and strings; one for alto and flutes; one for tenor and violins in unison; one for bass and solo cello; a duet for alto and tenor, with muted strings doubled by flutes; and a trio for high soprano, middle soprano and alto, with oboes (originally with trumpet!). And all surrounded by choruses. Terrific variety. In fact, perfect.
Each movement of the twelve takes a sentence of “Mary’s Song” and boils that sentence down to its essence. That essence becomes the expressive basis of the musical ideas for that movement, what the German Baroque called the Affekt. The opening movement’s Affekt is the expression of “Magnifying the Lord,” while the second movement “exults in God,” and so forth. It is more clear here –perhaps one should say less complex and therefore less complicated –than in the longer works of Bach, as great as the Passions and the Mass in B Minor are. And so, our user-friendly program notes provide below the Affekt for each movement.
1 – Magnificat – Magnify – “My soul doth magnify the Lord”
The great amount of activity, the large melodic leaps, and the dramatic statements by the chorus on the word “magnificat” all indicate “magnifying,” while the direction of those leaps – upward – suggest who is being magnified. All leaps lead to God.
Listen for the leaps in the strings and trumpets (trumpets = the majesty of God!) and the joyful activity in the oboes and flutes, and then how those ideas are passed around from one group to the other. Then the opening of the group, fast activity for two measures and joyful, leaping statements of “Magnificat”.
2. Et exsultavit – Joy, Rejoice – “And my spirit rejoices in God my savior”
Every moment of this movement is filled with excited joy: the opening rising melodic line, the figure heard in the cellos and basses in the second measure, a little dance step, and the soloist’s long, high notes. The opening tune, and much of the soloist’s music, is often repeated a step higher; the excitement is so great that one cannot even stay in the given key.
You can hear immediately the opening theme’s rising line in the upper strings and the joyful, active response in the cellos. A little flurry of joyful music is followed by the opening theme a step higher, and then it goes higher still! Pure joy.
3. Quia respexit – Humility, Bowing – “For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden”
The plaintive sound of the oboe d’amore suggests an Affekt far removed from the joy of the second movement. The shape of the melodic line, always gracefully bowing down, represents humility.
The doleful sound of the oboe, the minor key, the descending melodic line and the restrained harmonies and melodic intervals all suggest humility.
4. Omnes generationes – - Everyone, Everywhere – “All generations”
The Latin grammar makes possible a masterful dramatic stroke by Bach. The sentence at the end of the third movement reads, “I shall be called blessed by all generations.” Bach finishes the sentence, and also the music of movement 3, at the beginning of movement 4, where the chorus jumps right in on the soloist’s final syllable. The musical effect here is of many people from all directions (all parts in successive, imitative entrances throughout). This drama is further heightened by a succession of entrances all on the same note, coming together on a fermata, waiting for one final statement of the melody.
At the beginning you hear everyone entering immediately, rather furiously, as “all generations” make their presence known. The main theme of repeated notes is in the basses, followed quickly by first sopranos, second sopranos, altos, and so on, as each generation says “here I am!”
5. Quia fecit mihi magna – Might, Holiness – “He who is mighty has magnified me, and holy is his name”
Okay, so perhaps this movement really has two Affekts: God is mighty, yet holy. The large leaps in the melodic line (both cello and bass singer), the fairly large range from low to high, the low melisma on “potens” (mighty), and the use of the lowest instruments and the lowest voice, all represent God’s might (God is very masculine in Bach!). In the second half there is a subtle but significant change when the text speaks of holiness: The keys used here are mostly minor ones, the melody is more legato and more step-wise, and the melismas are higher and gentler.
The solo cello line, repeated by the solo bass sing, is a regal, masculine melody filled with large leaps.
6. Et misericordia – Mercy, Fear – “and his mercy is on them who fear him”
Quite often in Bach the plea for mercy is an insecure one: one with fear of not receiving that mercy attached. The opening throbbing in the bass line and the later repetition of a single note without a change of syllable on the word “fear” (reminiscent of the opening of the St. Matthew Passion!) suggest a fearful pleading, while the instrumentation of muted strings doubled by flutes low in their range adds an eerie quality.
You can hear these wonderful colors right away of the strings and flutes, the gentle melody, and the pulse in the cello and bass, followed by the alto and tenor duet in such heartfelt music.
7. Fecit potentiam – Strength – “He hath made known the power of his arm, and scattered the proud”
This movement is all about strength, almost to the point of machismo! Most of the chorus and the winds and brass have trumpet-like fanfares in the first two measures, as if announcing a battle or calling us to arms. The tenor line, the subject of this fugal movement, is a mighty thrust and re-thrust. Towards the end one can hear the “scattering” of the once-proud. A final tutti chordal statement, quite surprising, is a victory statement.
“Strength” arrives with a vengeance at the opening after that lovely mercy duet. Leaps and strongly dotted rhythms in most of the parts have a martial character suggesting strength, while the main theme in the tenors, extremely vigorous, always sound to me like muscle-flexing!
8. Deposuit – Depose – “He hath put down the mighty and exalted the humble and meek
The strings at the beginning say it all. Every gesture indicates the removal of the mighty from their thrones, from the opening repeated note played by all violins together for strength to the furious, fast descending notes, ending with a strong dismissal. In the middle of the movement the tenor changes direction to represent the “exalting,” and when the words indicate who is being exalted (the humble), the melody jumps back down.
Listen to the vigor, the descending line, and the dismissiveness of the gesture that ends the descending line.
9. Esurientes – Full, Goodness – “He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he sends away empty”
In one of Bach’s most absolutely pleasant moments, he represents fulfillment with the gentle sound of the flutes, the Lawrence Welkian pizzicatos in the strings, the small rhythmic kicks in the melody, and the happy trills at the end of each phrase. The solo flutes, usually a sign of blessing (or the Holy Spirit) in Bach’s music, weave a web of grace around the soloist. Bach could not resist the musical pun when the word “inanes” (“empty”) arrives: He omits any bass continuo notes.
Here is the opening, so pleasant, so gently playful.
10. Suscepit Israel – Remembrance, Mercy – “He hath helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy”
The floating solo trio, with sparse instrumental accompaniment, suggests a distant memory, while the oboes, playing a scale of a foreign nature (tonus peregrinus), are in another world, perhaps the realm of mercy, perhaps a distant memory, a bygone time. Listen also for the pulse in the bass line.
11. Sicut locutus est – Forefathers – “As He promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed, forever”
As we would expect from Bach, he treats the phrase “as He promised to our forefathers” by writing a movement in a style from an earlier generation: a straightforward, simplified fugue with no instrumental accompaniment, not even an independent continuo part: the music of our ancestors.
12. Gloria – Glory, Trinity – “Glory to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning…”
After the relatively sedate previous movement, the combined choral and orchestral forces enter with ultimate pomp for three massive statements of the word “glory,” one for the Father, one for the Son, one for the Holy Spirit. These statements are separated by triplets (Trinity). The “Father” statement begins low, more of that machismo for God I mentioned earlier. The “Son” statement is midrange, normal, Son of Man as well as Son of God. The “Holy Spirit” statement is high, in the realm of the Ghost, and is in minor; it’s ghostly. A huge final cadence, with trumpets on high, leads to the words “as it was in the beginning,” an invitation to Bach to repeat more or less verbatim some of the music from the opening movement. A beautifully rounded, large-scale da capo – why, it’s perfect!
Here’s the opening statement – and quite a statement it is! – and the triplets from low to high for God the Father.
A very brief bit about of the structure of the Bach Magnificat. This structure is in part defined by the text, but there have been many settings of this text over the centuries and none quite like this one.
There are four tutti choruses that serve as structural pillars. In between the pillars are pairs of arias which have opposite Affekts:
1. Choral “pillar”
4. Choral “pillar”
5. Power of God
6. Mercy of God
7. Choral “pillar”
8. Anger of God
9. Goodness of God
10 and 11 are “ensemble arias” without orchestral accompaniment except the continuo (cello, bass, organ) and in #10, the obbligato oboe. So they are paired as well. This further suggests that #11, as well as #10, should be soloists. This would then continue the progression of solo arias which branch out to a duet (#6), then a trio (#10), then a quintet (#11), and #11 is a quartet at first, with four entrances, and only later does the fifth part make its entrance. And then:
12. Choral “pillar”.
Structurally, textually, “Affekt”-ually, Bach uses all the tools at his disposal to craft a perfectly-honed gem of a piece, which truly illustrates his genius.
by John Corigliano
John Corigliano was born in 1938 in New York City into a musically accomplished family. His mother played piano; his father was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic during the Bernstein years. He studied composition at Columbia University and at the Manhattan School of Music and worked as assistant to the director on Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. Corigliano has won numerous awards as a composer, including the Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra (2001) and an Oscar (Best Original Score) for The Red Violin. He has written one opera, The Ghosts of Versailles, for the Metropolitan Opera.
We can let the composer speak for himself about Fern Hill:
“I first encountered Dylan Thomas’s work in 1959, my last undergraduate year at Columbia College. It was a revelation. Both the sound and structures of Thomas’s words were astonishingly musical. Not by accident, either: “What the words meant was of secondary importance; what matters was the sound of them. . . these words were as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments,” he wrote in his Poetic Manifesto of 1951. I was irresistibly drawn to translate his music into mine. One poem captivated me: Fern Hill, about the poet’s “young and easy” summers at his family’s farm of the same name…. Fern Hill is a blithe poem, yet touched by darkness; time finally holds the poet “green and dying,” but the poem itself, formally just an ABA song extended into a wide arch, sings joyously of youth and its keen perceptions. I set it for mezzo-soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra, aiming to match the forthright lyricism of the text.”
(The direction “with simplicity” is everywhere in the printed score.)
~ David Griggs-Janower
By Dylan Thomas
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.