Caref’lly tends an ancient tune,
A master gard’ner.
Deep roots reach down and
Back to far-off times and words,
While song seeks the sky.
“My soul magnifies
The Lord, my spirit exults
In God, my savior.”
So begins the song;
In Bach’s hands it blooms, now a
Whose petals burst forth
In melismatic splendor,
Choirs everywhere are beginning their work on Bach’s Magnificat for Christmastime performances, and I’d like to tell you a little bit about it today.
The Magnificat is one of the oldest Christian hymns, and its words have been set by numerous composers, including Monteverdi, Tallis, Bach, Bruckner, Vaughan Williams, Rutter, Tavener, and Pärt.
There are two versions of Bach’s Magnificat, dated 1723 and 1733. The former (designated BWV 243a) includes Christmas hymns. The latter (BWV 243) omits the hymns and differs somewhat from the 1723 version. The later version is the one that is most commonly performed. It is one of only a few Latin texts set by Bach, who primarily worked with German texts.
Bach alternates movements featuring the full choir with soloist performances. There are many fantastic recordings of this work, from one-voice-per-part performances to those with full choirs. The wonderful weaving of voices is something you have to hear—my talking about it is merely the rustling of dry leaves. Listen to the lovely duet Et misericordia:
Here is a full performance. The overture is Bach at his exuberant best. The score is available here. Choristers who would like a little help learning their parts might like to check out the Magnificat at cyberbass.com, where you can find a midi recording of each part. If you’d like someone to actually sing it for you, and you have a little money, check out the Magnificat at rehearsalarts.com, where you can purchase a recording of a person singing your part.
Whether you’re singing, playing in the orchestra, or listening, Bach’s Magnificat is a joy to experience.
Image attribution: The Visitation and Magnificat text from the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry (Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 59v), [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Folio_59v_-_The_Visitation.jpg . The original document is at the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.