Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Bach: For All the Generations

25 Comments

bach

Sometimes when I’m practicing my current choir music, Bach’s Magnificat, I have to sit there and shake my head.  At first, it was a case of “How on Earth am I going to do this?!” Over time, however, lots of time, I’ve arrived at a new question: “How on Earth did he do this?!”

So one day, armed with my own score and a pencil, I decided to try to figure out exactly what he was up to in those lines of music.

I think it’s highly appropriate that the first thing I saw as I opened to Omnes generationes was an instruction from my choir director that I had transcribed:

Breathe as needed.  Observe rests.

Sound advice.

I decided to tackle the most obvious component of this movement to see what Bach did.  The entire piece consists of two words, “omnes generationes” [all the generations] repeated again and again.  Bach brings this phrase in with five repeated eighth notes on the same pitch—a clarion trumpet call, announcing “all, all the generations.”  It’s insistent.

You don’t have to read music to see this note pattern, it’s easy to pick out.  Look, I’ll show you:

 

Excerpt of score of Bach's Magnificat, Omnes generationes, showing theme and florid section

While the five-note theme is a trumpet, the voice in the “florid” section of notes is a stringed instrument.  I picture a bow moving back and forth across the strings as the notes bounce up and down in my throat.  Some nights I need a little more rosin.

But getting back to Bach, what does he do with this?  Knowing I was only scratching the surface, I went through and circled the first note of all the instances of that five-note theme in each voice (Soprano 1, Soprano 2, Alto, Tenor, Bass).

He uses it 46 times in 27 measures.

He must mean it.

Then, I looked at what note in the scale of D major he used to start the phrase.

Answer:  all of them

Except instead of G he used G#, and then he threw in B# (C natural) for good measure, so we have

D   E   F#   G#   A   B   B#/C   C#

And this gets worked in with all the other notes swirling around it.  Musical Sudoku at its finest.

And then, to make sure you didn’t miss the point, for effect he brings the phrase in, slightly offset in time, in each voice (it’s called stretto, Italian for tight or narrow, as in tightly packed voices).

Score of Bach's Magnificat, Omnes generationes, example of stretto

“Did you miss it?” asks Johann.  “If you did, I’ll make everybody come to a halt, and then bring in everyone together, then let the basses bring it home.”

Excerpt of Bach's Magnificat, Omnes generationes, showing simultaneous statement of theme

Wow.

Just…wow.

And this is the easy phrase to explain.

And now I think it’s time to observe a rest.  But first, let’s listen to Omnes generationes.

References

Bach, J. S., Magnificat in D BWV 243.  Barenreiter 5103a vocal score.  Vocal Score arranged by Eduard Müller, Edited by Alfred Dürr. Clifton, NJ, European American Music Distributors Corporation, 1956.

Link to scores online: http://imslp.org/wiki/Magnificat_in_D_major,_BWV_243_(Bach,_Johann_Sebastian)

25 thoughts on “Bach: For All the Generations

  1. Very, very cool. Outstanding post. This is so energizing.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Great job, Chris! You have a real gift for explaining potentially “complex” musical issues in simple, direct language- with great use of examples.

    Well done!

    Tom

    Liked by 6 people

  3. I love your illustration! Shows how each generation has to catapult their music back into the new younger one for them to appreciate the past.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Thank you for this. The first time I heard Bach was 33 years ago. I wasn’t familiar with classical music, and I was a newly single parent, relocated, trying to make ends meet. I had a dream that I was kneeling in a large stone church, and it was chilly. I suddenly heard music, musica so beautiful that it filled my heart, and I woke halfway, tears from the beauty running down my face. I asked ” what is this?” A voice answered, ” It’s Bach!” Oh it’s so beautiful, I thought, and I looked for the musician…’ Who?” I wondered, and the voice in m dream said, ” It’s Bach playing, of course” (‘ you silly goose’ was implied). And then, of course, I searched and found the music in my dream, and much more.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Thank you. I just started taking guitar lessons so I am far from your level but had not yet thought about the music being a purposeful communication. Thank you for opening my eyes to this ‘whole new world’.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Excellent post!!! Sublime! Congratulations Krista! 😉

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Thanks! Exploring the subtleties like you’ve shared makes Bach’s music even more impressive.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. That is so cool that is outstanding

    Liked by 3 people

  9. “How on earth did HE do this?” I play the violin, and I wonder the same thing. He really thought outside of the Bachs🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  10. How I wish I continued my piano lessons 😢 I couldn’t get some parts (because I can’t understand some terms, haha!) but I enjoyed your post! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Music is so beautiful, I’m always fascinated by learning more and more about it and this was so simply explained. You my friend are a true musician

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Very nice post! Congratulations!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Reblogged this on Comentarista de Tudo and commented:
    Post sensacional mostrando como um compositor como Bach usa diversos mecanismos da linguagem musical para enfatizar uma ideia!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Hahaha that feature cartoon is awesome. I couldn’t stop laughing

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I’ve played music since I was three years old, and that cartoon perfectly captures the essence of bach. Funny… and creative!

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I like your enthusiastic introduction to this slice of this masterpiece. I haven’t drank from “The Source” in years. It’s good to get back to Bach. Keep up the good work. And don’t forget to breathe!

    Liked by 1 person

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