In 2018, the Oldest Bach Choir in the United States, The Bach Choir of Bethlehem celebrates its 120th birthday season. The choir gave the first complete U.S. performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor in [...]
Bach - Magnificat BWV 243, Cantata "Gloria in excelsis Deo" BWV 191; Vivaldi - Gloria RV 589
They spoke about it
The oldest American Bach Choir, The Bach Choir of Bethlehem performs, on their first recording on the Analekta label, works celebrating the Creator by J.S. Bach and Vivaldi. Such renowned singers as Daniel Taylor, Daniel Lichti and Benjamin Butterfield are joining conductor Greg Funfgeld on this glorious recording.
This recording could have been titled “Glorious Glorias,” since the first of these three works ends with the Gloria Patri, the second is a setting of the Gloria in excelsis Deo, and the third conjoins the Gloria in excelsis Deo with the Gloria Patri.
J.S. Bach: Magnificat (BWV 243)
J.S. Bach‘s Magnificat (BWV 243) was originally composed in Leipzig in 1723 to be heard at the service of Vespers. There is reason to believe it was first heard on Advent Sunday that year and repeated a few weeks later on Christmas Day. There are interesting connections between Luther’s commentary on the Magnificat, written in 1521, and Bach’s setting of the same text composed some two hundred years later. Bach owned several editions of Luther’s collected writings, so he probably knew Luther’s Magnificat commentary first-hand. Some of the connections are incidental and obvious, such as Luther’s exposition of the key words or ideas of the text and Bach’s musical treatment of the same material. For example, the emphasis on the word salutari (“salvation”) in the soprano aria Et exsultavit; the descending scale given to the word humilitatem (“low estate”); and the fact that in every measure of the chorus Omnes generationes (“all generations”) the opening fugal theme is heard. However, there are other and stronger links between the two.
Luther explained the focal point of the Magnificat thus: “I commend the Magnificat… particularly the fifth and sixth verses, in which the chief content is gathered up… In all your life fear nothing on earth… so much… as… ‘the imagination of their hearts.’ That is the greatest, closest, mightiest, and most destructive foe of all mankind.” Bach agrees with Luther. The centerpiece of his setting of the Vesper canticle is movement 7, Fecit potentiam, a distinctive, large-scale chorus. In his commentary Luther stresses the contradistinction between the power of God on the one hand, and the futility of the proud of the earth on the other. The contrast in Bach’s chorus is given an eloquent musical form. Fecit potentiam (“He hath shewed strength”) is given a suitably strong fugal treatment. However, at the point where the text moves on to speak of dispersit superbos mente cordis sui (“He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts”), the fugal writing is displaced by syllabic homophony. In this musical preaching Bach contrasts the contrapuntal power of God with the pedantic and simple chordal imagination of the proud of this earth. Throughout his commentary Luther makes reference to the dethronement of the mighty and the exaltation of the humble. So Bach gives the theme striking pictorialism in the thematic material, in both the unison violins and tenor solo, in Deposuit potentes, and more subtly in the penultimate movement, Sicut locutus, where the voices in canon enter in an ascending order from the lowest to the highest, suggesting the exaltation of humble “Abraham” and “his seed,” that is, those who, like Abraham, live by faith. Thus the humble will be lifted up into the final Gloria Patri, a corporate song of praise which recalls Mary’s original “Magnificat.” In the 19 measures at the beginning of the concluding Gloria, Bach expresses Trinitarian theology in musical form. There are three clearly defined sections, one for each Person, in which the voice entries are in “threes”: triplets and parallel thirds. Further, the voice entries for Gloria Patri (“Glory be to the Father”) progress from the lowest to the highest, with a pedal-point in the middle of the three measures of the vocal Bass. Gloria Filio (“Glory be to the Son”) has staggered voice entries, beginning with Soprano I, which now has the vocal pedal-point in the middle of these three measures, that is, the inversion of what appears in the Bass of the Gloria Patri. Then for the Gloria et Spiritui Sancto (“Glory be to the Holy Spirit”) the voices enter in a simple descending order, in five steps from Soprano I to Bass. Here Bach gives musical form to Trinitarian theology: the Son is the image of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. So Bach ends as he began, with the same basic music, fusing together Mary’s personal response to the promise of the coming of Christ with the corporate response of the church to the coming of Christ during the seasons of Advent and Christmas.
Vivaldi : Gloria in D Major (RV 589)
Vivaldi‘s Gloria in D Major (RV 589), as with many of his instrumental and sacred works, was composed for the “Ospedale della Pietà,” a convent, orphanage, and music school in Venice where Vivaldi was the violin tutor. This festal setting of the liturgical Gloria in excelsis Deo – Vivaldi’s best-known sacred work – was probably composed during his early years at the “Ospedale,” that is, sometime between 1713 and 1715. The work is divided into twelve somewhat brief movements that are contrasted by musical texture, instrumental and vocal color, occasioned by the respective sections of the text, often alternating between major and minor tonalities. But the work is essentially characterized by its two outer movements, the energy of celebration in the same bright key of Bach’s Magnificat, D major. The first movement is replete with octave leaps, repeated rhythmical patterns that set the tone of celebration for the whole work. The final movement returns to D major, a splendid double fugue, which turns out to be a reworking of a Gloria fugue composed in 1708 by another Venetian opera composer, Giovanni Maria Ruggieri (fl c. 1690–1720). In a similar way that Vivaldi modified and re-worked Ruggieri’s fugue, here we might modify John Donne’s observation, “No man is an island” to become “No composer is independent from his peers and predecessors:” they all learn something from each other, and Bach learned much from Vivaldi.
J.S. Bach: Gloria in excelsis Deo (BWV 191)
J.S. Bach‘s Gloria in excelsis Deo (BWV 191) is unique among Bach’s cantatas in that it is the only one written to a Latin rather than a German text. The cantata comprises the reworkings of movements from the Gloria of the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232). The earlier Missa, the Kyrie and Gloria, was composed in 1733, and the adaptation of three of its movements for this Christmas Day cantata was probably made by Bach sometime between 1743 and 1746. In the Bach-Jahrbuch of 1992 Gregory Butler made the convincing case for Cantata 191 having been performed in the University Church of St. Paul, rather than either the St. Thomas or St. Nicholas churches, at Christmas 1745, which would explain why the libretto was Latin rather than German.
The cantata is divided into two parts, and would have framed a sermon in the University Church, where it was first heard, if Professor Butler’s conjecture is correct. Section one comprises the five-part chorus, Gloria in excelsis Deo – the Latin version of Luke 2:14, the last words of the Gospel for Christmas Day – the fourth movement of the Mass in B Minor. The second part of the cantata comprises two movements. The first is a duet for soprano and tenor, a reworking of the Domine Deus of the Gloria of the Mass, an adaptation that is truncated by 21 measures and adjusted for the first part of the text of the Gloria Patri: Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto (“Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”). The final movement is also an adaptation from the Mass in B Minor. The five-voice chorus Cum Sancto Spiritu of the Mass is adapted to the text of the second part of the text of the Gloria Patri: Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper et in saecula saeculorum, Amen (“As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be for ever, Amen”). Thus for this Christmas cantata Bach reused his magnificent music of the 1733 Missa, but the recycling was creatively achieved. The reuse of the opening of the Gloria in excelsis Deo was undoubtedly suggested by the Gospel for Christmas Day. But Bach apparently faced the problem that the whole Gloria would be inappropriate at a service of Vespers. Similarly, the Gloria chorus on its own would not have been long enough for use as a cantata for this principal feast of the church year. Bach therefore decided to make use of two further movements of his extensive Gloria in excelsis Deo setting of 1733, although he would be unable to use them unaltered and with their original texts. His brilliant solution was to juxtapose the two great Glorias of the liturgy of the church, and for the remaining two movements of his Latin cantata to employ the text of the Gloria Patri. The result is a theologically and musically satisfying cantata in which the Incarnation of Christ is celebrated by the two Glorias: the Gloria of the church in heaven, and the Gloria of the church on earth.
© Robin A. Leaver, 2009