Chapter 6 BWV 10 Mein Seel erhebt den Herren
My soul doth magnify the Lord.
Chorus/fantasia–aria (sop)–recitative (tenor)–aria (bass)–duet (alto and tenor)–recitative (tenor)-chorale.
This setting of the Magnificat will have resonances for Christians of various sects, not only in the title and opening words of the first chorus ′my soul does magnify the Lord′, but also in the closing chorale ′as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end′. The term chorale is somewhat misleading since, although in its four-part versions it resembles a Lutheran hymn, its origins are far older, its roots lying in Gregorian chant (Dürr p 678).
But, as will be seen, Bach treats it no differently than we have come to expect in this cycle. He accepts it as embodying the expressions of belief and dogma which the other movements will explore and, additionally, it provides musical motives which act as the building blocks for their construction.
This cantata shows just how much Bach was able to demand from his instrumentalists a little over one year after his appointment at Leipzig. The degree of virtuosity and musical command is quite stunning, most markedly in the string and continuo parts of the two arias. One does wonder whether, when picking up yet again a set of new parts for the impending Sunday service, the musicians always approached the task of meeting the challenges with vigour and enthusiasm.
Or was it a feeling of, ‘Well, here’s another fine mess the Cantor has got us into!’
This work, despite the archaic nature of the chorale melody upon which it is constructed, is entirely Italianate in both its character and structure. It is, indeed, a miracle of Bach′s supreme eclectic mastery of his craft and art that he could produce such a ′modern′ composition from such an antiquated starting point. Four movements (chorus, two arias and duet) are constructed, to a greater or lesser degree, on the Italian ritornello or concerto principle. Rhythmic energy and vigour suffuse the cantata throughout.
It also speaks highly of the standards of Bach’s singers that they should have mastered the difficult lines of the soprano and bass arias, possibly in as short a time as a couple of days. Many of Bach’s singers were, after all, pupils and students, some not yet fully professional musicians. The boys singing the soprano and alto lines were young; typically between 14 and 18 years old with, as yet, unbroken voices. Their melodic lines were not only difficult in themselves but the control of ensemble and integration with the instrumental lines (which it would be quite wrong to call ‘accompaniments’) would have created further challenges.
The quality of instruction and rehearsal by Bach and his prefects must have been incredibly high and belies the prejudice held some years ago that his performers achieved only mediocre standards. Some commentators have suggested that Bach overestimated the capacities of his singers and instrumentalists when he took up his Leipzig post but here, well over a year later, he still appears to be demanding much from them.
Bach does use a trumpet to double the chorale melody in the opening and closing movements but this is obviously not intended primarily as an aid to the singers since the voices carrying the cantus firmus melody have the least technical demands put upon them. It simply gives additional force and colour to the principal melodic line.
Whilst the lower voices do get some assistance from the swirling strings, nevertheless the opening chorus holds no hostages. It is a joyous piece, if slightly muted by the choice of a minor rather than what might have seemed to be a more obvious major mode. The delight which naturally emanates from the rejoicing in the spirit of the Lord is musically represented in three ways: by the rhythmic drive of the music, the upward swirling of arpeggio figures in the violins and oboes and (yet again!) by the da–da–dah figure of joy. This idea sounds immediately in the continuo and dominates the bass line throughout.
The chorale has only four phrases and the text is based upon the ideas of the pure soul magnifying the Lord and rejoicing in Him and His regard for even the ′lowly handmaiden′. Indeed, this state of lowliness, which He nevertheless regards or watches over, may account for the choice of the minor mode. The joy is there but it is not totally unconfined; it comes, with meekness, even from the humbled and deprived. But that is surely the point; all may respond to the regard of the Lord no matter how lowly their positions in life might be.
A particularly subtle and easily overlooked point of word setting is that when the text comes to mention the ‘lowly handmaiden’ Bach (uniquely) transfers the chorale melody from the sopranos to the lower voices of the altos (from bar 46). A part of this process is the (again, unique) transposing of the last two chorale phrases down a fifth. By now he has, in five consecutive cantatas allotted the chorale melody to the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses and now it is divided between the sopranos and altos. He seems to have relished his experiment; all these combinations produced stunning and unique results.
Nevertheless, henceforth in this cycle he only departs three times from the practice of giving the cantus firmus melody to the sopranos.
In constructing his opening choral-cum- concerto movement, Bach makes as much use of major keys (Bb and F) as the chorale melody allows. This provides musical contrast as well as suggesting the joy of rejoicing in the Lord. The enigmatic cadences of the chorale allow him more freedom to modulate to related keys than is often the case in these fantasias. In the plain four-part harmonisation he confines himself to B flat and G minor but in the fantasia he makes additional use of E flat major.
The three voices not carrying the chorale melody are busily involved with complex counterpoint, using material derived from the motive of joy and the streams of semi-quavers. With only the four phrases (the last extended to eight bars) there still is a marked contrast in the ways in which Bach introduces the vocal sections, voices intricately entwined in phrases 1 and 3 and rhetorically chordal in 2 and 4.
The movement ends, not with the instrumental ritornello but with choir and orchestra neatly intertwined. The reason is partly technical in that the transposing down of the final chorale phrase would cause it to end in the ′wrong′ key (Cm instead of Gm). Bach solves the problem by adding an extensive fifteen-bar coda from bar 69 to the end. The orchestra plays a slightly adapted version of the original ritornello statement but now enriched with the four additional vocal lines. The choir weaves an uplifting tapestry of sweeping scales expressing the ebullient sentiments of the generations that shall ‘call Me blessed’.
Before proceeding to the rest of the work, spare a moment to listen to the closing chorale. Apart from the odd phrase lengths, its most notable feature is the group of repeated notes dominating virtually every phrase. This, as we shall see, is the glue that binds much of the rest of the cantata together. Bach, the great structuralist, is not going to let a motive like this pass without exploiting its full potential, both as a unifying device and as a generator of new ideas. In fact there are few cantatas that demonstrate more ably Bach’s ability to extract motivic shapes from the chorale and to extend and develop them to form highly contrasting individual movements.
Rhythmic energy and Italianate feel is, if anything, even more intense in the soprano aria. This is a paean of praise to God—-how marvellous are the works of the powerful and almighty Lord—-I cannot list all that You have done for me. The violins begin the twelve-bar ritornello with a swirling idea rising over two octaves, an uplifting representation of the all-pervading greatness of the Lord and the wonder of His works. Immediately following (bar 2) comes the repeated-note idea; here on strings and oboes but later to dominate the soprano line as well.
The only slight moment of moderation of this joyous mood comes when the contemplation of the sinner, in a state of lowliness, is set in the minor key middle section (from bar 61). But the energy of the swirling semi-quavers continues to sweep the listener along, alternating between lower and upper strings.
Our state may be lowly, but we remain aware of that which God has done for us. Moreover, our pleasure in this realization should be joyously celebrated, fully justifying the da capo repeat.
The tenor recitative begins with a benign idea of the daily renewal of God’s goodness. It paints two obvious images: note the rapid notes to emphasise the word Gewalt—-force (bar 7) and the long and complex melisma representing the scattering of the proud and arrogant like handfuls of chaff (bars 14-15).
The bass voice is frequently used as the traditional voice of God or Jesus. The next aria, however, is about God: He does not speak His own words. The text highlights the contrast between His hurling of the mighty into the pits of sulphur and His raising up of the humble. There is no obbligato instrument, although one might consider that the busy continuo performs this function, albeit combined with the essential bass line. Its speed and virtuosic energy make it probable that it would have been played by a single cello, supporting harmonies supplied by an organ or harpsichord.
Bach’s sensitivity to textural images reflected in melodic structures is most apparent in this little gem. As early as bar 2 the cello descends a full two octaves to its lowest note, surely a representation of the ‘casting down’ into the pits of sulphur. As if to accentuate the point, the low C is sounded five times, an echo of the repeated-note idea that originated in the chorale. The sheer ‘busy-ness’ of the unrelenting semi-quavers may well be intended to represent God’s ongoing activity, throwing down, lifting up, filling the hungry and dismissing the wealthy. Bach would, one imagines, have expected these images to be recognized by everyone, especially since booklets were available with the printed texts.
But there are even more subtleties to be discovered in the sculpturing of the melodic contours. It may seem rather obvious to say that these lines have three ways of proceeding in that they can go up, go down, or remain on the same pitch. Of course, it is the art and ingenuity with which these three different directional possibilities are combined which gives any melody its distinctive and expressive meaning. It is also the predominance of any one particular direction which may dictate mood and feeling.
The opening cello phrase combines all three contours but in a particularly explicit manner. First it rises, then it falls, and finally it remains temporarily rooted to the lowest note. The bass voice begins similarly, rising, but then truncating the first phrase with a falling octave. It seems obvious that Bach has taken the two dominating directional ideas from the text, uplifting the humble and hurling the mighty down, and woven them together in order to form the precise shapings of his strong melodic lines.
Not forgetting, of course, the insertion of the insistent repeated note motive derived from, and consequently reminding us of, the chorale.
Bach’s manipulation of these aspects of melodic direction becomes even more fascinating when we look at the movement section by section. In the first, the predominate direction of the soloist’s scale figures is falling thus mirroring a hurling downwards. But on the singer’s second main entry (bar 23) the text refers to the ‘lifting up’ of the humble and from this point the predominate scalic direction is rising. Additional images come with the setting of the words bloss und leer—-empty and vacant (bars 33-5). The vocal bars are, for a moment, empty of rapid movement as the singer simply articulates three notes within a bar. This is immediately followed by a tortuous chromatic line painting the word Hungrigen—-hungry—-(bars 36-7).
Of course it is not essential to be consciously aware of all this in order to be carried away by the music, although many would argue that it still affects us at our deepest levels. It raises, again, the question: what would Bach have expected his congregations to notice and what was so subtle, albeit still a vital part of the fabric of the music, that it could only be recognised by God? In one sense, of course, it doesn’t matter.
But an awareness of these issues can have two positive consequences. Firstly, it illuminates a little about Bach’s unique and formidable compositional practices. Secondly, for some listeners (and these are the ones for whom these volumes are written), such perceptions can substantially enhance an appreciation of the music.
Ritornello structure and Italian energy have dominated throughout. In fact, by the end of the bass aria the only real respite we have had from driving, energetic rhythms in the whole cantata has been the tenor recitative. But the slightly mystifying alto and tenor duet is more benign. It sets a short piece of biblical text, which appears to add nothing to the premise or moral of the cantata—-remembering His mercy, He aided His servant Israel. It is, presumably, no more than a biblical example which adds weight to the notions expressed in the recitatives: God’s actions and His beneficence.
There is a hint of the concerto/ritornello in that this duet begins and ends with a five-bar continuo line, but the real structure is that of a truncated chorale prelude. Two phrases only of the chorale are played on trumpet and oboes (a particularly penetrating but doleful sound) whilst the singers weave their oddly chromatic, imitative lines around them. The effect is both beautiful and strangely hypnotic. Bach must have thought so himself as he later arranged the piece for organ, BWV 648.
So, although it seems to add little to the cantata from a narrative or doctrinal point of view, working from the conviction that Bach did nothing without good reason, one is disposed to dig a little deeper. Possibly the answer for its inclusion lies in Bach’s concept of the balance and proportion of the cantata as a whole. As already noted, the earlier movements are infused with a sense of drive and rhythmic energy. But he is constrained to lead into the chorale with a recitative; the sheer volume of text allows for no other setting. It is possible that Bach considered that, in the context of a work of total length around twenty-five minutes, this might be too sudden a ′change of gear′ in terms of tempo, mode (from major to minor) and sheer energy.
Perhaps the duet is conceived as a way of making the transition of mood, style and sentiment a little less abrupt. Whatever the reason, its luminous presence aesthetically justifies its inclusion. It is a moment of oddly convoluted beauty, the writhingly chromatic theme imitating itself in the vocal and continuo lines around the haunting solidity of the chorale phrases. It encapsulates that quiet personal and private satisfaction which can be gained from the acceptance of the Lord′s word, grace and sustenance.
(Students may wish to compare this movement with C 159/2 vol 3, chapter 41, a duet for soprano and alto. The continuo bass makes use of a very similarly shaped chromatic figure and the aria also incorporates chorale phrases, in this case sung by the soprano. The similarities in these movements are so great as to appear to rule out accidental repetition although there can be no absolute certainty of this).
The first example is from C 10, the second from C 159.
The second and final recitative makes use of the tenor voice in its traditional role of narrator. It begins conventionally enough, relating the coming to pass of God’s promises. But with the image of Abraham’s seed multiplying like the sand and stars, the upper strings enter with an insistent rocking motion, lasting through until the end. This not only suggests endless multiplicity; the strings may also be conceived of as encompassing the vocal line just as God’s love and grace encompass Mankind.
The richness of the accompaniment further underlines the contentment with which good Christians will receive their just rewards; what ‘God has promised and His Word is one of Truth and Grace’.
We are now aesthetically and spiritually prepared for the unusual closing chorale, a simple prayer addressed to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Its provision of motives for preceding movements has already been noted but Bach has one more tiny surprise. The final phrase is harmonized, not in the expected homophonic chords but with overlapping rising scales: bass, tenor and alto. Is there an abstruse symbolic reference here? Do the three rising parts represent the solid eternity of the Holy Trinity mentioned in the text? Is it a portrayal of the act of gazing or rising upwards, seeking His throne and praising His person? Is it a symbol of God elevating the faithful?
The reader must listen and judge for him/herself.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.