Saturday, December 11, 2010

The "Other" Christmas Music

Celebrating Bach's Magnificat ...

Looking back at previous entries I find that I've written twice about Handel's Messiah, appropriately enough at Christmas time. But how is it possible that I've found nothing to say about my favorite choral music for this or any other season? That distinction goes to J.S. Bach's Magnificat, a brief masterpiece that sails past the listener all too quickly, in contrast to Handel's monumental oratorio.

Maybe the soft spot I have for this work dates back to the way I first discovered it. I was about 15 years old and browsing through the dusty used record bins at a pawn shop with my music buddy. Suddenly there it was -- a rare, 10-inch LP just big enough to fit the approximately 30 minutes that it takes to perform the 12 short movements. I'd never heard of it, but it was by Bach and that was good enough for me. I didn't even particularly care for choral music, but hey, did I say this was by Bach? Not only that, but it cost no more than 50 cents. At that price I woudn't care if it had scratches on it. And it was by Bach!

Suffice to say, the piece has never failed to satisfy. From the first listening I felt I was hearing something like Bach's greatest hits. Each short aria and chorus was perfect and complete, each with its own "hook," as the pop song industry calls it -- that thing that gets it to lodge in your memory and beg to be repeated. I started out with particular favorites, but soon found that they had all grown on me until I had adopted each one and accepted the whole work as an old friend.

It begins with a bang, a big timpani-assisted BUM-bum! not unlike the opening notes of the second movement to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the one that used to open the NBC Nightly News. In the instrumental prelude that ensues, and the chorus after it, Bach manages to weave together an amazing number of contrapuntal melody lines. The feat is even more amazing because many of the voices -- flutes, oboes, violins, and trumpets -- are all playing in the same register, so their lines overlap.

One piece that caught my attention right away was the aria in which an alto voice is supported by a duo of flutes or recorders, which is kind of like adding sugar to the syrup. But since I was learning to play the recorder at the time it was wonderful to discover my instrument being put to such sublime uses.

Another highlight is the soprano aria "Quia respexit," which features a particularly delectable obbligato by the oboe that winds around the voice like a sinewy vine. And then there's the aria for three voices -- both sopranos and an alto -- in which all three twine around one another while the oboe sails long notes overhead like a halo of light.

Something happens in the mind when it is asked to follow three different melodic lines at once. Most of us have a hard time with just two -- apart from Bach, who could apparently handle four, five, and even six with his own two hands. But for ordinary mortals it seems there is just one tune, or two, or many. It's like watching a magician play the shell game. The result is that we get the delightful feeling that no matter how closely we listen there is always something new and unexpected emerging.

As I said, all the other movements are favorites as well. There's not a recitative in the whole thing, nothing but elegant melody from beginning to end. And speaking of the end, that's wonderful too. First comes the "Gloria," with voices rising and building before declaring "Patri" (father) and "Filio" (son), but then descending from on high like the symbolic dove to deliver "Spiritui Sancto" (the holy spirit). Then comes the finale in which the whole ensemble bursts into a reprise of the opening, while singing, "sicut erat in principio ..." As it was in the beginning, is now and always will be. Chills every time!

In my 30's I acquired a new and better recording, then later bought another version that included the "Christmas interpolations" -- four additional movements that were in the original version performed at Christmas Vespers in 1723, but which Bach later removed to make it appropriate for performance at any time of the year. Then I had to buy another copy when CD's came along, and just recently I downloaded yet another version from eMusic.

This latest acquisition is a unique performance by the Ricercar Consort from the Netherlands. They perform the work with a small instrumental ensemble like the one Bach would have employed, and with just one single voice for each part in the choruses as well as the arias. This minimalist approach delivers wonderful clarity, especially in the thickest of the choral passages. I can honestly say that after all the years of listening I heard new things in it that I had never heard before.

Many years passed between my original discovery of the recording and my first opportunity to hear a live performance of the Magnificat. And even then the circumstances were unusual. It was in 1992, just a few weeks after Hurricane Andrew had pasted South Florida like a wrecking ball. The Miami Bach Society had to decide whether to go ahead with their scheduled performance under such difficult conditions. They did it, and even imported a guest virtuoso on the trumpet clarino -- an instrument with a mouthpiece especially suited for the highest register -- to add a finishing touch.

I'm a big fan of our Bach Society, and I have to say they particularly shone on that evening. It was a wonderful and healing experience coming on the heels of natural disaster, and seemed to be greatly appreciated by all. The Magnificat shared the bill that night with abridged highlights from Handel's Messiah. That was all very well, but to my ear the scintillating perfection of Bach's inspired tapestry made Handel sound dull and heavy by comparison.

Maybe it's just me, but let's hear it for the magnificent Magnificat.

[See Wikipedia for the text and its history. It all started with two pregnant moms bumping into one another. Mary supposedly gave this eloquent recitation that was eventually set to music. Years later, all grown up, one of the kids encountered the other one while he was baptizing people in a river. No wonder they recognized each other -- they were cradle mates!]

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