Last night was the performance of Bach’s Magnificat and it was such fun. We met at the concert hall at 4.15 and went through the programme with the organist and the orchestra. We stood on the stage (five rows, I think it was, of about twenty-four singers each). In front of us were the orchestra — it’s quite a small band: double bass, cello, bassoon, chamber organ continuo, oboe/cor anglais, two flutes, triple strings (as far as I can recall) and timpani. Also not forgetting the trumpets that play such a great part in the outer movements. The choir is in five parts and there are five soloists, too, each of whom gets a solo aria.
The instruments are all given a moment to shine, too. I love the ‘Esurientes implevit bonis’ (the text of which translates as “he has filled the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty”) — it features a flute duet obbligato (music-speak for the fact that they play all the way through, as importantly as the vocalist) that at times trips along in thirds or sixths, and at times has the two lines tumbling over each other. Bach plays a little joke with the words at the end: the flutes stop short of the final note, leaving it to the bass instruments. Sending us away empty.
Bach dissects the text of the Magnificat (the song that the writer of Luke’s gospel ascribes to the awestruck teenage mother of God), making twelve separate movements. I was at a talk during the week by theologian Terry Eagleton and he mentioned that the lines I quoted above sound like a political chant — the sort of thing that crowds would’ve shouted in protest against a corrupt and oppressive ruling class, say.
Another musical joke (a traditional one — Durrante does the same thing in his setting of the Magnificat, which we also sang in the concert) is the use of the same music at the end of the piece as the start. The last line of the doxology (Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.) lends itself nicely to the musical task of recapitulation (music-speak for having the first tune come back at the end). And what an ending it is! All trumpets (one of them a wee piccolo trumpet, playing gloriously high, piercing through the bustling music with a high, descending chromatic line. It’s as if, for a moment, we catch sight of something amazing before getting on with the business of jubilation.