Festival Chorus

Festival Chorus

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Program Notes

The following are the program notes from our December 11th performance.

Program Notes

mag∙nif'i∙cent (from the Latin magnificens doing great things)
             1. splendid; stately; imposingly beautiful; grand; rich or sumptuous, as in construction, decoration, etc.
             2. exalted: said of ideas, etc., and also of former rulers.
Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Second Edition

December is a time of preparation and, for many, a time of frantic business. It is also a time of beautiful and magnificent traditions. Music dominates the season and there is a sense of magic and wonder in people of every age and in events great and small.  Our Christmas Choral Concert this year attempts to capture the essence of those traditions and experiences both in modern music composed for the season and in the work of an exalted master of the baroque period. As we journey through various styles, ensembles and combinations of forces, the Magnificat or "Song of Mary" from the gospel of Luke serves as an anchor to our program.

magnficat is a canticle or song taken directly from the Bible which tradition tells us was sung or spoken by a specific character in the bible, in this case the Virgin Mary. Often called the “song of Mary”, the Magnificat comes from the Gospel of Luke 1:46-55 after receiving the news that Mary is to bear the son of God.

There are approximately ten canticles that have received the attention of composers through the ages and from those ten it is two of the canticles from the gospel of Luke, the “Nunc Dimitis” or “Song of Simeon” and the Magnificat that have had countless settings. Yet even among those two, the song of Mary stands out. Through the years the Magnificat has been set by such master composers as Victoria, Palestrina, Vivaldi, Byrd, Tallis and Penderecki.

The first portion of our concert features our own men's quartet, the Jingleberries (the artists formerly known as the Choir Boys), the Cherub Chicks, the debut of the "supergroup" the Mistletones and the Sisters in Song. Though the selections of the first half are either newly composed or arranged in the last fifty years ( recent in terms musical history) they all have strong roots in the long tradition of choral music. Rounding out the first half is a setting of the "Magnificat" by contemporary composer Z. Randall Stroope.

This modern setting by Dr. Stroope for soprano and alto voices and four hands piano is macaronic, meaning that it makes use of two languages, in this case Latin and English. The opening use of the Latin immediately connects us to a choral tradition stretching back to the renaissance and beyond but the recurring use of the G major add 9 chord lets us know that this is a distinctly modern piece.  This is a wonderful contribution to the legacy of compositions and stands out as stunning addition to this combination of voices.

At the beginning of this year, famed music critic of the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini undertook a two week project soliciting input on the top 10 composers of all time from readers and critics alike. Quickly it became evident that one name rose to the top of the list, Johan Sebastian Bach. In an introductory video posted on the New York Times website Mr. Tommasini states "Musicians always seem to start with Bach and with good reason, if there was one composer in history who is an ultimate master,
the ultimate master it would be Bach. Bach summed up everything that happened in music and anticipated everything that was to come."

Aside from the settings of the Latin Mass and Requiem, the Magnificat is one of the most beloved Latin texts in the history of the western church. In the canon of church music few settings rival that of Johan Sebastian Bach. As musicologist Hans-Joachim Schulze so elegantly writes, “The crowning achievement of this extensive tradition is, without question, the Magnificat of Johann Sebastian Bach, a work which, by virtue of its orchestral brilliance, its compositional concentration and intensity, the variety of its constituent movements and its profundity of textual exegesis, far transcends all previously established norms.” (Concluding Remarks of the Edition Peters Vocal Score)

The Magnificat in E flat major was composed in his first year of service in Leipzig, Germany where Bach was responsible for the music programs at the two most important Lutheran churches, the Thomaskirche and Nicholaikirche. At this time, and particularly in this region, there was a strong connection to Martin Luther and the reformation (1517) in which the reformers strongly advocated the use of the German language in church. There was a swift and dramatic shift over to the German language used in church except for very special occasions, and in Leipzig, Bach encountered a tradition in which a Latin setting of the Magnificat would be sung on high feast days, such as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. So it was that this setting of the Magnificat was premiered on Christmas Day, 1723.

The original setting of the Magnificat premiered at that time was in E flat major, an unusual key for many reasons, particularly because it would have been nearly impossible to play on the trumpets of that day which had neither keys nor valves which were not in widespread use until the nineteenth century. Some have suggested that the strings might have tuned down a half step to the key of D major which would have accommodated the trumpets. In that original performance, records indicate that there were four additional a cappella choral settings of interpolated Christmas texts and it is plausible that these selections were pre-existent and that the Magnificat was composed to accommodate those pieces and not cause harmonic clashes between movements.

Whatever the reasons were, it appears that in all subsequent performances Bach removed the four interpolated choral pieces and lowered the key to D major, which not only accommodated the trumpets but also allowed the strings to play in open positions, which creates a more brilliant timbre throughout the section. The removal of the additional choruses also allowed this piece to be performed on other major liturgical feasts. Somewhat ironically, it is believed that German pipe organs at the time were tuned slightly more than a half step lower than our modern instruments, the result being that the current setting of D major played on modern instruments sounds very close to the E flat of Bach’s time.

For many generations of musicians immediately following the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, he was primarily known and remembered for his work as an organist and composer of organ music. His setting of the Magnificat was one of the few pieces that seemed to survive the changes in musical styles and was even one of the first non-keyboard compositions of Bach to be published in the 19th century.

No matter what key it is played in, what type of instruments it is played on or even whether or not the interpolated pieces are included, the Magnificat is a piece worth performing and hearing again and again. We hope you enjoy it!

Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone be the glory!)

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