J. S. Bach is now recognized as one of the most important pillars of today’s classical music, but that recognition was not accorded until much after his time. (Felix Mendelssohn was instrumental in a ‘rediscovery’ of Bach in the late 1820’s.) Bach was nonetheless well-known in his own day, primarily as an organist and a court composer. He was acquainted with G. P. Telemann, another organist and composer, whom he much admired; but, though each knew and respected the other, he never met G. F. Handel, although they were exact contemporaries and at times came within twenty miles of each other. Bach was born in Eisenach— one must remember that Germany was not a unified country until nearly two centuries later– in March, 1685, the youngest of five surviving children. Because of his father’s death in 1695, he went to live with his older brother Johann Christoph– a former pupil of Johann Pachelbel– who was an organist at Ohrdruf. Five years later, young Sebastian (characteristically, German boys went by their second name) went to Luneberg, where he studied with Georg Bohm, who was the organist at the Johanniskirche in Luneberg. Bohm became a friend and mentor, as did J. A. Reincken, a pupil of Sweelink, who had been the organist at St. Katherine’s in Hamburg from the mid-1660’s. In about 1703 Bach began work as an organist at Arnstadt, but that job did not last long, due to an argument with local officials; he then began playing at Weimar, although he was not officially appointed court organist there until 1708. In late 1707 he married Maria Barbara Bach, a cousin, at Dornheim, having recently started teaching there; but he resigned that task when the Weimar job became permanent. Seven of his children were born at Weimar. In the summer of 1717, Bach made known his intention to leave Weimar: The Duke of Saxe-Weimar refused permission and finally jailed Bach for about a month. However, Bach eventually did leave and in 1718 went to Cothen.
Maria Barbara Bach, only 36, died suddenly in July of 1720, while Sebastian was away at Karlsbad with Prince Leopold; in fact she was buried before he returned. At this time, Bach was working on the Brandenburg Concertos. Since he still had small children, he was understandably pressed to find someone to rear them, and in December of 1721 he married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, whom he knew as a court singer and chamber musician; she was the daughter of a court trumpeter and also the granddaughter of an organist. Anna Magdalena became the mother of 13 more of Sebastian’s children. In 1722 Bach made his final move, to Leipzig, where he was responsible for the music programs of four churches. In his new position he was also responsible for the music program in the Thomasschule, a boarding school for boys 12 to 23. With respect to the church program, he was responsible for a cantata or other special music for each Sunday and for feast days: Since services began at 7:00 a.m. and lasted for three hours, the cantata was limited to approximately a half hour at most. His lifetime output of cantatas numbers well over 200, many of those a result of his stay in Leipzig, although his output slowed considerably after 1729. He died in 1750; his widow survived ten more years.
The Magnificat, of course, is one of those cantatas, and it is a setting of Mary’s song of joy after being told by the angel Gabriel that she would bear the Messiah: She sings it to her cousin Elizabeth, then six months pregnant with the baby who would become John the Baptist (Luke 1: 46ff). This Annunciation is celebrated on the first Sunday of the Advent season, usually around December 1. Grove dates the first use of such settings to the 14th century, with many versions antedating Bach’s; Bach himself would certainly have known settings by Palestrina, Schutz, and perhaps Monteverdi and Lassus. Many composers wrote multiple versions—Lassus is thought to have written nearly 100. Oftentimes sections were interspersed with other pieces: In Bach’s 1723 version, he inserted four Christmas-themed hymns, some of which would be familiar to Protestants today (e.g., “From Heaven High…”). The version presented by the Chorus tonight is a 1733 revision by the composer, pitched down a half-step and lacking the insertions.
The Chorus first presented Magnificat in its second season in 1977; a part of the work was also presented on a concert in 1985, and a full version with Jeordano Martinez conducting in 1993. The Chorus has also presented other settings of the same text by Franz Schubert, in 1983, and by Vivaldi, in 1993.