Program Notes

San Francisco Symphony Chorus: J.S. Bach's Magnificat 

J.S. Bach: Motet, Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226
J.S. Bach: Chorale, “Jesu bleibet meine Freude,” from Cantata No. 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben
J.S. Bach: Magnificat in D major, BWV 243
Arvo Pärt: Te Deum

J.S. Bach in Leipzig

Following two decades building a career in Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, Weimar, and Cöthen, Johann Sebastian Bach accepted a position in 1723 in the Saxon city of Leipzig, where he would remain for the rest of his life. The Hamburg Staats- und Gelehrte Zeitung found his relocation significant enough to merit newspaper coverage:

This past Saturday [May 22] at noon, four wagons loaded with household goods arrived here from Cöthen; they belonged to the former Princely Capellmeister there, now called to Leipzig as Cantor Figuralis. He himself arrived with his family on 2 carriages a 2 o’clock and moved into the newly renovated apartment in the Saint Thomas School.

The new position offered certain perks Bach found alluring, not least of which was that the city boasted a university to which his sons might aspire, perhaps catapulting them to even greater success than their father, who had not enjoyed the luxury of an advanced education. But there seems to have been another inducement: the prospect to compose sacred vocal music, which had hitherto been only an ancillary pursuit. In addition to teaching at the Thomasschule (the boarding school attached to the Saint Thomas Church), overseeing the musical programs at all four of the city’s principal churches, and organizing certain other musical activities that fell under the jurisdiction of the City Council, Bach was obligated to compose sacred music—lots of it. He was expected to write substantial cantatas for every Sunday and feast-day of the year, about sixty events in all, and he plunged into this endeavor with enthusiasm.

James M. Keller


J.S. Bach: Motet, Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226

Most—or all—of Bach’s motets were written as memorials to the recently departed, but the radiant, brilliant, almost celebratory quality of many of them seems to belie anything funereal. The Lutheran idea of death as a release from the pains and difficulties of life’s suffering is more easily understood when we examine the lives of those in times, places, or situations other than our own. The eighteenth-century perspective on death must surely have been affected by the frequency with which it was confronted. Bach himself buried more than ten of his children.

The words of the first part of Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226, come from the longest of the Pauline Epistles, Romans. One of Paul’s themes is the insignificance of worldly suffering when contrasted with salvation through faith in Christ. The motet was hastily composed in October of 1729 and there is evidence that parts of it may have been adapted from previous material. More surprising is the suggestion that the motet may have been conceived as purely biblical—the closing chorale (with a text by Luther) intended for a different part of the burial service. Whatever the case, this chorale seems to have been lifted from another piece—perhaps a lost cantata—and transposed (from its usual key of G major) up a third to B-flat major. Of all the motets Der Geist hilft is the lightest and most gracious. The piece opens with feathery cascades of sixteenth notes on the word “Geist” that seem intended to surround the listener with the comfort and aid of the “Spirit.” Written for double choir, Bach exploits the antiphonal possibilities to both dramatic and virtuosic effect. The tentative and insecure quality of the second line of text, “For we do not know how to pray as we ought,” is beautifully captured in the staggered entrances of each choir. As the text becomes more confident and affirming, the two choirs become less independent. In the final fugue, Bach dispenses with the double choir idea altogether, bringing the piece solidly down to earth for the first time.

It is impossible to imagine this piece without its closing chorale. It is one of Bach's most ravishing harmonizations and fits the gracious tone of this motet perfectly.

—Michael Beattie

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J.S. Bach: Chorale, “Jesu bleibet meine Freude,” from Cantata No. 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben

Cantata No. 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben has an interesting history. With his great Weimar librettist Salomo Franck, Bach wrote three ambitious cantatas for the second and third Sundays of Advent. When Bach moved to Leipzig, these works could not be revived because these Sundays were penitential and had no music. Bach expanded each of these works with recitatives to make them suitable for other Sundays where there was music required. Cantata 147 shows its Advent roots but was expanded with recitatives to make it suitable for the Assumption of the Virgin. Musically the work is remarkably consistent, but the difference in style between Franck’s wonderful pithy words for the arias and the rather more expansive style of the recitatives is problematic. That said, there is no doubt that Bach was working at his highest level for both parts of the piece. The familiar chorale setting that ends both halves of the cantata was added by Bach in the Leipzig version. It is justly famous and absolutely characteristic of his best chorale-fantasia manner.

—Craig Smith

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J.S. Bach: Magnificat in D major, BWV 243

Bach composed his Magnificat during his first year in Leipzig, perhaps for his first Christmas there—when it was most certainly performed—or conceivably for a feast day prior to that. What was performed on Christmas Day of 1723 was not quite the work we hear in this performance. That version was in E-flat major, a half step higher than the D major setting given here, and it included four movements known today as the “Christmas interpolations,” movements that employed texts and melodies specifically associated with that holiday.

Roughly a decade later, probably in the period of 1732-35, Bach revised his score. He excised the Christmas interpolations, transposed the piece into D major (a more typical key for a festive work with trumpets), and adjusted numerous details of the score. Practical musician that he was, Bach almost surely prepared this for some specific performance. One theory is that he may have unveiled the new version (BWV 243) on July 2, 1733, which was the Feast Day of the Visitation of Mary, the event to which the Magnificat text is specifically attached in the Gospel of Luke. In 1733, that date also marked the end of the official mourning period following the death of the Saxon King Friedrich August I, and the coincidence of these two events might well have invited some special music from the city’s Capellmeister.

Both versions are splendidly scored, employing not only a five-part chorus and five vocal soloists (two sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass—divided here among multiple singers) but also the full contingent of instrumentalists available for church performances in Leipzig at that time: a pair of recorders in the original setting (transverse flutes in the revision), two oboes (doubling on oboes d’amore in the revision), three trumpets, timpani, strings, and a continuo group (including double bass and bassoons).

The text of the Magnificat appears in Luke I: 46-55. Mary has been informed by the Angel Gabriel that she is going to bear God’s son, and he also tells her that her kinswoman Elizabeth is pregnant, even though she is old enough that this would not be considered possible but for divine intervention. Mary travels to visit Elizabeth, and as they rejoice together in their unlikely situations, Mary declaims the words of the Magnificat, beginning “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” (“My soul magnifies the Lord”).

The Latin text became assumed into the liturgy of the Catholic church and appeared as part of the evening Vespers service. From there it was carried over to the corresponding celebration in the Lutheran church, which used it as part of Vespers on at least sixteen days each year. In Leipzig, Lutheran services were conducted in German, and musical selections normally adhered to the same. At normal Sunday Vespers, the text of the Magnificat was accordingly sung in German translation. Nonetheless, the use of Latin remained sanctioned in services on certain high feast days; in fact, the use of Latin remained generally surprisingly popular in some Lutheran congregations.  Bach was therefore well within Lutheran guidelines when he created this setting of the Magnificat in Latin.

The Magnificat is a jewel among Bach’s sacred works. It is concise, with its twelve discrete movements running less than a half hour. Bach had time constraints in mind since the piece had to fit comfortably within the span of a Vespers service. On a structural level, he was helped by the fact that the nature of the text did not invite casting the arias and duets in da capo (i.e., repeated from the beginning) form. In the Magnificat, each line of text is treated as a complete, self-standing idea. The Magnificat is packed with material, but Bach, his eye ever on the clock, keeps his thematic development and contrapuntal elaboration short and to the point.

The resulting succession of movements seems less crafted to inspire meditation than to entertain the listener. Adding to the sense of delight is Bach’s rampant use of word-painting, which underscores the text with descriptive musical equivalents. A listener readily grasps the rising notes of “Et exultavit” (to depict rejoicing) and the descending theme of “Deposuit” (“He has put down”). In the chorus “Fecit potentiam,” we hear the choral texture fragment at the word “dispersit” (“He has scattered”). In the concluding chorus, Bach indulges in a touch of cleverness that was already growing traditional by that time: at the words “Sicut erat in principio” (“As it was in the beginning”), he revisits the music from the work’s beginning, a twist that not only underscores the momentary meaning of the words but also rounds everything off with a winning sense of balance.

—James M. Keller

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Arvo Pärt: Te Deum

With his stark, meditative, and largely sacred compositions, Arvo Pärt may not immediately spring to mind when one thinks of a “popular” composer. But according to Bachtrack, a website that tabulates performances, Pärt ranks number one among living composers. Why this windfall of popularity for the quiet Estonian composer? Some of it is shrewd marketing by Pärt’s record company, ECM, which has released a slew of moody-looking records featuring leading performers such as the Hilliard Ensemble and Gidon Kremer. But part of Pärt’s appeal is the directness of his message: His music speaks to those overstimulated by modern life. To enter his world is to commit oneself to stillness, and to a place where time is, if not transcended, suspended. Gestures unfold on a leisurely scale, and sound mixes with silence to gradually build a sacred emotional climate. Ecstatic bursts of praise pierce the texture and we find ourselves swept away on the tide of Pärt's own profound faith.

He grew up in an Estonia that was buffeted between the Soviets and the Nazis during World War II and then stood as a Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1980 he and his Jewish wife were granted emigration papers to re-settle in Israel, but they never made it that far. Touching down at the Vienna airport, they were surprised to be met by a representative of the music publisher Universal Edition. The following year, Pärt settled in Berlin, his base ever since.

Following earlier forays into serialism and neo-Classicism, Pärt began to immerse himself in medieval and Renaissance music in the 1970s. By 1976 he seized the essence of the style that has served him ever since: a tonal technique he dubbed “tintinnabuli,” referring to bell-like resonances—sometimes involving actual bells but more commonly conveyed in his music by orchestral, chamber, or choral groupings. In this music, the tintinnabulation parts are sounded while the melody part moves slowly in simple patterns that gravitate around the home pitch.

The Te Deum is a fifth-century Christian hymn of praise most commonly recited during the early morning prayer service of Matins. While the text has been set by composers as varied as Handel, Berlioz, Britten, Dvořák, and Bruckner, Pärt’s Te Deum (1984-85) is more in line with the hymn’s Gregorian chant origins—without the bombast of its Romantic forbears. As the composer noted in 1993, he sought to create a mood “that could be infinite in time, by delicately removing one piece—one particle of time—out of the flow of infinity. I had to draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness.” The score is orchestrated for three choirs (male chorus, female chorus, and mixed chorus), string orchestra, prepared piano, and wind harp. The prepared piano mainly functions as tuned percussion, while the wind harp serves as a Byzantine ison or drone. (The ison is rendered here in a recording of an actual wind harp, which is as it sounds—a harp whose sound is created by the wind passing through it, similar to the Celtic Aeolian harp. An example of this fascinating instrument can be found in South San Francisco).

Each of the Te Deum’s twenty-nine verses is set antiphonally, being first introduced by the female or male chorus in a chant-like setting. The verse is then repeated, either in a harmonized version by the mixed chorus, or as a related meditation for string orchestra. The sections flow seamlessly from one to another with the ever-present drone providing continuity and reinforcing a feeling of D minor. Pärt plays with light and darkness through brief excursions to D major, but inevitably we are drawn back to D minor. Later, the drone temporarily moves to the note A, creating a sense of tension as the tonality longs to return to the home key of D.

Pärt is judicious in shaping the texture, alternating between the distinct instrumental and vocal groupings. The massed forces only come together at three points in the piece, underscoring dramatic textural moments at “Pleni sunt caeli et terra majestatis gloriae tuae,” (“Heaven and earth are full of your glory’s majesty”); “Judex crederis esse venturus,” (“We believe that you will come to judge us”); and “Fiat misericordia tua, Domine, super nos quemadmodum speravimus in te” (“Let your mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have trusted in you”). The effect is stunning.

In contrast to the work’s solemn and mysterious opening, the ending evokes a sense of tranquility as the mixed chorus repeats the word “Sanctus” at ever-softer dynamics in D major. As the conductor Paul Hillier notes in his book on Pärt, “Works such as the Te Deum . . . begin almost imperceptibly, seeping into our consciousness like ink into blotting paper, but then miraculously draining away again, leaving the page blank.”

—Steven Ziegler and James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

Program Notes for Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf ©Michael Beattie and Chorale “Jesu bleibet meine Freude,” ©Craig Smith, courtesy of Emmanuel Music Inc.

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