About this Recording
8.572161 - MENDELSSOHN, Felix: Magnificat / BACH, J.S.: Magnificat, BWV 243 (Yale Voxtet, Yale Schola Cantorum, Yale Collegium Players, Carrington)
English  German 

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809–1847)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)


The monastic office of Vespers has bequeathed western music one of its most beloved liturgical texts, the song of Mary, known better by its opening Latin ‘magnificat’. Drawn directly from St Luke’s gospel (Luke 1.46–55), this canticle is Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel, her reply to his news that she will bear the Christ, the anointed one of God. Its verses contrasts Mary’s submission with the greatness of God, extending the dichotomy to human society, to the rich and the hungry, the mighty and the meek, the haughty and the humble. Medieval worship developed a central place for veneration of the Blessed Virgin, and ‘Mary’s song’ came to occupy the high point of Vespers, a service with strong Marian overtones throughout, in which the Magnificat is elevated by a sequence of psalms together with its own specific Marian antiphon. And beyond the Reformation the unique place of this canticle remained in the Anglican sequel to Vespers, Evensong, that again placed it centre-stage, albeit in English.

In Lutheran Leipzig in the early eighteenth century there also remained occasions for pre-Reformation Latin settings on major feasts and holidays; and the Magnificat with its implicit ties to St Luke’s nativity text was given special treatment during the Christmas season. No better example of this tradition remains than J.S. Bach’s splendid Magnificat first conceived for Christmas Vespers in 1723. Like his Gloria (Cantata 191, also originally conceived for Christmas) that would reappear in the Mass in B minor, Bach revised his Magnificat five years later for general festive use, and it is that well-known version, heard on this disc, that was the precursor for Magnficat settings by Bach’s most talented son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714–1788), and his early nineteenth-century devotee Felix Mendelssohn.

C.P.E. Bach’s compositional leaning had, like his father’s successors in Leipzig, moved on from Bach’s unmatchable contrapuntal skills to a more homophonic style, limiting the use of fugal/contrapuntal writing in a choral work to a few climactic sections or final movement. In 1749, just months before his father’s death, he completed his Magnificat with a classical orchestration including a pair of horns, and this, along with his father’s work, became the template for the young Felix Mendelssohn some seventy years later. Mendelssohn’s Magnificat of 1822 (not to be confused with the setting composed shortly before his death) turns out to be the composer’s first major work for full classical orchestra, soloists and chorus. A huge step beyond his youthful Gloria, composed only months earlier, it reveals the brilliance and limitless ambition of the thirteen-year-old prodigy whom Schumann would call the ‘Mozart of the nineteenth century’.

Three years before, at barely ten years of age, Mendelssohn had been welcomed to Carl Friedrich Zelter’s newly founded Singakademie in Berlin. In an era that dismissed Bach as an ‘unintelligible musical arithmetician’, the precocious young Felix had already shown a propensity to imitate the master’s technique, and under Zelter’s tutelage his appetite grew ever keener. Having soon proved unsurpassable in fugal art, he delved further into other pre-classical forms during a rich seven-year creative span between the completion of his 1822 Magnificat and his epoch-making revival of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 1829.

Thus it was in the spring of 1822, with the Magnificat settings of both J.S. and C.P.E. Bach before him, that Mendelssohn fashioned a unique symbiosis: a Magnificat, of similar duration and with numerous parallels to the Bach settings—most especially in his sampling of motivic fragments from father Bach’s ‘Quia respexit’ and a topping of C.P.E. Bach’s ‘Gloria Patri’ four-part fugue by three additional voices. His writing throughout, though well-seasoned by the Viennese world of Mozart (baroque trumpets had by the 1820s vanished in favour of classical horns and clarinets), remained baroque in texture. Indeed so florid was his first version of the ‘Quia respexit’ (heard on this recording) that Zelter returned it to his pupil, with its ornate part for obbligato viola and bassoon and soprano heavily marked up for a complete revision. But Mendelssohn’s original now appears in the appendix of the new collected works that includes the 1822 Magnificat.

Whether the Singverein ever performed this virtuosic Magnificat remains unclear, though like his many other choral works of the 1820s, it was excluded from the first ‘complete edition’ assembled by his colleague Julius Rietz after his death in 1847. The Singverein’s massive size—some 300—would have certainly have left its myriad amateur singers struggling with Mendelssohn’s fleet, baroque lines, conceived in the soloistic tradition of Bach, but the demands of such an earlier elitist baroque style lie at the heart of Mendelssohn’s until recently unexplored early choral works. Their reappearance, in the context of other early works such as the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Octet, reveals, more than any other major composer’s juvenilia, a childhood genius of staggering proportion.

Mendelssohn’s G minor Grave and Fuga is the opening movement of the String Symphony No. 12, the penultimate and last completed of the early string sinfonias, published in the Rietz edition before his first symphony. It is nearly contemporary (1823) with the 1822 Magnificat and offers an ideal bridge from Mendelssohn back to Bach—its baroque-style ‘ouverture’ leading to a masterful fugue worthy of his esteemed master’s company.

As an epilogue to the Magnificat settings, the Ave Maria of 1830 stands at the cusp of a new age. It looks at once back to the grand polychoral tradition Mendelssohn had himself visited only a few years earlier in his Hora est and forward to Paulus and Elijah (and many psalm settings as well as the operatic Erste Walpurgisnacht). 1830 also marked essentially the end of Mendelssohn’s Latin church music, with the quintessentially Catholic text of the Ave petition. Its construction resembles the intricacy of the choral works of the 1820s, with its (eight-part) double choir texture. In A-B-A form, with the return of the opening material, as if in a gesture to his earlier polyphonic adventures, Mendelssohn introduces a further eight solo voices to mirror the original double-choir texture. The work as a whole, though, remains distinctly homophonic, and its (orchestral-style) accompaniment has moved from the Italian baroque basso generale deployed in Hora and other earlier choral works to the romantic Mendelssohn of the oratorios. It is heard here not in the version for organ, but in an original scoring for winds (clarinets and bassoons) and bass, and its rising fourth ‘Jupiter’ motive, in a wonderful glimpse of the future, previews the first movement of the Reformation Symphony (also 1830) and more especially the A major final of the Scottish Symphony, yet a dozen years away.

© Malcolm Bruno 2009

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