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Episode 17: Bach’s Magnificat

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Magnificat in D, BWV 243: Magnificat
Johann Sebastian Bach
Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
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Bach began his longest-lasting job, as head of music in the city of Leipzig, in the spring of 1723, with big plans for music in the city’s churches. But he started the job that year after Easter and Pentecost – two of the biggest festivals on the church calendar. So it was at Christmas that Leipzig parishioners got to hear Bach express some of his grand musical ambitions in his setting of the Magnificat. That’s a prayer of the Virgin Mary, and it was sung in German every week in the church, but on festival days it was done in Latin. For Christmas in 1723, Bach turned the prayer into a 12-part work. He increased the splendor of this Christmastime music by including some other Latin and German songs that were sung by a choir at the opposite end of St. Thomas’s church, in a different organ gallery. A few years later, Bach rearranged the work slightly, so it would be appropriate for any season, not just Christmas, and he added trumpets. That’s the version most often performed today. Part of the reason this music sounds so festive is the five-part chorus. Bach wrote five vocal parts in only a few of his works, including the great B-Minor Mass. Here’s the very festive and grand opening of the Magnificat, from Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists.

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