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Claudio Montevedi (1567–1643)
Like Beethoven some 200 years later, Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) has always been regarded as a transitional figure, a firebrand whose life and music challenge, defy, and stretch conventional methods and accepted norms—thumbs clearly tilting music’s scale of progress. And as with Beethoven, the bold innovation and heightened expressivity of their ideas ring as fresh and brilliant in our ear as they surely must have centuries ago.
With a Venetian publisher and an ever-expanding portfolio of compositions and successes, Monteverdi traveled to Rome in 1610 and successfully gained permission to dedicate his new volume of Vespers music to Pope Paul V. This focused and highly productive decade in Mantua paid off. Based in no small part on his submission of the Vespro della Beata Vergine, (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin) SV 206 —more commonly known now as the "1610 Vespers" or "Vespers of 1610"—Monteverdi was appointed maestro di cappella at Venice’s Basilica of San Marco in 1613, succeeding none other than Giovanni Gabrieli. He would remain in that post for the rest of his life.
Vespro della Beata Vergine, SV 206 (1610) is a collection of psalms, motets, hymns, and canticles, in a variety of voicings, and instrumental doublings, with or without instruments, suitable for general use at Vespers. Though much of the collection seems uniquely suited, even designed specifically, for the Byzantine, multi-domed interior and acoustics of Venice’s San Marco, Monteverdi would not begin his tenure there until 1614. With a papal dedication and Venetian publisher, the breadth of style and versatility seem to indicate a precocious young composer’s broader professional ambition.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
The Magnificat (BWV 243a) was the first large choral work Johann Sebastian Bach composed after his appointment in Leipzig in the spring of 1723. Originally composed for Christmas, it is a delightful five-voiced work sung in Latin. Mary sang the canticle while pregnant with Jesus, and its combination of unrestrained joy, as well as confidence in God’s victory for the lowly, made it an ideal seasonal text. In writing it for Christmas, Bach inserted four a cappella Christmas texts in German.
In 1733, Bach rewrote the Magnificat, BWV 243 for the Feast of the Visitation—the day that a newly pregnant Mary visited her sister Elizabeth, who was pregnant in her old age with John the Baptist. It was after this visitation that Mary recited the canticle, and therefore its most proper specific festal association. Bach moved the piece to D major to accommodate a festive orchestra with trumpets and timpani, and stripped it of its German Christmas sections, among other small changes. The result is a grand and varied work brimming with joyful praise and hope.
The Magnificat has twelve parts, each lasting no more than three minutes. As with other Latin works by Bach, the sequence of movements adapts the liturgical texts to the musical-poetic forms of opera and oratorio; for example, the solo movements are not technically arias, nor do they obey a set formal structure, but they do integrate a ritornello (recurring passage) and an overall harmonic progression familiar from opera. Similar, too, is the dramatic alternation of textures between individual voice parts and the full chorus. But the expressive power of this work lies in its praise for God’s justice in striking down rulers and delivering victory for the lowly.