Magnifying God with J.S. Bach
He’s been called “the fifth evangelist.”
Johann Sebastian Bach may not have recorded a Gospel as did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but he nevertheless made the good news of Jesus known in a sublime and beautiful way. Bach was a spiritual heir of Martin Luther and a faithful child of the Reformation; Bruce Tammen says that “Luther clarified the faith and Bach set it to music.”
Whether in his powerful St. John Passion, the delightful “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” or the countless chorales based on the Church Year, Bach weds the Word of God with moving music in a way few if any did before him or since.
One such piece, particularly appropriate for this season, is his magnificent Magnificat in E-Flat Major. (Magnificat is the Latin name for Mary’s song in Luke 1.46-55.) Composed during his first year as cantor at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, the Magnificat vividly interprets Mary’s song through music.
The approximately half-hour piece is divided into twelve movements, corresponding to the verses of the Magnificat. Peter Hendrickson writes, “Each of the twelve movements is a tiny musical gem whose only purpose is to exhibit its text with the utmost conviction, clarity, and vividness.” Like Mary’s song itself, Bach’s Magnificat is a great gift in a small package.
For our midweek Advent services this year, we will be pondering Mary’s song with the help of Mr. Bach. Brief meditations on the biblical text will be interspersed with the accompanying movements from Bach’s Magnificat (each about 2-3 minutes long).
I’m no connoisseur of classical music, but I think you’ll find Bach’s treatment sufficiently accessible and undoubtedly lovely.* My hope is that, with Bach’s help and the Spirit’s inspiration, we might join Mary in singing during this holy season, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”
*Technical note: if you’re interested in getting ahold of your own copy of Bach’s Magnificat in E-Flat, I’ll be using the recently-released version produced by John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir.