Magnificat—conductor’s note

“… in those few hours before sundown a sort of quiet battle went on within me between the after-sound of the prayers, the peace of the day, the dull noiseless ease of things, and something dark and disturbed … The idea that so much of the world remained mysterious, unsettled me.” — Colm Toíbín, ‘The Testament of Mary’

Within the musical and emotional arc of tonight’s program, the Lutheran certainty of Bach’s Magnificat is held in contrast with the Orthodox mysticism of Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat-Antiphons, and framed on either end by each composer’s masterful writing for strings.

There is more than a thematic link between the music of Bach and of Pärt. After his experiments with serialism in the early 1960s, Pärt began to study the music of Bach in earnest, and, as James Keller puts it, produced pieces in which modernist dissonances were in tense contrast with neo-Baroque tonality (including Collage on the Theme B-A-C-H in 1964). By the late 1960s, though, Pärt had begun to immerse himself in medieval and Renaissance chant, and, in 1977, he produced the first of many versions of Fratres — originally written for Hortus Musicus, an early-music ensemble in his home town of Tallinn.

Pärt named the tonal technique he developed as a result of this study of early music ‘Tintinnabuli’, referring to bell-like resonances. He explained this in a program note he wrote in 1984 for ECM records: “Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work. … Here, I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements — with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials — with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”

In a sense, Bach’s famous Magnificat was also an experiment. In Christopher Hogwood’s words, it was an introduction from the newly-arrived Cantor to his congregation in Leipzig; a way to show people what he was capable of as a composer. It featured the ‘most elaborate and flamboyant sound that Bach could accommodate in his church; he essentially takes the text and waves it at you.’ Bach uses every trick in his book — large and elegant choruses; duets, minuets, arias, and chorales — to construct a remarkable survey of his talents.

The Magnificat, the Song of Mary, is spoken entirely in the first person, and it recites a list of things that are known to have happened to the speaker – “from this day, all generations will call me blessed”; “he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” By contrast, the sixth-century ‘O Antiphons’, which Pärt has set as his Magnificat-Antiphonen, each refer to Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. That is, they are all about something that is longed for, and expected, but yet to occur – “O come to us and reveal the way of wisdom…”; “O come and save us, bestir thyself, delay no longer.”

Pärt’s setting of the Magnificat is even more minimalist than his Antiphons. Pärt’s wife, Nora, has written of this music: “The concept of tintinnabuli was born from a deeply rooted desire for an extremely reduced sound world which could not be measured, as it were, in kilometres, or even metres, but only in millimetres. By the end the listening attention is utterly focussed. At the point after the music has faded away it is particularly remarkable to hear your breath, your heartbeat, the lighting, or the air-conditioning system, for example.”

It is my hope that tonight’s program, rather than being a collection of individual works, adds up to something more—a musical experience in which your experience of both Bach’s and Pärt’s music is heightened by their contrast with the other. Whether measured in Pärt’s millimetres or Bach’s exuberant ‘maximalism’, all of tonight’s works have an extraordinary power to move and uplift us; to evoke contemplation and joy.


The programme for “Magnificat” was:

  1. Fratres for string quartet—Arvo Pärt
  2. Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen—Arvo Pärt
    • O Weisheit
    • O Adonaï
    • O Sproß aus Isais Wurzel
  3. Magnificat, BWV 243—J.S. Bach
    • Chorus: Magnificat
    • Aria: Et exsultavit spiritus meus
    • Aria: Quia respexit humilitatem
    • Chorus: Omnes generationes
    • Aria: Quia fecit mihi magna
    • Aria: Et misericordia
    • Chorus: Fecit potentiam
  4. Sieben Magnificat AntiphonenArvo Pärt
    • O Schlüssel Davids
    • O Morgenstern
  5. Magnificat—J.S. Bach
    • Aria: Deposuit potentes
    • Aria: Esurientes implevit bonis
    • Aria: Suscepit Israel
    • Chorus: Sicut locutus est
    • Chorus: Gloria Patri
  6. Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen—Arvo Pärt
    • O König aller Völker
  7. Magnificat—Arvo Pärt
  8. Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen—Arvo Pärt
    • O Immanuel
  9. Allemande from Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004

This concert was reviewed by the Canberra City News.