February 17, 2012
Portrait of Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, 1748
I know that for many people, if classical music was not a part of their childhood or their adolescence, it can seem totally inaccessible as an adult. And even if we do love classical music, a completely foreign new piece of music may be off putting if we don’t know what to listen for. At least personally speaking, there seems to be a wall between myself and that which is new to me, and I have to actively try to knock down that wall around a new piece of music.
I must admit that upon my first listen of an unknown piece I am often put off because I don’t know what I am supposed to be listening for. I often don’t know the historical context of the piece, the piece’s place in the composer’s life, the piece’s relationship to other works of the time. What tends to focus my listening and help break down the piece is to ask a few questions and research or listen for the answers. Here are some examples:
- What themes are present that I should be listening for?
- If there are lyrics, who are the characters and what story are they telling?
- How does this piece compare to my expectations?
- What was the composer’s inspiration or motivation to write this piece?
- What was happening in the composer’s life at the time, or in history at that time?
- What musical constructs did the piece adhere to or break away from? Did the piece start a new trend in music?
What’s great about LACO’s Discover programs is that they not only help identify these questions, but provide insight into their answers in tandem with the concert-going experience. Coming up on February 25 is the 2012 Discover program which explores J.S. Bach’s “Magnificat.”
I’m excited to hear the Orchestra do a work with a full chorus for the first time this season. They’ll be joined by the USC Thornton Chamber Singers as well as soloists Charlotte Dobbs, Zanaida Robles, Janelle DeStefano, Ben Bliss and Daniel Armstrong.
I’m excited to have our musical tour guide Jeffrey Kahane lead the audience through the piece, but I couldn’t help but look into some of those questions myself. I can’t say that I’m particularly well-versed in the text that Bach has borrowed from Luke 1:46-55, however some quick research online tells me that “magnificat” is another name for “Song of Mary” and is an ancient Christian hymn. The text is borrowed from the Gospel of Luke, telling the story of Mary and a visit from her cousin Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist). After Mary greets Elizabeth, the child moves from within. When Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary sings what is now known as the “Magnificat” in response: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
With Bach I have some idea what to expect, knowing what I know about this Baroque master. I’ll leave my questions on history, influence and musical themes for Jeffrey Kahane next weekend, as I know he’ll illuminate much more in the piece than I’ve been able to hear on my own through my first few listens of the piece.