Magnificat by Michael John Trotta
Notes by Vaughn Roste
A Magnificat is a setting of the Song of Mary as found in the Gospel of Luke (1:46-55) – what the King James Version in 1611 translated as “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord” (the New International Version updates “magnifies” to “glorifies” if that helps clarify). As a Biblical passage these words have been set by perhaps thousands of times by composers over the centuries; anonymous settings date all the way back to the fifteenth century, and many composers have set them more than once. Part of its appeal might stem from its daily use: Roman Catholics would use this prayer each evening as part of their Vespers services, and the Anglican service of Evensong continues that tradition. Settings by Bach, Vivaldi, and more recently by John Rutter are perhaps the most famous, although Monteverdi and Mozart wrote Vespers that are very well known as well. Trotta’s seven-movement concertized version is an uplifting, 40-minute work for soprano and baritone soloists, choir and orchestra.
I. Magnificat Anima Mea Dominum (Choir and Orchestra)
The exuberant opening movement is a stately march in ABA form, with a short introduction on the title word – remember this music, because you will hear it again later, and not just as the coda to this movement. With its ever-present rhythmic drive, you might find the first movement of Trotta’s Magnificat to be reminiscent of the 7th movement of Vivaldi’s Gloria, “Domine Fili Unigenite” in its strong triple meter – except here Trotta is in a strong Duple. The French horn first introduces the opening theme, a majestic ascending fourth on a dotted rhythm, and the choir soon joins in octaves: “Magnificat!”. The second, contrasting theme – lyrical instead of angular – is an ascending scale of alternating half and quarter notes, introduced by the orchestra, returning again with the choir on the words “et exultavit.” These are in fact the two main themes, not just of this movement, but of the entire work. Notice too, the reverence with which the composer sets the word “Dominum” (Lord), sung by the choir accompanied only by woodwinds, as if there were a halo around this word; this is evocative of how Bach used the strings in his St. Matthew Passion. The relentless forward motion of this movement is infectious, the music happily expressing the joy of the text: our spirits rejoice!
II. Quia Fecit Mihi Soprano Soloist and Orchestra
After the lively first movement, we settle into a slower, more calm setting. The oboe introduces the lyrical scalar theme from the first movement over a rolling harp accompaniment and shimmering strings (with overtones!), and the soloist sings the same material. Also in ABA form, as the opening lyrics return at the end, this short movement is sweet and full of reverence.
III. Ave Rosa Sine Spina Unaccompanied Choir
The “Ave Rose Sine Spina” text is not part of the Magnificat itself, but a six-verse Latin poem based on the Ave Maria (each of its verses start with a word from that salutary prayer). Trotta does not set every word, but instead selects phrases from the first four verses for inclusion here. You might expect this piece to roll out in regular four-bar phrases, but in fact they are six bar groupings. Generally neumatic, (meaning syllables happen every second beat), forward motion is always provided with quarter note movement in one voice or another, with many suspensions providing harmonic interest. This short movement is also in ABA form, with a shortened opening line repeated at the end as a coda. The B section recalls the theme from the first and second movements, before transforming into new material which will return later in movment six.
IV. Fecit Potentiam Soprano Soloist, Choir, and Orchestra
In contrast to Vivaldi’s Magnificat where this is the shortest movement (requiring a scant 30 seconds to perform), Trotta’s 10-min Fecit Potentiam is the longest movement of this work. We hear again the lyrical scalar theme from the first two movements, this time spiced up with a fiery ostinato in the strings. When the choir enters, they sing the descending bass line in octaves, then four parts, followed by the ascending scalar theme in unison then in parts. In the slower middle section, the second theme from the first movement returns in a lilting 12/8 meter. First introduced by the cello, the theme is soon picked up by the viola, the violins, the oboe, and the flute in turn, the latter two concluding with a brief duet. A slower, more contrapuntal section leads us to re-introduce the choir, who sing “Et Exsaltavit” in the same slow tempo, soon joined by a soaring soprano descant. But the choral part does not last long – another orchestral interlude transitions us back to the original key of a minor, where the trumpet and the horn are added to the galloping strings in a recapitulation of the opening material and a surprising pianissimo ending.
V. Ecce Ancilla Soprano Soloist and Choir, Unaccompanied
Trotta’s second textual insertion into the Magnificat is taken from Luke 1:38, which is Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation. (The Magnificat itself begins nine verses later). After a three-bar preface that ends in minor (connecting with the previous movement) and foretells the conclusion, listeners will recognize a theme that was first presented to them as “Et exsultavit” in the middle of the previous movement (with the same soprano descant). This short 48-bar movement, also in ABA form, is a somber a cappella respite between extended orchestral movements, completely tonal, with many suspensions and tasteful dissonances. This movement illustrates Trotta at his most emotional and effective writing; he excels at works for a cappella SATB choir (four-parts, with occasional divisi) and a soprano soloist (or descant above): several of his octavos are similarly scored, such as “Where Peace Has Always Been,” “I Shall See,” “O Gracious Light,” “Irish Blessing,” and “Ubi Caritas.”
VI. Esurientes Baritone soloist and orchestra
It is not until the sixth movement that the baritone soloist appears, and has this movement entirely to himself, accompanied by the orchestra. The soloist is interrupted by two orchestral interludes: the first is the lyrical theme from th