FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

"All the World’s a Hospital"

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Bach has many lessons to teach us, though they are rarely for the faint-of-heart. Indeed, faintness of heart itself is one of the main themes of this often dark music. For Bach the weakness of the body is the central fact of earthly life, and the human propensity for moral and physical disease contaminates even the enjoyment of music itself. To listen to Bach is therefore to listen to a paradox: the pleasure to be had from his religious cantatas relies on bodily organs and inclinations prone to sin and degradation.

Bach’s own sensual appetites, not to say stamina, can be gauged by the sheer quantity of his (pro)creative (re)production over five decades: he fathered more than a thousand works (many of more than an hour’s duration) and some twenty children by two different women. More than half of these children died in infancy. Nothing specific is known about the medical measures taken on behalf of these children, though my survey of a number of household instruction books from the period shows that many of the ills, both grave and merely inconvenient (e.g., hemorrhoids), were treated with a variety of seemingly benign herbal concoctions as well as with powerful chemical potions, including various dangerous substances such as mercury. Then as now, what didn’t kill the patient tended to make him or her stronger.

Bach’s own medical travails over his relatively long life of sixty-five years are documented only near the end. Forensic historians generally believe diabetes was the chronic condition that eventually claimed him. Four months before his death in July of 1750, Bach was operated on in Leipzig by the English occulist, John Taylor, a womanizing ophthamologist then traveling through Germany in his trademark coach painted with images of the eye. Taylor later had a go at the aged Handel’s eyes, and with a similarly negative effect.

That the two greatest musical minds of the era ended their earthly days in total darkness did not prove to be useful to Taylor’s later reputation, though it has secured him infamous cameos in dozens of biographies of Bach and Handel. (Favoring the ploy of leaving town abruptly after operating on a single eye and before he had to face the direct results of his botched surgeries, Taylor spent his last several years blind himself, a bit of poetic justice that did not escape his numerous detractors’ notice. Samuel Johnson described Taylor as one of the best examples of “how far impudence could carry ignorance.”)

Burial sermons and obituaries of Bach’s time often detailed the last hours of earthly life of the deceased, and consistently included a line or two about the efforts of the family to secure the best possible medical care for the dying. This rhetorical gesture was intended to salve the family’s collective conscience and to inform congregations or newspaper readers that the survivors had done all they could by bringing in experts equipped with the most advanced-and often costly-medical knowledge. The physicians either unwittingly delivered the coup de grace in the form of some toxin or confirmed that further struggle was hopeless. So it is in Bach’s obituary: ” a few hours later he suffered a stroke; and this was followed by a raging fever, as a victim of which, despite every possible care given him by two of the most skillful physicians of Leipzig, on July 28, 1750, a little after a quarter past eight in the evening, in the sixty-sixth year of his life he quietly and peacefully, by the merit of his Redeemer, departed this life.”

In the midst of the most concerted creative outpouring in the history of Western music and still in the hearty haleness of mid-life, the forty-eight year-old Bach — one wife recently buried and several of children by his new young wife soon to die — produced a magnificent, if little-known, cantata Es ist nicht Gesundes an meinem Leibe, BWV 25 devoted to human illness of mind and body. One is unlikely to hear this unrelenting work, the ultimate exercise in negative body imaging, in a chaste Pilates studio in your neighborhood. Hypochondriacs are advised to secure their Ipods against this potentially debilitating Bachian virus.

The work opens with a chorus to the text: “There is nothing healthy in the face of God’s threats, and there is no peace in my bones from my sin.” The cantata’s poetry is drawn from a collection published in 1720 by the Lutheran clergyman, Johann Rambach, who also a wrote a thick and explicit book on Christ’s crucifixion, a tome owned by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena. The greatest master of Christian masochistic imagery before Mel Gibson, Rambach loved to write about pain and suffering, all the better to advertise the joys available in heaven.

Bach introduces the opening chorus with heavy-burdened sighs in the orchestra, then gives a slower version of this same figure to voices bewailing their mortal bodies. At dramatic moments in the course of this portentous musical discourse, Bach introduces a full texture of brass instruments playing the familiar tune of the Passion chorale, whose text would have been known to contemporary congregations: “My heart is filled with longing / To pass away in peace.” From the tribulations of the earthly body, escape comes only from the world itself; this shimmering hymn is the song of heaven, both harmonious with and independent from the tortured, serpentine counterpoint of the voices and other instruments.

A tenor recitative follows this chorus-like 18th-century operas, Bach’s cantatas generally alternate movements devoted to the quick delivery of large chunks of text (recitatives) with more static reflections using shorter poetic units and involving a great deal of textual repetition (arias). In twisted, pain-wracked melodic contours and pain-wracked chromatic harmonies, Bach lays out the central thesis of the work: “the whole world is a hospital, filled with countless people, even children in their cribs, stricken by illness.” One person suffers the fever of lust, another stinks with pride, a third (and here thinks of the Healthcare executives of our times) is tossed into a premature grave by the consumption of avarice. The leprosy of sin devastates the limbs of all people. “Who is my doctor?” asks the recitative rhetorically at its lonely conclusion.

The answer is voiced only late in the subsequent bass aria in ecstatic arcs of soaring melody, all joyful hope in contrast to the pained introversion of the preceding recitative: “You are my doctor, Lord Jesus, only you know how to cure my soul.”

The sicknesses here cataloged are both metaphorical and real: sin is the cause of all suffering, but Bach’s musical depictions of a host of maladies in the bass aria alone are so detailed and evocative that they must have made his infirm and often sickly congregations uncomfortably conscious of their bodies and all the diseases and discomforts that attended them.

After the general cry for help that opens this bass aria, “leprosy” and “boils” are given to twisting, repeated figures that capture both the immediate pain and the relentless progress of disease. Later, ineffective “herbs” and “compresses” offer glimpsed hopes of comfort, but these quickly give way again to pain and despair, until the doctor Jesus makes his house call at the door of the soul.

On volume 7 of Ton Koopman’s recently completed set of Bach’s cantatas (available on the Antoine Marchand label), the great bass Klaus Mertens gives the definitive performance of this aria, as he subtly modulates his voice from the grim exhortations of the opening to the urgent anticipation of relief that momentarily beats back the pain of the body. Though composed before our antiseptic age, this aria offers an unforgettable evocation of the way the patient’s squirming and sweating in the waiting room gives way both to anticipation and to dread as the door opens on to the bright white of the examination room. O ye infirm, put down your People magazines and listen to the music!

On the most obvious the level, the cantata retails the scorn for earthly existence harbored by millenarians and political quietists: in a world of questionable medical procedures and constantly menacing disease, the only hope is offered in heaven.

While the melodies, diseases, and medical practices may be mostly different, the song remains the same: for the religious and non-religious alike, death is the only real cure.

In that Bach’s gripping music captures the opposing forces of hope and futility felt by all patients, then as now, it offers a strange solace. Even in its exacting representations of pain and suffering, the cantata soothes, partly by looking beyond its immediate circumstances and sorrows, while at the same time wallowing in them. One doesn’t have to be religious to recognize the weirdly ecstatic quality in the music and the complicated psychological state it represents. Dependent on the body to be sung, played and heard, the cantata paradoxically does seem to strive for the transcendence of the fragile physical condition of humanity. Does the music succeed? Even the good doctor Hippocrates himself had to admit Ars longa, vita brevis: Art is long, life is short.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University, and is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint (Cambridge University Press). He’s also a long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

 

 

 

 

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

More articles by:
June 29, 2016
Diana Johnstone
European Unification Divides Europeans: How Forcing People Together Tears Them Apart
Andrew Smolski
To My Less-Evilism Haters: A Rejoinder to Halle and Chomsky
David Rosen
Birth-Control Wars: Two Centuries of Struggle
Jeffrey St. Clair
Noam Chomsky, John Halle and Henry the First: a Note on Lesser Evil Voting
Sheldon Richman
Brexit: What Kind of Dependence Now?
Yves Engler
“Canadian” Corporate Capitalism
Lawrence Davidson
Return to the Gilded Age: Paul Ryan’s Deregulated Dystopia
Priti Gulati Cox
All That Glitters is Feardom: Whatever Happens, Don’t Blame Jill Stein
Franklin Lamb
About the Accusation that Syrian and Russian Troops are Looting Palmyra
Binoy Kampmark
Texas, Abortion and the US Supreme Court
Anhvinh Doanvo
Justice Thomas’s Abortion Dissent Tolerates Discrimination
Victor Grossman
Brexit Pro and Con: the View From Germany
Manuel E. Yepe
Brazil: the Southern Giant Will Have to Fight
Rivera Sun
The Nonviolent History of American Independence
Adjoa Agyeiwaa
Is Western Aid Destroying Nigeria’s Future?
Jesse Jackson
What Clinton Should Learn From Brexit
Mel Gurtov
Is Brexit the End of the World?
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Alabama Democratic Primary Proves New York Times’ Nate Cohn Wrong about Exit Polling
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
Stephanie Van Hook
The Time for Silence is Over
Ajamu Nangwaya
Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids: Racialized, Queer Solidarity and Police Violence
June 27, 2016
Robin Hahnel
Brexit: Establishment Freak Out
James Bradley
Omar’s Motive
Gregory Wilpert – Michael Hudson
How Western Military Interventions Shaped the Brexit Vote
Leonard Peltier
41 Years Since Jumping Bull (But 500 Years of Trauma)
Rev. William Alberts
Orlando: the Latest Victim of Radicalizing American Imperialism
Patrick Cockburn
Brexiteers Have Much in Common With Arab Spring Protesters
Franklin Lamb
How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra
John Grant
Omar Mateen: The Answers are All Around Us
Dean Baker
In the Wake of Brexit Will the EU Finally Turn Away From Austerity?
Ralph Nader
The IRS and the Self-Minimization of Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Johan Galtung
Goodbye UK, Goodbye Great Britain: What Next?
Martha Pskowski
Detained in Dilley: Deportation and Asylum in Texas
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail