Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! CounterPunch is entirely supported by our readers. Your donations pay for our small staff, tiny office, writers, designers, techies, bandwidth and servers. We don’t owe anything to advertisers, foundations, one-percenters or political parties. You are our only safety net. Please make a tax-deductible donation today.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Bach Amid the Turbid Floodwaters of Sin

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Flood waters are coursing through three continents. After the devastating Asian floods of last summer, the latest flooding has claimed more than a hundred lives in South Africa; the Canadians are now darkly forecasting Spring floods in Manitoba that could surpass the Flood of the Century of 1997; a headline from earlier in the week in the Daily Telegraph read: “Floodwaters the size of Luxembourg bearing down on Australian towns.” Poor Luxembourg only seems to appear in the news in connection with corruption in the European banking system and as a geographical yardstick for the scope of natural disasters: better to get flooded by a Luxembourg of a lake than hit by a meteor the size of Lichtenstein.

In Christian thought, floods have always been brought on by sin, the height of the water standing in inverse relation to the piety of those inundated. Legion have been the sermons blaming humans for their culpability in the fury of the weather and its aftereffects. One of the greatest masters at evoking floodwaters in music, Johann Sebastian Bach was himself soaked in the rhetoric of natural disasters as retribution. Zedler’s encyclopedia was the most ambitious undertakings of its kind of the 18th century; it extended to sixty volumes, most of which appeared in Leipzig during Bach’s time there between 1723 and 1750. In that monumental reference work, equal parts Enlightened science and early-modern superstition, Bach would have read that: “Floods are called the punishments and plagues of God.”

In German “deluge” is Sintflut (Sündfluth), which means “sin flood”—word itself binds high waters with human immorality. The long Zedler article on “Sündfluth” is mostly a response to rationalist attempts to explain the Flood in scientific terms; it’s a debate that continues to course through Creationist thought, just as it did in the 17th and 18th centuries. How could it have been physically possible for waters to cover the entire globe? In grappling with this question, the Zedler article seeks to dismantle the logic and calculations of Thomas Burnet, whose Sacred Theory of the Earth first published in London in 1681, argued that the antediluvian earth was a perfect sphere filled with of water, and the weight and violence of the floodwaters created the earth’s later topography. In response to such eloquent if far-fetched theories, the Zedler account of the flood constantly reverts to a the position that God’s power cannot always be explained or calculated. Nonetheless, the article draws on physical evidence to support its argument for the totality of the inundation—“that flood of the entire earth, that  happened 1300 years after the world was created.” Science could not be ignored, but that did not change the fact that God was all powerful and could defy physical laws, and that human sin was to blame for the world’s watery destruction regardless of the outcome of calculations of water’s density, the altitude of fossil discoveries, the sun’s evaporative power, recently collected flood myths of the Chinese and of American Indians, the volume of the seas and of the hollow earth and the height and breadth of mountain ranges, and the viability of pre-Malthusian theories about overpopulation. Indeed, what is most modern about the Zedler article is not that science most be confronted, but that its findings can be deployed to reinforce a sense of guilt for, and fear of, floods and other disasters.

Bach was born some seventy years after the Great Thuringian Flood of 1613, which rose catastrophically above the gates of the city of Weimar. The aftermath of the disaster let loose a deluge of angry sermons blaming faithfulness and sin as the cause of the ceaseless rains and rampant waters. This natural disaster of the 17th-century was still discussed in print and its horrors invoked as a warning up through Bach’s lifetime.

Whereas preachers were expert at the vivid language of fear—torrents ripping children from their mother’s grasp, churches and houses going under, scores of helpless people drowning— composers writing for the church had also to be adept at dramatizing the destruction and death that the elements could visit on humankind when directed to do so by God. Bach’s contemporary Handel, and many other opera composers, almost all of whom also wrote sacred music, were skilled at disaster music.  The earthquake near the beginning of Messiah, with the thunderous bass voice of the Lord shaking the “heavens and the earth,” and the blast from the godly nostrils that sent the raging Red Sea over the enemy in Israel in Egypt are just two of many examples of Handel’s musical representations of natural destruction.

The baroque theatre’s clever stage machinery could artfully depict the waves of an angry sea. But for congregants sitting in cold churches without such visual aids, catastrophes had to be played out in the imagination, and the vivid, often blood-curdling music of floods and quakes and high winds, were the special effects of the 18th-century, the 3-D glasses and Dolby Surround Sound of the Age of Brimstone and Enlightenment. Music from the choir loft had even an greater power than the word spoken from pulpit to terrify the guilt-prone listener.

In Bach’s first year as Director of Music he produced perhaps his most striking flood music: the cantata BWV 81, “Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen: (Jesus sleeps, what can I hope for), for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. In 2011 that Sunday of the liturgical year is this weekend – hence no doubt  the coincident current floods.) The Gospel for that Sunday, from which Bach’s cantata freely draws, is taken from Mathew, Chapter 8. The Disciples are in a boat at sea and are overtaken by a storm. Jesus is onboard but sleeping; the Disciples wake him and he calms the winds and fury of the waters.

The cantata begins with an aria for soprano, a foreboding lullaby, reverent of the sleeping Jesus but fearful at what might befall the Disciples—and by extension all Christians—while he is, as it were, asleep at the tiller.

An ensuing tenor recitative selfishly complains further of the Lord’s lack of attentiveness, before the flood is unleashed by the storm in a bravura tenor aria: “The foaming waves from Belial’s streams / redouble their fury.” Listen to the powerful and virtuosic tenor Bernhard Berchthold and his  gripping performance of this aria with the Bach–Stiftung in St. Gallen, Swizterland, led by the exuberant and precise Rudolf Lutz.

Belial is one of the four Crown Princes of Hell; his flood sends the doubters on a one-way water slide to damnation. The opening string line of Bach’s aria surges upward then froths down above a pounding pedal point, before the tenor dives into the foam, ripping off the torrents of scales and arpeggios, as if his voice is surfing the flood. Unexpectedly, the storm suddenly lashes against the sandbags of belief and gives way to a poised, though hardly resolute, recitation enjoining Christians to “stand indeed like a rock, / when the winds of trouble blow about him, / though the stormy flood / seeks to weaken the strength of faith.” But such resolve cannot stem the flood, and the music jumps its banks again with exhilarating terror.

After all this commotion, amidst the storm and flood, Jesus awakens and delivers a scolding arioso in the minor mode, expressing his disappointment that even the most tempestuous conditions could induce such a fright in his followers. Jesus repeatedly castigates those of little faith for succumbing to doubt: in the face of disaster belief is the only lifeline.

Jesus then rises to subdue the storm himself. YouTube is less generous for this aria, Schweig, aufgetürmtes Meer (Quiet, heaving sea), but even the staid pace of the reading of the piece available on that site imparts some sense of the fury of the flood. ((As always, I recommend the recording of Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir. This cantata, with the incomparable bass Klaus Mertens at the helm of this tumultuous aria, is heard on volume 8 of the complete set.

The unison strings begin on the off beat, as if Bach is catching the wave as it builds upward, lofting two oboes d’amore above its crest, like seagulls skimming the foam. Here Bach deploys a common harmonic progressions of his time, one heard most famously in Pachelbel’s Canon and also shared with Handel’s Thou didst blow, from Israel in Egypt, where the Egyptian armies disappears below the surface of the Red Sea: whereas Handel used it in that aria to depict the serene aftermath of a flood, in Bach’s storm the well-worn pattern is darkened by its minor key and invested with boundless power and fury.  Jesus shouts into the roiling waves, the strings seething onward without respite, “Quiet heaving sea! Be silent, storm and wind!” It’s bracing stuff.

But in contrast to what I presume to be Bach’s intended message, I hear Jesus himself being caught up in the power of the raging waters. That power is in fact his own, for he literally commands the elements. But Jesus seems ready be carried away by the thrill of his storm. After all, for the piece to extend to its proper dimension, Jesus’s orders must fall on the wind’s deaf ears; in order to dramatize the storm, Jesus must issue a slew of futile commands. The aria lasts longer than Jesus’s omnipotence should require.

In all its skillful fury, this piece doubtless excited Bach’s listeners, but in paradoxically reveling in its own destructive majesty, the aria raises the old question about music itself: embracing the aria’s sensual, if destructive, power is just the kind of sin that ultimately brings with it natural disaster. In this very piece meant partly to scare listeners with their own sins, it is the seductive thrill of the music itself that opens up the floodgates.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. 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:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

Weekend Edition
September 30, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Henry Giroux
Thinking Dangerously in the Age of Normalized Ignorance
Stanley L. Cohen
Israel and Academic Freedom: a Closed Book
Paul Craig Roberts – Michael Hudson
Can Russia Learn From Brazil’s Fate? 
Andrew Levine
A Putrid Election: the Horserace as Farce
Mike Whitney
The Biggest Heist in Human History
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Sick Blue Line
Rob Urie
The Twilight of the Leisure Class
Vijay Prashad
In a Hall of Mirrors: Fear and Dislike at the Polls
Alexander Cockburn
The Man Who Built Clinton World
John Wight
Who Will Save Us From America?
Pepe Escobar
Afghanistan; It’s the Heroin, Stupid
W. T. Whitney
When Women’s Lives Don’t Matter
Julian Vigo
“Ooops, I Did It Again”: How the BBC Funnels Stories for Financial Gain
Howard Lisnoff
What was Missing From The Nation’s Interview with Bernie Sanders
Jeremy Brecher
Dakota Access Pipeline and the Future of American Labor
Binoy Kampmark
Pictures Left Incomplete: MH17 and the Joint Investigation Team
Andrew Kahn
Nader Gave Us Bush? Hillary Could Give Us Trump
Steve Horn
Obama Weakens Endangered Species Act
Dave Lindorff
US Propaganda Campaign to Demonize Russia in Full Gear over One-Sided Dutch/Aussie Report on Flight 17 Downing
John W. Whitehead
Uncomfortable Truths You Won’t Hear From the Presidential Candidates
Ramzy Baroud
Shimon Peres: Israel’s Nuclear Man
Brandon Jordan
The Battle for Mercosur
Murray Dobbin
A Globalization Wake-Up Call
Jesse Ventura
Corrupted Science: the DEA and Marijuana
Richard W. Behan
Installing a President by Force: Hillary Clinton and Our Moribund Democracy
Andrew Stewart
The Democratic Plot to Privatize Social Security
Daniel Borgstrom
On the Streets of Oakland, Expressing Solidarity with Charlotte
Marjorie Cohn
President Obama: ‘Patron’ of the Israeli Occupation
Norman Pollack
The “Self-Hating” Jew: A Critique
David Rosen
The Living Body & the Ecological Crisis
Joseph Natoli
Thoughtcrimes and Stupidspeak: Our Assault Against Words
Ron Jacobs
A Cycle of Death Underscored by Greed and a Lust for Power
Uri Avnery
Abu Mazen’s Balance Sheet
Kim Nicolini
Long Drive Home
Louisa Willcox
Tribes Make History with Signing of Grizzly Bear Treaty
Art Martin
The Matrix Around the Next Bend: Facebook, Augmented Reality and the Podification of the Populace
Andre Vltchek
Failures of the Western Left
Ishmael Reed
Millennialism or Extinctionism?
Frances Madeson
Why It’s Time to Create a Cabinet-Level Dept. of Native Affairs
Laura Finley
Presidential Debate Recommendations
José Negroni
Mass Firings on Broadway Lead Singers to Push Back
Leticia Cortez
Entering the Historical Dissonance Surrounding Desafinados
Robert J. Burrowes
Gandhi: ‘My Life is My Message’
Charles R. Larson
Queen Lear? Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk”
David Yearsley
Bring on the Nibelungen: If Wagner Scored the Debates
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail
[i]
[i]
[i]
[i]