Bach Amid the Turbid Floodwaters of Sin
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 email@example.com