Music in the Rubble

At the moment of the 1989 San Francisco Earthquake, I was not in front of my television watching the beginning of the World Series then taking place forty miles to the north on Highway 101. Instead, I was sitting at my clavichord in my apartment building in a desolate Silicon Valley township called Mountain View playing the Sarabande from Bach’s French Suite in D Minor.

Just as I reached the Sarabande’s first cadence—a cluster of hyperextended chromatic chords that suggest ugly contortion rather than the courtly elegance for which this, Louis XVI’s favorite dance form, was known—the great terrestrial rumbling from began.  You could heard the earthquake before you could feel it.

At least one self-styled post-modern critic, Lawrence Kramer, has heard in this cadence an existential confrontation with the self, and when the floor starting bouncing up and down and books came flying from the shelves, I was inclined to agree. I staggered to the doorway as I’d somewhere heard was the thing to do when the Big One came, and watched as my clavichord shucked and jived to the earth’s gyrations.

Was it a sign?  If so, a good or bad one? And from whom?  Bach? God? Is there a difference? Had my private performance of the Sarabande been moving enough to move the earth, or had it been so bad as to inspire the Deity’s wrath?  If any piece were powerful enough to do these things, it would certainly be the D Minor Sarabande.

It’s no coincidence that I now think of that trembling cadence as straddling a fault line, and in the end not quite managing to hold itself together against the tectonic forces it unleashes. Doubtless the millions of Giants and A’s fans invested the earthquake with significance of their own. Earthquakes and other natural cataclysms always clear great endless spaces for interpretation.

The most eager to fill this void have always been clerics. The pages of the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco tell us that later in October of 1989 the evangelist Virgi Rosamond took to Halladie Plaza with her bullhorn and turned to the biblical object lesson traditionally favored by Christian preachers: “Jesus said he would send earthquakes to Godless places.  This city’s wicked, like Sodom and Gomorrah, where men love men more than they love God.”  In my experience of the various Christian sects—observed from the cynical bench of the organist—God is gendered as male, except among Christian Scientists, a denomination founded by a woman and one which consequently prays to a “Father-Mother God.” So you see, Virgi, for a man to love God means he’s loving another male, albeit in a chaste way.  (Expressions of this male-male relationship are found in many Bach cantatas; these passages were duly excised by 19th-century editors eager to repress such associations.)

I don’t remember nor could I find now any jeremiads taking up the most obvious interpretative strategy with regard to the so-called Loma Prieta earthquake—that it was a sign that the National Pastime was itself evil, or at least that the players and owners were.  What if, as I had wrongly predicted, an earthquake had hit San Francisco the moment in August of 2007 when Barry Bonds his 756th home run? Now that would have been a real sign but not an unambiguous one. What would the cause of God’s displeasure have been:  steroids? Bonds himself? the juiced ball? chewing tobacco? the designated hitter, and therefore to be taken as a warning for Bonds to stay away from the American League to pad his numbers in his career’s twilight that never came?

It would be unfair to stigmatize Christianity alone for exploiting earthquakes for the purposes of moral judgment and eschatological fear-mongering. Sharon Stone’s now notorious comments about the recent Chinese earthquake demonstrate the remarkable adaptability of other religions, especially in the hands of mentally underfunded stars and starlets, at using natural cataclysm as a weapon of blame. “And then all this earthquake and all this stuff happened,” Stone told a swarm of microphones at Cannes last month, “And I thought, is that karma – when you’re not nice that the bad things happen to you?” In the longer Youtube excerpt of these red carpet blatherings, it was a pleasure to see Stone unhorsed by her lazy overuse of the word “nice,” as if the people killed in the Chinese earthquake had been punished for “not being nice.” (To be fair, though in Sharon Stone’s case one hardly wants to be, she goes on to relent a bit and follow the lead of her “good friend” the Dalai Lama in offering aid to the Chinese victims.)

For all its vacuous Panglossian diction (the best of possible worlds is a “nice” one), Stone’s remarks take their place in an august tradition of earthquake hermeneutics.  A massive collection of such interpretations survives from the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, an event which killed at least 30,000 people, but by some estimates as many as 90,000—a third of the city’s population.  Now estimated at 9.0 on the Richter scale, the earthquake was followed by a huge tidal wave that swept into the harbor and through the city. Those areas spared by the tsunami were ravaged by fires.

Clerics were almost unanimous in their belief that the cataclysm had been an act of divine retribution. But such unforgiving attitudes among the avanlanche of English-language sermons preached in the earthquake’s aftermath usually sidestepped the unsettling fact that the death toll had been so high because the disaster hit on the morning of November 1st, All Saint’s Day, when the populace was gathered in Lisbon’s churches. It would take a truly sadistic God to wait for His people to gather in His churches and then crush them in their numbers.

It is no coincidence, then, that Voltaire has his ridiculously optimistic title character in Candide, which appeared in 1759, and Candide’s tutor Pangloss wash ashore in Lisbon just as the earthquake hits. Leonard Bernstein has campy fun with the carnage in his musical, Candide. Few among the Avery Fish Hall audience at the most recent revival (to be seen on the excellent 2005 DVD of the live performance from Image Entertainment) would have known that the Lisbon earthquake still counts as the most devastating of all European natural disasters.  Evoked with a quick “Boom” from the the Candide chorus, the earthquake then inspires a string of goofy Broadway antics and tuneful one-liners about the auto-de-fé that follows and that claims Pangloss after the Grand Inquisitor (a caricature of Donald Trump in the 2005 production) briskly hands down the death sentence with the words: “You’re fired.”

But if, as so many clerics across Europe and in the Americas maintained, the Lisbon earthquake counted as retribution, what was it retribution for?  That the calamity struck at moment of religious observation was not a problem for rabidly anti-Catholic preachers in England.  Perhaps the grimmest of the many sermons and pamphlets printed after the Lisbon quake in England and its Colonies that I’ve been perusing recently is attributed to an anonymous “Clergyman at London” and takes the form of A Letter to the Remaining Disconsolate Inhabitants of Lisbon. After the title, one expects expressions of true sympathy but gets something rather different: “Yes, I will call ye Brethren for we are all Children of the same Almighty Father, and were, once, Members of the same Church.  That we are now divided was your Fault, and, heaven be praised!” The earthquake is seen as encouragement to “depart from the Iniquity” of Rome. The anonymous writer goes on to chronicle the destruction that swallows up whole families, and then urges the Portugese to “Cast your Eyes upon that Holy Inquisition, and tell me, whether ye ought not to bless the Omnipotent for his Mercy, in having so long suspended his visible Judgment over a City, where the Tyrants of that inhuman Court were suffered to reign?” It is therefore just that Godly wrath be meted out not on the Inquisitor (he survived the quake), but on the people of the cit, few of whom would have been too pleased to receive a summons from the Inquistion. Though uttered in Riveriera decolletage rather than austere clerical robes and collar, Sharon Stone’s unkempt pronouncements about the China quake are no less severe or venerable as those of the “Clergyman at London.”

It is the refusal to blame the victims that makes Georg Philipp Telemann’s Donnerode (Thunder Ode) the most powerful and lasting musical commemoration of the Lisbon earthquake.  Of the two commercial recordings of the piece available, the 1995 CD with Hermann Max and Rheinische Kantorei (on the Capriccio label) is the one to have, not only because of the strenth and subtlety of the soloists, and emotional range and declamatory precision of the chorus, but specifically for Hermann Max’s reading of the penultimate section of the framing movement of the piece, “How great is Thy name.” This sprawling movement is heard at the opening and close of part 1 and again at the end of Part 2 of the cantata. It is an exaltant succession of choruses and solo numbers arrayed in a majestic, earthquake-proof architecture.

Before the return to the rousing trumpets and drums of the opening section of this movement Telemann inserts a duet between and tenor and bass. The pair effuses in parallel thirds about the incalculable magnitude of the heavens. The singers’ moonlit colloquy is punctuated by an emphatic choral statement: “Lord, Thy heralds, the stars.” At the close of this communal utterance, Hermann Max retreats from the sublimity of the sentiment, into an ethereal ritardando and diminuendo, like the scattering dust of an exploded supernova.  The passage ranks as one of the great moments in the revival of 18th-century choral masterpieces.

Indeed, the Donnerode was one of the most popular vocal works of the 18th-century. Composed in 1755, and performed in both church services and public concerts in Hamburg, where Telemann was the Director of Music, the Donnerode continued to be performed across North Germany after Telemann’s death in 1767. Like other European cities, Hamburg ordered a day of fasting in March of 1756 and sent  at least two ships with relief supplies to Lisbon, and Telemann’s music was a crucial part of the civic response to the catastrophe.

The text of the Donnerode is a versification of the 8th, 29th, and 45th Psalms. As a whole the poetry and music revel in the vast incomprehensibility of nature, its beauty as well as its potential for terror. God has created the natural world and continues to be active in it.  The duet for two basses in Part 1 of the Donnerode finally relents and gives the audience the thrill of the earthquake with the quaking male voices buffeted by trembling timpani. But even this staging of personal terror is transformed to a chastened admiration of God’s power in upward-striving suspensions between the voices above the continuing tremors of strings and drums.

The static stars and dynamic earth are all God’s creations; his interventions in the natural world, most dramatically in the form of earthquakes, seem to be depicted not as direct acts of retribution, but merely as awe-inspiring facts of the universe. The beauty of Telemann’s music, from its evocations of the fragile beauty of “cool dew” to the terrifying scenes of “uprooted cedars,” embraces all that nature has to offer.  That we hear in all this the antecedents of a kind of deep ecology that would turn very dark indeed two German centuries later, should not poison Telemann’s achievement as an interpreter of nature.

But just as God threatens to detach himself from the day-to-day workings of the natural world, we learn in a late chorus, so with solo episodes, that “Thy scepter is a just scepter.” After the regal announcement of trumpets and timpani of the soprano sings the text accompanied by an exuberant solo violin; the bright clarity of the music suggests neither compulsion nor violence, but exuberant personal acceptance. Choral acclamations embrace thee individual expressions of the soprano and the tenor who follows her lead. The sublime power of events is experienced both individually and corporately.

In the fissures of the Lisbon earthquake Telemann’s Donnerode creates a new aesthetic category: the musical sublime. He does no use it to pass judgment but rather to bear witness to the sheer power of the universe God has created. Telemann’s sublime is dedicated not to moral posturing or to the facile representation of castrophe and destruction, but rather to a view that music should be above and beyond the events it assuages.

What rises from the ashes and rubble of destruction is not fear and condemnation, but updrafts of irrepressible human music. Though it is suffused with Christian optimism for an afterlife, this music is not to be confused with Panglossian dogmatism; rather, what we hear in it—even shrouded in religious imagery—is the sound of the individual in society ready to take matters into his hands, to rebuild in a world neither he nor those around him can control.

CounterPunch reader Chris Beckwith passes on this link to this recent collection of early 20th-century disaster and murder ballads.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, 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 Omni. He can be reached at






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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at