Bach as Jihadi

Bach helped future marketers of his music immeasurably by choosing an auspicious year to die in. Long before the mammoth commemorations of cultural figures became standard practice, Bach expired in the summer of 1750, concerned about his own salvation and oblivious to a distant future in which festival organizers and record producers would ride the waves of hype that roll in with this or that turn of the century or half century. On the crest of the mighty breaker that was the Year 2000, one could pick up a complete recording of Bach’s entire oeuvre on the Hänssler label for $999.99, a price point itself seemingly perched on the brink of new monetary Millennium.

This thirst for completeness can never really be quenched, if only because new tidbits have the habit of continually turning up: a birthday cantata was discovered in the Amalien Library in Weimar, Germany in 2005, only a few weeks before that historic building was gutted by fire and its holdings destroyed. More recently a substantial organ piece has been rediscovered at an auction in Leipzig.

At the time of the millennium, four complete recording projects of Bach’s cantatas were then underway:  one on modern instruments using large choirs led by Helmut Rilling, an apostle of Bach’s music as a symbol of reconciliation; the other three used historic instruments with somewhat smaller choirs under the direction respectively of Ton Koopman, John Eliot Gardiner, and Masaaki Suzuki.  Koopman finished his series two years ago, while Suzuki labors doggedly on, having just issued volume 41. (

Like weddings and funerals, composer commemorations can lead to bickering.  Over the course of their surveys of Bach’s vocal works, both Gardiner and Koopman parted company with their record companies, and began issuing their Bach CDs on their own labels.

Koopman founded the Antoine Marchand label (the French version of his name) after his contract was severed with Warner Classics.

The aristocratic and infamously temperamental Gardiner was in the midst of his pretentiously entitled Bach Pilgrimage 2000, in which he recorded all the cantatas live at churches in Europe and America in a single year, when he fell out with venerable Deutsche Gramophon. Undaunted, Gardiner continued his logistically impressive, not to say monomaniacal, tour, concluding it on New Year’s Eve in St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue in New York City. The notoriously imperious Gardiner can be seen on until February conducting the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra at this year’s Nobel Prize Concert, held at the beginning of the month. Probably most conductors of international renown, but none more so than Gardiner, believe that they should receive a special Nobel Prize.

Since 2005 Gardiner has steadily been issuing the recordings non-sequentially through subscription on his own label Soli Deo Gloria, as well as through the usual consumer venues like The twenty-seventh volume in the series came out in January of 2008. (All these covers can be viewed and the music sampled on iTunes)

All Gardiner’s double Bach CDs have covers with photographs taken by National Geographic correspondent Steve McCurry. These are images of people one what would earlier have called “tribal”: dark faces, some painted, pierced, or tattooed, topped with spectacular headgear, flanked by shawls, or offering glimpses at the shoulder of what must be glorious, spreading robes below and the still more enticing orbs such robes conceal, much to the disappointment of lecherous schoolboys weaned on National Geographic nudity. Whereas the 2000 Pilgrimage was confined to Europe and north America, the images which front the recorded results of that pilgrimage, are of Asians and Africans. The latest on volume 27 shows perhaps a “real” Caucasian, a young girl peering out from under her soiled head scarf. Gardiner’s Soli Deo Gloria websites asserts with an unattributed quotation that, “McCurry’s pictures are immensely striking: they seem to provide a potent imagery which perfectly complements that of the music.”

The cover of Volume 23 is a favorite of mine.  A brown-skinned man in a dirty white turban brushes his well-manicured beard with the back of his elegant, but hard-working hand. One could marvel for hours at the twisted strands of the magnificent turban and imagine the artifice it would take to tie it into the stable and well-proportioned orb it is. The textiles of the shirt and sweat-stained jacket are almost equally as fascinating in texture and hue as the face of the portrayed.

As on all the covers, from ornate old women, to fierce holy men, ornately costumed infants and children, the man’s dark bloodshot eyes stare directly out at the viewer. The portrait is as arresting an image, both in the richness of its fabric and the intensity of the subject’s gaze, as hard-edged as that of Jan van Eyck’s Man in a Red Turban, painted some 500 years ago.

None of the subjects smile. Few would seem to have much to smile about. It’s a hard life when you don’t have a surround-sound Bang & Olufsen stereo to enjoy Bach on.

The prospective buyer of Gardiner’s recordings, either on-line in the few CD shops that remain, regards someone who has likely never heard a note of Bach’s music, nor even the composer’s name. These provocative countenances—sometimes challenging, often defiant, and always proud—confront the listener from another world, indeed another millennium. Encompassing a great diversity of religion persuasions, these faces nonetheless belong to monotheists, or so I’m guessing, at least to the extant that one can count Hindus among the believers in one god, albeit of many forms.  Animists, even those with well-connected agents, are advised not to submit their headshots to the Soli Deo Gloria record label.

In the on-line forums where such things are discussed, the covers have elicited puzzlement, praise, and ridicule in equal measure.  On the one hand, a possible explanation for the choice of covers is that this multi-ethnic collection of impressive and beautifully photographed faces has something to do with Gardiner’s interest in other cultures.  While the conductor’s musical tastes are catholic, he studied Arabic at Cambridge, and at least a few of these photographic subjects must be Arabic speakers.  The imam whose eyes pierce the shadows of volume 1 is likely one of these. After the CD won an English Gramophone award in 2005, the cleric was made to look out over the top of a white banner advertising the prize. The image presents an unexpected contrast to conventional packaging of Bach CDs, never mind however ludicrous, even offensive, some Islamic clerics—perhaps even this one— might find the idea of his face being used for marketing purposes, especially when that face is pasted over a blatant plug for Western-style consumption and associated with music that was conceived by a narrowed-minded anti-Islamic Christian in the 18th-century.

Nine months after Gardiner completed his Bach Pilgrimage in Manhattan, September 11 would cast Islamic holy men in a rather different light. Aside from putting Gardiner on Homeland Securities’ radar screen, the cover of volume 1 and its successors also conveys the feel-good message that we are all part of one world.

It is a little surprising to me that Gardiner would adopt this ecumenical approach in his marketing, since over the course of his Pilgrimage he would have seen and heard just how fiercely evangelical and bloody Bach’s music can be.  Far from universal or transcendent, the music and texts are often narrow, bloodthirsty, violent, explicitly opposed to reason—that is, many of the values and attitudes that jihadists are often accused of.

Consider Bach’s music for Christmas, which one might expect to be full of images of universal good will and peaceful utopianism; in fact, this repertoire is filled with saber-rattling, severed heads, and pitched battles of immense violence. And while the enemy is named as the devil, the Turks were held to be a manifestation of these same forces of evil.

One could cite many unforgettable examples in the Bach cantatas of hand-to-hand combat, deeds of daring worthy of Gardiner’s Central Asian horsemen, but I’ll only mention quickly the final chorus of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. When I was a kid we would decorate the Christmas tree to the oratorio, large parts of which were originally written to glorify the war-loving Saxon royal house, and later re-fitted with their religious words. Yet the underlying ideology of violence bleeds through both the sacred and secular versions. The bombastic, galloping final chorus of the Christmas Oratorio proclaimed to the Christian faithful assembled in Leipzig St. Thomas’s Church that “Now you are thoroughly avenged, / for upon the host of your enemies, Christ has broken, that which was against you.”

It is this very fanaticism that inspired Bach’s genius and gives to his sacred music so much of its conviction and persuasiveness, however unsettling and “anti-modern” these may be. The unyielding qualities of this message might be those that Gardiner’s Man in the Turban would most appreciate. Two-and-a-half centuries since his death, Bach the warrior is the most modern Bach of all.

For more on Bach’s Christmas music, with audio links to saber-rattling cantata movements, see my just-posted essay “Princes of War and Peace and their Most Humble, Most Obedient Court Composer” at

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 Omnia. He can be reached at





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