On Bach’s Birthday

Bach’s birthday is celebrated on March 21st. around the globe, perhaps even in every time zone. Born fifteen years before the German states adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700, Bach and his music get their biggest airing on this day, all calendars now properly aligned to play and pay them homage.

This year the current incarnation of Bach’s old choir, Leipzig’s Thomanerchor, is in Australia to do his St. John Passion with the Melbourne Symphony under the baton of Oleg Caetani. Bach would doubtless have been bewildered by this Lenten performance. During Bach’s tenure in Leipzig there was, with the exception of the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25, no public musical performance in Lent. But the current Thomanerchor has to be back in Leipzig to perform the Passion on Good Friday as Bach did. This year the liturgically appointed date falls April 10th.

While the boys are busy Down Under on Bach’s birthday bewailing the crucifixion of Jesus and musically swimming in the guilt all Christians should feel on account of Christ’s death, a more celebratory mood will prevail half a world away in Leipzig. It was in this east German city that Bach spent the last three decades of his life as a hugely productive and often disgruntled municipal employee directing the city’s religious and civic music. This year’s Bach birthday celebrations in Leipzig begin with activities for kids, including a peek at family life in Bach’s time, demonstrations of instruments, and story readings.

There will also advanced tours of the future Bach museum and the usual Saturday afternoon Motette in the Thomaskirche, where so many of Bach’s cantatas and passions were first performed. Afterward coffee and cake will be consumed nearby. And then in the evening a concert in the church will include the bright trumpet sounds of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. Among the many other events on this busy day of Bach commemoration and commerce is the late morning gathering called “Leipzig sings for Bach.” I’m not sure exactly what this will be, but it sounds as if there will be sing-along in the shadow of the menacing late-19th century statue of the composer that looms over the square (I’ll have more to say about that statue next week).

Perhaps the stern look on the face of that that hulking bronze figure is one of disapproval at the very idea of celebrating his birthday. In Bach’s time it simply wasn’t done. Birthday parties were thought of chiefly as a practice cultivated in ancient Rome. If one looks in Johann Zedler’s great encyclopedia, published in 68 volumes in Leipzig during the later part of Bach’ life, one learns that Nero was the first to get a birthday cake, even one with frosting and sticks of incense as candles. Although the encyclopedia isn’t explicit about such rituals, the article seems to suggest that birthdays are suspect not only because they’re pagan but because they’re a symptom of megalomania to boot.

Rather, as in many Christian cultures still today, it was the name day that was commemorated with well-wishes and greetings. Except in the case of the ruling prince, no mention is made in the article of lavish feasts or presents for everyday folk.

Bach’s name day is that of John the Baptist, ironically fixed on the supposed birthday of June 24. Because it was a significant feast day, June 24 was always a working day for Bach in Leipzig. I live in the era of the birthday party and happened to have been born on tax day, so I have a sense of how Bach might have might felt, though even a tax return is nothing compared to composing a full-blown cantata, copying the parts by hand (or overseeing their copying by students and family), rehearsing the piece, and then actually performing it.

In 1724, Bach’s second full year on the job, he was near the beginning of his effort to produce a second full run of cantatas for all the required Sundays and feast days of the church calendar: this would yield more than fifty fulls-cale, multi-movement vocal works. Bach had just completed cycle of cantatas over the previous twelve months. His cantata project over his first years in Leipzig must count as the most concerted creative outpouring in music history.

The St. John’s Day cantata of 1724, one of three that survives from Bach’s oeuvre, is cataloged as BWV 7 and known, according to the text of the opening chorus, as “Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam” (Christ our Lord came to the Jordan). The poetry of the first and last movements is by Martin Luther and was written in first years of the Reformation. Bach sets the chorale melody to which these words belong in the cantata’s framing numbers.

The minor orchestral ritornello that introduces the cantata is resolute but foreboding. When the voices enter the counterpoint swirling around the foundation of the chorale melody sounding forth in the bass is similarly unrelenting: this is not a sunny journey towards a riverside picnic. Halfway through the chorus the text speaks of the necessity of Christ’s christening so that “he can fulfill his work and office.”  One can’t help but think of Bach’s own unmatched resolve to do his duty to his art and his god—one and the same thing from his point of view.

Yet by June of 1724 Bach had already begun to bristle at what he saw as bureaucratic interference from above and infringements of his prerogatives from below. He began to worry about money. Within a year of St. John’s Day, 1724, Bach was complaining vociferously to the Saxon monarch in a series of pestering letters.

The music of our cantata moves forward with the chorale text but ceaselessly circles back on itself to the restive ritornello as if the piece’s creative energy can only thrive against obstacles—the rules of counterpoint and musical rhetoric, the weight of dogma and theocratic oversight. The result is both thrilling and oppressive.

The subsequent aria for bass and continuo strikes a brighter mood, extolling the promise of baptism, not just water but the cleansing of human sin through god’s word and spirit. A single voice instead of an entire chorus delivers the text, and rather than a full orchestra of strings and winds, there is only a bass line and improvised organ part accompanying the singer.  If Bach played the organ part one would have heard his vaunted talented for improvisation, even the context demanded that his imagination be reined in by the dictates of taste and decorum. Though far less complex music than that of the opening chorus, the aria opens a window for spontaneous personal expression on the composer’s own name day.

A recitative then allows God’s voice to proclaim the baptism of his own son. The lively, even nervous, tenor aria that ensues hammers home the crucial notion that this baptism must be performed because the son of god has taken lowly human form so as to pay for our sins with his own death. The second and final recitative quickly surveys Jesus’s crucifixion, resurrection, and the mission of the Apostles to spread his word. A dark alto aria, with its tragic leaps and sighs, bemoans the truth that humans are born to sin and earthly rot, and can only be redeemed by baptism and belief. The final chorale returns us to the same melody heard in the opening chorus, but delivered now in simpler more direct fashion. Denuded of the rich contrapuntal fabric of the first movement, this setting conveys the words with grim clarity: Luther’s startling imagery moves from the ritual pouring of baptismal water to the red flood of Christ’s own blood cleansing humanity. At this moment Bach’s inward-turning music suddenly pushes expansively outward, the bass line itself becoming restless, as if the bloody river will burst its banks.  The final line reminds us that we, the children of Adam, continue to add to the catalog of sin he began. However great the music the message it imparts is that its performers and listeners are vile. The final major chord hardly suffices to put one in a festive mood.

June 24, 1724 was a Saturday. The following morning at a three-hour service that began at 7am and at another service later in the day yet another richly conceived and grimly argued cantata from Bach’s pen would be heard in Leipzig. Perhaps after a busy St. John’s Day Bach had time to turn his attentions away from duty and sin and let his students and family celebrate him. Maybe there was even time for a pipe and a glass of brandy—pleasures we know he enjoyed—before Bach headed to his desk to think about the musical obligations, rewards, and perils of tomorrow.

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 dgy2@cornell.edu


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  dgyearsley@gmail.com