Bach and Taxes

While the rich still have not figured out how to evade death, they have always been adept at escaping taxes even from beyond the grave. During Johann Sebastian Bach’s day, a sovereign’s demise was yet one more opportunity for a levy. Johann Zedler’s Universal-Lexicon—the largest encyclopedia project of the 18th century, published from 1732 to 1754 and extending to nearly seventy volumes—includes a definition of the tax arising “when on account of the expense of the burial of a princely corpse, the costs are imposed on the subjects.” Even as he is entombed in the family crypt in lavish style, the ruler exacts a final financial tribute; that smile on his face is not the work of the undertaker, but a parting grin at the willingness of his people to pay even for his posthumous lifestyle.

Often cantankerous in the musical workplace, and frequently resentful of the oversight of the institutions of civil government, Bach was eagerly obedient to monarchic authority.  The formulaic obsequiousness of the dedications on many of his manuscripts confirms this, as do his repeated run-ins with the proto-democratic institutions that impinged on his methods. Though depictions of, and reflections on, mortality occupied Bach throughout his composing life, he also got around to making music about taxes.  This is the cantata, Nur jedem das Seine (To Each What is Due Him), BWV 163, which treats the passage from the 22nd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  Like so many Lutheran theologians, particularly after the revolutionary forces unleashed by the Luther’s Reformation in the German Peasant Wars, Bach tries to resolve the paradoxical relationship between Christianity and secular authority.  While so much of Bach’s music renounces the evils of this world in favor the promise of the next, it repeatedly accepts the notion that order and obedience govern earthly existence. (In listening to this cantata, it is now impossible not to recall that “Jedem das Seine” was also the motto hanging above the main gate to Buchenwald concentration camp located a few miles north of where Bach’s cantata was composed and first performed.)

Bach wrote the cantata in November of 1715, a year-and-a-half after he had been promoted to Konzertmeister, after serving six years as organist, in the Ducal Court of Weimar. To be composing cantatas was a step up for Bach, financially and in terms of prestige.  The performance of the piece in the high and narrow ducal chapel in Weimar came after a long period of mourning for the death of the nineteen-year-old junior Duke Johann Ernst, himself a talented musician who had been Bach’s pupil and had also been largely responsible for introducing Bach to the music of Antonio Vivaldi. During this period in the Fall of 1715 no concerted music had been allowed in the Duchy.  Bach might well have contributed the burial-tax for the young Duke’s obsequies, and the cantata is a fitting of tribute to ongoing ducal authority: after a princely death the first piece heard in the chapel on November 24, 1715 is one about taxes and state authority. The brilliant, newly-promoted Konzertmeister Bach, admonishes the congregation that no one should try to avoid these loathsome obligations:

To each what’s due him!
If rulers must gather
Toll, taxes, and tribute,
Let no one refuse
The debt that he owes!
Yet bound is the heart but to God the Almighty

God tithes the intangible wealth of the human heart, but the local dukes collect the very real coin of the realm. It was hardly necessary to remind those in the chapel on that November Sunday in 1715 about the necessity of preserving the reigning system:  all were members of the ducal establishment.

Yet there is a certain melancholy resolve in the solo bass-line (accompanied above by the organ’s chords) that introduces the opening aria, as if to say, yes, taxes must be paid, but that doesn’t mean one has to like it. Indeed this musical motive finds an echo in a tenor aria from Bach’s 1727 St. Matthew Passion: “Geduld” (Patience) enjoins Christians, in emulation of Christ before his accusers, to remain calm and steadfast “when false tongues accuse.” If one hears this musical and thematic connection between the Passion aria and that of the cantata, the inference might be that few things in this life require more forbearance than taxes.

After the continuo line delivers this motto, the upper strings, low in their registers, enter in yearning resistance. When the tenor comes in, he attempts to triumph over this inertia, pleading at first, and then ecstatic in his repetition of the opening line, “To  each what is due him.”  Say it enough times and you’ll begin to believe it.  But the striving to escape earthly conditions with long melismatic lines is constantly brought back to reality, just as the individual must accept his own position in society. Acceptance coupled with relentless striving: that is the paradoxical genius of this music, especially in the performance of English tenor, Paul Agnew, heard on so many of the finest of the Bach cantata sets now available, that of Ton Koopman’s Amsterdam am Baroque Orchestra and Choir.

The music becomes stridently affirmative in the next line of the aria, which states the universal truth that rulers must gather tolls and taxes: one can imagine the Duke of Weimar nodding at these declarations of the just necessity of taxation, even as the somewhat mournful strings register a tone of doubt in between these forceful statements. The subsequent treatment of “let no one refuse” turns from the major to the minor mode and has the tenor hold on to long, high notes that come as a dire warning: the music becomes fierce and foreboding, as if to acknowledge that while all might think occasionally of evasion, the punishment would indeed be harsh. After all, it is not only that the Duke needs his money, but that God has ordained the order of things.

The recitative that follows, sung on the Koopman recording by the greatest Bach bass of our time, Klaus Mertens,  asserts that while God deserves the tribute of the soul, all should thank him for every gift received, including one’s station in society, be it low, or, in the case of the ducal listeners, high: “Thou has given us / Soul, spirit, life and body, / And wealth and goods and rank and class.” This stable hierarchy should remain firmly in place in anticipation of the great leveling of the Last Judgment: on earth, inequality should be respected, even reveled in.  Ironically, Bach would later run afoul of his Weimar employer, Duke Wilhelm Ernst, who threw him in jail just before he left Weimar on his way to his next job to work for the music-loving Prince of Cöthen.  The recitative is direct and affirmative, a simple affirmation of the way things are.  But at the close, the poet introduces a metaphor which admits that the coin that is the heart can counterfeited and therefore rendered worthless by the evil doings of the devil. At this point Bach’s setting turns tortuously chromatic and serpentine. The heart is both more fragile, and therefore more valuable, than real money, and the music ends on a despairing note.  The Duke has taken the money, and now it seems that even the token for eternal redemption might not be accepted by the heavenly toll collector.

The text for this cantata was written by the Weimar court poetry, Salomon Franck, who also happened to be in charge of the ducal coin collection, one of the finest in 18th-century central Germany. Franck’s numismatic expertise informs his language, and he writes about money with real conviction. Bach, too, had a longstanding interest in precious metals and coins, perhaps born during his time at Weimar. Bach’s estate included an assortment of silver and gold coins and medals, and he added marks of emphasis in his personal copy of the Bible to a description of precious stones listed in Exodus (28:20).  In the margins of a later passage in Exodus concerned with the weights and values of metals used to constructed objects in the Tabernacle, Bach wrote: “The sum of the freewill offering amounts to almost eight tons of gold.” He based this calculation on the conversions found in a volume in his library, Heinrich Bünting’s De monetis et mensuris sacrae scripturae, first published in 1587 but reprinted as late as 1718. The book provided the equivalent contemporary values for biblical units of weight, measure, and money, and in the preface Bünting claimed that this information would be of particular interest to alchemists, among others, since they could then use them to derive the proper proportions of materials when referring to scripture. Bach’s Weimar kinsman, Johann Gottfried Walther also an organist, was himself a sometime alchemist. Money and coins and the get-rich-quick magic of alchemy were part of Bach’s world.

Both poet and musician have a feel for coins that finds memorable expression in the masterful bass aria  that follows the recitative and that movement’s worried turn towards the dangers of fake money, real and spiritual. The bass aria opens with: “Let my heart the coinage be / Which I thee, my Jesus, pay now!” Two solo cello parts toil in the shadows in a kind of somber premonition of Wagner’s hammering underworld Nibelungen of a century-and-a-half later. The bass begins to sing down among these workers. All relentless at their labors: the tax offered to Jesus with the heart is embraced with muted fervor that somehow comes across as far more intense than that heard in the opening movement.

Franck pursues the metaphor of the mint with greatest specificity near the end of the aria: “Come and work it, melt and stamp it, / That thine image then in me / Fully new may be reflected.”  Caesar is not on this coin, but God is, and Bach lets the voice be the hammer: what were previously long arcing lines, are rendered single decisive, blows. The craft and intense labor of the soul creates both beautiful music and the eternal coin of a faithful heart. The smoke and heat of the soul’s forge have completely obscured all thoughts of the worldly taxes of the first aria.

The subsequent movements ascend to the higher voices and to the light of heaven and to the body transfigured by faith and Jesus: this music renounces the world, and it is a renunciation that renders taxes irrelevant. But it is the difficult labors of the bass and his coin-making that resound in the memory.

An ardent monarchist, Bach shows himself in this cantata a great master both of paying musical tribute to rulers even while minting the human heart for God. These are, to continue Franck’s metaphors with a cliché, two side of the same coin. Like so much great music, Bach’s accepts the inequalities and injustices of the world, and one would not expect his work to do anything else. Bach’s cantata as Tea Party Ode? Hardly.  But not only modern ears could be forgiven for hearing reluctance, even a hint of despair, in a work that accepts the dead certainty that, regardless of the status of any individual heavenly escrow account, Caesar must get his due.

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





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