Bach and the Oil Spill

What might Bach have to tell us about this oil spill? Unlike his more financially diversified and speculatively-minded contemporary Handel, who made money a few times in South Sea stock and in a host of other financially instruments, Bach was not much of an investor. I’ll bet Handel would have had some of his money in big oil, the black gold of the present age, whereas the African slaves trafficked in by the South Sea Company were the black gold of Handel’s day.

The specification of Bach’s estate lists only a single share  of stock. It was a holding in a Saxon iron mine. Bach’s stake was valued at 60 Reichsthaler at the time of his death in 1750; he had about four times that amount in gold and silver coins, presumably tucked away in his apartment. The annotations he made in his personal bible show his keen interest in precious metals, and his investment strategy seems to have been informed by his biblical hermeneutics: big on gold with a bit of stock.

One can only assume that Bach’s attitude towards the environment was pure Old Testament. In fathering twenty children by two wives, he certainly did his procreative best to obey the words of Genesis 1: 26:  “”Be fruitful and increase in number.” The rest of the chapter followed ineluctably on these obligations: “Fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

All this biographical trivia doesn’t give us much to go on as the oil continues to gush from the bottom of the Gulf even as BP’s stock price seems to have found—at least temporarily—its own bottom, a counterintuitive buoyancy that proves just how bad the Markets is at predicting the fate of the planet. There’s money to made in selling the planet short. Wall Street does it everyday.

Rather than Bach’s life, it is his music that proves uncannily adaptable in commenting on modern life in ways he hardly intended and he probably never would have agreed to.

The metaphor of Christ as a wellspring is a common one. It is used by Bach many times, none more cogently with respect to the long-term environmental disaster that has reached a sudden crescendo at the Deepwater Horizon well, than in the third movement of his 1724 cantata, BWV 5, “Wo soll ich fliehen hin” — “Where should I flee to”.  German has the same word for “well” as for “source”: Quelle. This ambiguity allows for an often arresting inclusiveness: the regenerating “source” of Christ’s blood—as in this cantata—is not left as an abstraction, but imbued with the irrepressible life of a stream gushing up from the earth.

 The opening, minor movement of this cantata, scored for four-voice chorus, strings, oboes, and slide trumpet might already be heard to comment on the spill:  “Where should I flee to?” asks the oil slick. Florida? Up the East Coast of the United States? Cuba and other Caribbean islands? Bach might as well be referring to oil in the form of sinned stained man “weighed down by many grievous sins.” Nothing can be done about the moral state of affairs even if experts from across the globe come to lend their aid: “Where should I find rescue? If everybody in the world came to me, they would not take away my anguish.” Hopelessness reigns in the Soul of Man as in the Gulf.

The text comes from the venerable chorale of the early 17th-century that is heard in long notes in sung by the soprano and supported by the slide trumpet. Beneath this melody the voices treat the opening notes of the chorale theme both in its original, ascending form and by inverting that figure so that it descends. The contrapuntal parts press forward and then double back on one another as they spread out in an ever-widening swath of panic. The music is not hurried, but nonetheless full of intent. Never has carefully planned music sounded more irrational and scary. The apparent lack of larger musical direction, even as individual parts pursue their lines with great intensity, is more than unsettling. It’s frightening. The hymn tune heard above this polyphonic foment hardly sounds secure: its superficial musical calm belies a fundamental desperation, as the waters beneath it fill up with terror.

The Bass recitative that follows this chorus begins with an image of the soul not only stained by “the mass of sin,” but fully covered in it. Saturating guilt is as thick as oil. The melodic jumps and harmonic shifts are jagged, remorseless. A wrathful God would drive the sinner “away from him as something unclean,” but then sonic dispersants drift down as the music momentarily attempts to brighten:  a mere “drop of His sacred blood does such great wonders” that the sinner can “stay unrejected.”  But God offers far more than just a single drop: “his wounds are an open sea in which I sink my sins.”  And so is the gash in the Gulf.

Bach’s conjuring of the vastness of God’s real liquid wealth, sets up the subsequent movement, one I’ve been thinking of all week as the Oil Spill Aria:

“Pour yourself out abundantly, you divine well,
ah!, flow over me with streams of blood!”

After the somber first two movements, Bach produces something that is suddenly uncontained, its effusiveness seeming all the more excessive after the darkness and doubt that preceded it. Now the blood flows, ecstatic and unceasing. The instrumental introduction is one of Bach’s most exuberant. It is also one Bach’s rare viola solos.

Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, relying on information gained from Bach’s son, claimed that the great man. In musical parties where quartets or fuller pieces of instrumental music were performed and he was not otherwise employed, he took pleasure in playing the viola. With this instrument he was, as it were, in the center of the harmony.”

It would be nice to think that Bach played the solo himself at the cantata’s first performance on October 15, 1724 in Leipzig. But this is not music of the embedded observer. Instead, it’s musical action at its most committed. The viola part marked by its perpetual motion virtuosity with the nearly non-stop treachery of string crossings interspersed with runs: all very awkward but meant to sound irrepressible. This ritornello is Bach’s biggest and most unstoppable gushers. Top kill can’t contain it, nor any other procedure dreamt up by technological fixers.  Silencing your iPod won’t silence it either. It’s as if this music will always be bubbling along, uncontainable and eternal vibrant whether you’re listening to it or not.

When the voice enters it slides through the words “pour” and “abundantly with a flowing figure riding above the viola still bubbling away beneath, and then bubbles up in long, fountain-like melismas on the words walle and Strömen (streams). Walle is usually translated, as above, as “flow,” but its connotations are more in the direction of “seethe” or even “boil.” This is not a gentle spring, calmly offering refreshment to pursed lips after a long hike.  This is a roiling well, so vigorous that its abundance could almost be confused with anger. Bach captures this torrential quality with a vocal part as ecstatically demanding as the viola’s.

The energy of this piece is best captured on Ton Koopman’s Amsterdam Bach Orchestra and Chorus recording featuring Martin Kelly’s viola (at least I think it’s his; the CD’s linear notes are unclear) impeccable in its relentless stream of joy and Christoph Prégardien’s strident, but never harsh, tenor voice so full of unswerving conviction and technical surety.

The Helmut Rilling version available on Youtube conveys little of the movement’s essential exuberance.

The Oil Spill Aria presents a bizarre and unforgettable image: the ecstasy of dark, thick liquid gurgling up to cleanse the world. If only Bach’s unparalleled, paradoxical music could do the same.

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