Bach and the Music of Time

The clocks change this weekend, but it also seems to be lights out for another temporal phenomenon: Obama Time. At junctures such as this—the turning of the political and climatic season—J. S. Bach’s music can offer some much-needed perspective.

One of Bach’s earliest cantatas Gott ist mein König (BWV 71)—“God is my King”—confronts both time and politics. Itis a sumptuous public work scored for three trumpets and timpani, a full battery of winds and strings, double chorus, and even a solo organ part played originally by the twenty-two-year-old composer himself. Bach was commissioned to write the piece for the investiture of the new town council in Mühlhausen in central Germany in February of 1708. Then the organist at the church of St. Blavius in this imperial free city, Bach answered the request with a work of great expressive range and civic fervor, from the martial blasts of the opening choruses to the stoic determination of the first aria “I am now eighty years old.” The text for this movement is based on the Book of Samuel, but as Bach scholar Daniel Melamed has argued, it refers to the new mayor, Adolph Strecker, an old man of 84. Strecker died within a few months of taking office, buried, as the aria text presages, “in the town of his birth.” It is into this aria that Bach weaves his obbligato organ part with its ephemeral triplet figures drifting through the texture like wisps of smoke. A young man at the start of a great career not only portrays the fleetingness of the earthly journey in his music, but he also performs it.

A change of government was a major event in the cultural life of German cities. After the largest bell in the tower of St. Mary’s had summoned Mühlhausen’s populace at around seven in the morning, the councilors, old and new, processed into the church between martial columns formed by the town militia, their entrance accompanied musically by trumpets and timpani. The procession took place in the dim February light and in what was most often inclement weather.  In 1708 the trumpeters and timpanist also took part in the cantata heard after the sermon inside the church. Bach’s is music of a theocracy: “God is my King” shouts the chorus at the outset, and with the closing movement the joyous embrace of the new administration (“This is our new government / In every endeavor / Crown it with they blessing”) is sealed by God’s arms.

One can get a sense of this huge church where the piece first resounded by watching a film of the cantata performed by the Michaelstein Telemann Chamber Orchestra and Chorus in this St. Mary’s. This performance is without the austere pomp that filled the church in 1708 and that provided the original context for Bach’s festive piece.  All we get in this modern performance is the cantata itself. A restored altarpiece and bits of religious art cling museum-like to the restored walls of the church, but the images on-screen confirm that Bach’s music has long outlasted its theocratic origins.

Such was the importance accorded the music marking that change of government that the city fathers of Mühlhausen paid for the text and score of the celebratory cantata to be printed. As a result  Gott ist mein König is the only one  of Bach’s cantatas to have been published during his lifetime, excepting the lost cantata he wrote for the same event the following year. So great was the esteem that the council had for the young organist, that it commissioned a second changing-of-the-government cantata from him even after he’d left Mühlhausen to ascend a couple more rungs on the ladder of musical success with a post as court organist at Weimar.

The central bass aria of Gott ist mein König, the fourth of the cantata’s seven movements, addresses the issue of time. With hauntingly minimal means, Bach portrays God’s division of night from day.  The text, like much of the cantata, is taken from Psalm 74: “Tag und Nacht ist dein” (Day and night are yours).  (This movement begins at the 7:30 mark of the YouTube clip) Above the organ and cello accompaniment, pairs of recorders and oboes echo each other as if from the light and dark, but the parts also entwine in the interstices between day and night. The mood is pastoral, an association evoked by the instruments’ reference to the flutes and shawms of biblical shepherds. But the aria also projects a contemplative rationality, as if God did his temporal work with utter calm and care. The bass line seems to mark out time, but it also conveys a process of thought and choice through its directed, but hardly relentless, progress: the notes proceed in graceful succession, though not with regularity. Godly deliberation seems still to be underway. We experience the division between night as it is being mulled over and enacted.

But it is Bach’s treatment of the vocal line that sonically maps out the course of the day with the simplest of musical figures. The composer sets the words “Tag und Nacht” (Day and night) with  three notes that divide the octave in half: a high F for “day” and a Low F for “night” with “and” sung to a C in between them.  With this barest of musical ideas, Bach elegantly, yet unforgettablydefines the transition of  day from night. The distance between day and night changes over the four utterances of the line in this first section of the aria.  When Bach repeats the line soon after its first iteration, he has it rise up from “day” to “and” and then jump down seven notes—one note short of an octave—and then rise up the already-heard fifth for “ist dein” (is yours). When Bach repeats the line a third time, he leaps from a high C for “Day,” overshooting the octave to a B-flat nine notes below. The fourth and final instance also uses this nine spacing. “Day” is always placed higher melodically, and set at a large intervallic distance from, “night”—a spacing that conveys the separation between them. The evocative power of these beautiful musical figures suggests both ineluctability and comfort: God has set out the day precisely and perfectly. Eternal time is—and should be—beyond human control and understanding.

The changing proportions between day and night in “Tag und Nacht” suggest that the relationship between them is in a state of flux, something the listeners in St. Mary’s church would have known simply from sensing the dim morning light of Winter. The middle section of the aria dramatizes the path of the sun as set by God: “You make both the sun and stars, and set them on their course.” The music suddenly becomes busier, the cogs of the cosmos whizzing round, no longer the “fixed stars’ of the Aristotelian universe. This contrasts with the contemplative pace of the earlier music describing day and its transformation into night. It is not that human life is calm; Bach loves also to depict the frantic pace of human activity. It is that God’s time proceeds inexorably and unrushed. As if to reassure the Mühlhausen faithful, Bach grants them—and us—a reprise of the opening music. God’s time encompasses not only earthly life, but also the aria itself.

As Melamed has shown, the cantata is rich in topical themes: reference is made to a devastating fire in the city the previous year, to the make-up of the new city council, and to the ongoing wars with France and Sweden prosecuted by the Hapsburg Emperor the nominal protector (duly thanked in the text) of the Protestant Imperial City of Mühlhausen.

But I like to imagine that Bach’s confrontation with time in this piece takes on greater meaning when we remember that it comes in the aftermath of the decision of the Protestants states of Germany to adopt the Gregorian Calendar introduced into Catholic lands in the late 16th century by Pope Gregory XIII.  While many of the patchwork of German territories had already accepted the system over the course of the 17th century, the new calendar was accepted by the rest of the Germans on Monday, March 1, 1700.  Ever the rebel in matters ranging from currency to right-hand drive, England refused to catch up with this European initiative until fifty years later. But even in Germany the new calendar amounted to a major wrinkle in the fabric of the Protestant time, one that is theologically smoothed out by Bach’s gentle, profound aria: however, much humans fiddle with the hour hand, the days, the months and the years, God is the ultimate time-keeper.

Only God can divide the day from the night. Undaunted, humans of the Secular Age have, over the last century, been obsessively fooling with time. Daylight Savings was first implemented early in the 20th century, when the Germans put it into effect near the end of World War to save coal. Using less energy has has been the most frequent rationale for adjusting the clocks. FDR went to perpetual daylight savings, or War Time, from 1942 to 1945. Nixon’s Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act of 1973 had an apocalyptic ring to it. Given their latitude and energy reserves, the OPEC nations didn’t have to bother with changing the clocks. I can still remember trying to get my mind around the concept of daylight savings as a kid, wondering how it was possible simply to alter time.Bush junior expanded daylight savings again in his energy bill of 2005, robbing the early risers among us of a couple more weeks of morning sunlight.

The willful manipulation of the hour, both on the large and small scale, would certainly have seemed a dangerous, not to say blasphemous, practice to Bach, as it doubtless appears to many millenarists happy now to watch the seconds tick down on Obama’s tenure in the White House. With perpetual gridlock soon to set in, look for some real change: more tinkering with the clocks, a Bachian rolling back towards God’s time.

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