The Debt Cantata

That debt and sin are synonymous in Christian thought and liturgy might help explain the righteousness of Tea Party discourse, as well as the genuflections of Obama and his acolytes.

It’s true that the Sojourners and other progressive Christian groups have attacked the debt ceiling non-deal as devastating for the poor and antithetical to Christian morality. But the wrathful God of the Right Wing sees things differently. Red is the color of sin and of negative numbers on the balance sheet.

As conservative lawmakers uttered their obligatory Lord’s Prayers in recent days, they must have stumbled over its central words in the Evangelical version: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”?

Amid reports last week that John Boehner had shown a group of Republican Congressmen a scene from the Ben Affleck heist movie The Town in a vain attempt to rally support for his debt-ceiling plan, I thought that the better soundtrack for the entire debacle would have been Johann Sebastian Bach’s Debt Cantata, first performed nearly three hundred years ago, also in the final days of July. This alarming and wonderful piece, thick with financial metaphors brought to seething life by a ceiling-less musical imagination, should have blared from loudspeakers in the Capitol rotunda, or better yet, been performed live by an elite military early music ensemble—maybe the Baroque Bombarerdiers. Finally, one Pentagon appropriation I could get behind.

In 1725, the year Bach composed and performed the cantata within the span of a few days, the 9th Sunday after Trinity fell on July 29. The Gospel for that day in the church calendar was taken from the thirteenth chapter of Luke. This passage relates the Parable of the Unjust Steward, in which a manager is accused by his rich employer of squandering the goods entrusted to him. The manager then proceeds to cut deals with the rich man’s debtors on the theory that once fired, the manager will need a place to stay, and forgiving some of these debts (without telling the rich man) would do the trick. The parable has caused not a little confusion and consternation among interpreters, especially those who attempt the difficult task of explaining Jesus’ apparent endorsement of duplicitous financial dealings, while he simultaneously argues for a downward redistribution of wealth. Many wealthy Christians like to skip over the passage’s closing line: “No servant can serve two masters …Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”  Not so our Bach, who musically depicted this idea with unmatched ferocity.

The fiscal parable from Luke prompted Bach’s librettist, Salomo Franck to pursue the same literary vein with great vigor. Franck had been the court poet in Weimar when Bach had been employed there between 1708 and 1717. The two had begun to collaborate in earnest in 1714, when the organist Bach was elevated to the position of Konzertmeister and in this capacity was charged with producing one cantata every month (as opposed to one a week in Leipzig).  Aside from being a man of letters, Franck was also director of the ducal mint in Weimar, which may explain his taste for monetary imagery in his poetry. Franck provided the for text another of Bach’s fiscally-oriented Weimar cantatas, Nur Jedem das Seine (BWV 163), which treats the touchy subject of taxes, and includes a moving central aria in which the human heart is likened to a coin to be minted by God. Bach had left the Weimar court some eight years before writing his Debt Cantata in 1725 by which time he was Director of Music in Leipzig. Bach may have returned to Franck’s  vivid text because the poet had died just two weeks before. The cantata, which treats the big themes of money and death, might be heard not simply as an expansive musico-poetic interpretation of Luke’s Gospel, but also as a tribute to Bach’s former collaborator and fellow numismatist.

The cantata begins with the upper and lower strings chasing each other breathlessly through the orchestral introduction before the bewildered bass voice delivers its opening, and oft-repeated demand that the listener “Thue Rechnung” — “Make an accounting,” or, more colloquially, “pay up.” In the opera house this music would have suggested a storm at sea; in the church it is a tornado that sweeps through the moral ledgers. The music becomes still more frantic as the voice frights at the “word of thunder”—at the demands for payment by the Almighty in a thunder that crumbles cliffs and freezes the blood, the latter image brilliantly evoked by Bach through a long-held note low in the bass’s register. The ultimate payment will come at death and to the Big Banker in the Sky, when he will demand “goods, body, and spirit.” The Day of Reckoning is itself a financial metaphor, and to be in debt to Him is to be terrified.

This bracing aria is followed by a grimly restrained tenor recitative conducted in a kind of bureaucratic language that tries to remain icily objective. Yet it can’t always contain the underlying angst barely covered by talk of “office and position.” Explicit reference is made to the Unjust Steward: when God takes an unstinting look at one’s own accounts and the “selfish squandering” of His gifts, He will be pretty angry. Perhaps suggesting the slow and earnest accounting to come, two oboes d’amore sustain their controlling sonority throughout the twists and turns of the harmonies.

The unstinting look at  personal moral finances continues in the ensuing aria: “Kapital und Interessen” (Capital and Interest). In his Bach biography, the humanitarian, organist, and scholar Albert Schweitzer, clearly put off by Franck’s penchant for talking about money in a sacred context, dismissed the aria as unworthy of Bach. I hear it differently. The unison oboes d’amore offer up a courtly dance suggesting the easy, leisure-filled life of “capitalist,” defined in 18th-century Germany as someone who lives off his rents and investments. The music is smooth, untroubled but also insinuating, with the oboes sometimes elegant to a fault. But however rich one is, there is always the final accounting:

Capital and interest,
My debts large and small
Must one day be reckoned.
Everything that I owe is written in God’s book
as if with steel and diamonds.

The ledger of eternity is not calculated with computers and obscure financial instruments, but cut with heavy, screaming machinery, perilously high for the bass voice. The silk-cuffed capitalist will have an especially tough audit.

In strident tenor tones, the next recitative enjoins sinful debtors to come before the Great Creditor in the knowledge that He will cancel all debts through the “blood of the Lamb.” Luther’s reformist theology rejected good works as the path to heaven, claiming instead that faith alone guaranteed redemption. Nonetheless good works could be taken as a sign of underlying faith, and the closing sentence of the recitative urges earthly altruism:

However, since you know
That you are a steward,
Be careful and not forgetful,
To use money wisely,
To help the poor,
Then you shall, when time and life end,
Rest securely in the courts of heaven.

A soothing arioso evokes the calmed conscience of the good steward. The Leipzig rich had something to ponder (if they were listening) as they sat in the front of the church in their rented seats, while the poor milled around at the back of the church.

These noble words usher in the impassioned soprano/alto duet that is the climax of the cantata, one that urges a rejection of money-making for its own sake:

Heart, rend the chains of Mammon,
Hands, sow goodness!

The suave oboes are now silenced. A minor-mode descending bass-line, its contours long a symbol of death and despair, is given to the continuo group. This bass-line tries to escape the inexorable gravity of the chains of Mammon with upward ascending figures, that can almost be heard as shrieks. But the chains are too strong, too heavy. Above this remorseless descent, gulping for air from above, the two vocal parts battle. Their crying upward-fighting arpeggios dramatize the desire to “rend the chains” even as the close, enmeshed suspensions between the voices portray the unbreakable strength of Mammon’s shackles.

As always the moral injunction matters most in the final reckoning of death, and here the duet becomes somewhat sweeter, almost consoling, but for the stabs of the bass-line and occasional slashes of the vocal figures:

Make my deathbed soft,
Build me a solid house
Which will last forever in heaven
When the goods of earth turn to dust.

There is no more-harrowing a two-minute aria in Bach’s oeuvre. The classicperformance of it is from Nicholas Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna with two boys, Christian Immler and Helmut Wittek, as soloists. Theirs is a powerful rebuttal to the claim that such pieces exceed the abilities of boys, and it is worth listening to again in light of the now-favored view that only male falsettists sang the treble arias of Bach’s demanding sacred music. The pure, powerful, but slightly unstable voices of Immler and Wittek give the duet, even when it makes consoling overtures, an electric aura of terror.

Appropriately, in the cantata’s final, placid chorale, there is no talk of money and debt, but only of faith in God at the moment of death. Bach’s own financial house, it has to be admitted, was not in great shape when he calmly departed his cramped Leipzig quarters in the last days of July, 1750 for the spacious condo in the sky, vaulting his much younger widow and unmarried daughters into desperate straits.

Like the parable on which it is based, this cantata invites diverse interpretations. I hear it this way: with every note the Debt Cantata demands that you listen not to the financiers and their politicians, but to your conscience.

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