Bachian Humor

The image of Bach that prevails today—and has done since the revival of his music along with growing German nationalism in the 19th-century—is that of a stern composer dedicated to glorifying god mostly through his abstruse researches in complicated music. This Bach’s obsession with fugues and canons is abetted by his a penchant for plunging into the harmonic undergrowth only to emerge with breeches thick with burrs and thorns. Given this propensity for the obscure and difficult it is little wonder that much of his music was quickly forgotten after he was buried in an unmarked grave outside the Leipzig city walls. The towering bronze statue in front of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig epitomizes this Bach: clad in his cantor’s robe; brow furrowed; face in a scowl. With the heavy score rolled up in his right hand, this grim figure seems ready to bash any of those rowdy schoolboys he was forced to teach if they even think about making a joke.

Even though everyone knows that while there are plenty of dark thickets in Bach’s music, there is plenty of light as well. But I would go much farther and say that Bach is one of the greatest of musical humorists.

Bach’s obituary written in 1750 by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and another former student, Johann Agricola, admitted that the deceased’s melodies could be “strange,” and that “his serious temperament” inclined him towards music that was likewise “serious, elaborate, and profound.” But they go on to point out his flair for fun: “But he could also, when the occasion demanded, adjust himself, especially in playing, to a lighter and more humorous way of thought.”

The first full lengthy biography of Bach appeared some fifty years later at the beginning of the 19th century. Relying heavily on Bach’s sons for information, the biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel saved a kindred observation on Bach’s humor for one of his book’s last paragraphs: “Notwithstanding the main tendency of his genius to the great and sublime, be sometimes composed and performed something gay and even jocose, his cheerfulness and joking were those of a sage.”  Forkel cannot but help recognize Bach’s musical wit, even while he is at pains to elevate it beyond the cheap and tawdry. The great man will indulge his humor, but only in the service of art.

Bach’s comic genius is nowhere on more vibrant display than in the first of his Brandenburg Concertos—that landmark set for diverse instruments collected by Bach and dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg in a beautiful presentation copy of the pieces from the Spring of 1721. In the very first measures of the collection—and it is unclear, indeed doubtful, that the Margrave ever heard them given that his kinsman Friedrich Wilhelm I, King of Prussia, had recently sacked all of his musicians—Bach dazzles not only with his command of melodic invention and orchestration, but even more with his wit. It’s a humor that that is downright provocative when one compares the score with the typically groveling preface written in modish French asking that the “imperfections” of the music “no to be judged to harshly” by his Highness. Then turn the page and watch the music—or hear it at the Margrave’s banqueting table or at your own—deflate the pomp with a series of hearty guffaws.

The audacious humor of the piece struck me again on a recent roadtrip up the Italian peninsula, over the Alps, and across a large swath of Germany, from Munich to Berlin on the remorseless Autobahn number nine—one of the oldest German highways whose first stretch was inaugurated under the Nazis back in 1936.  It was been upgraded over the last decade as part of the project to reunify East and West Germany; construction on the road continues, making the late summer trip between Bavaria and Berlin a medley of insane, speedlimitless prestos and teeth-grinding lentos.

Heading north the Autobahn exits the rolling Bavarian countryside and descends into the flatlands of the federal state of Anhalt-Sachsen, which welcomes motorists to “The Land of the Early Risers.” This ad campaign was started about ten years ago and is a branding move to show that the former socialist region is not populated by lay-abouts, but by up-and-at-‘em types ready to work for a living.  Investors speeding by in their black Bavarian muscle cars are meant to take note, even if their high velocities prevent them from seeing much of anything, let alone a road sign. Still, the sprawling big boxes along the Autobahn suggest by their newness that the campaign has worked; at least some of the folks are indeed rising with the early morning late summer sun to stock IKEA kitchens and manufacture garden tools.

After too many hours of the numbing flux of the Autobahn, I reached for a CD of the Brandenburg Concertos under the direction of Gustav Leonhardt.  Made in Amsterdam in 1977, this classic recording celebrates its silver anniversary this year  and is still my favorite of the myriad versions of the concertos now available. In contrast to the frenetic style of more recent performing trends, the Amsterdamers take Bach’s fast movements with aristocratic nonchalance, never trying too hard to impress as others, particularly the macho men from south of the Alps, nowadays do.

Even if purely unconscious, my timing couldn’t have been better: the first Brandenburg concerto filled the car’s interior just as the early-risers of Anhalt-Sachsen bid us farewell and we crossed into Brandenburg, whose own groveling motto promises to be welcoming for movers and shakers (Offen für Macher und Gründer).

The first Brandenburg concerto commences with the very diversity promised by Bach’s title-page: strings along with oboes, bassoon, and continuo. Like his princely peers, the dedicatee, Margrave Christian Ludwig, was an avid hunter, and as so many of Bach’s musical contemporaries knew, their was no better way to ingratiate yourself with a possible patron than giving him some hunt music to be enjoyed at table after the day’s shoot.  A few years before, Bach had a composed a secular entertainment for another great hunter, Duke Christian of Weissenfels (which we passed on the Autobahn not long before) that featured the blasts of the hunt and the lures of post-hunt debauchery in the banqueting hall and bed chamber.

In seeking the favor of the Margrave of Brandenburg, Bach again drew on the hunting topic as his courtly entrée: a few measures after the start of the first concerto the pair of horns enters its call. But what is so brilliant, and for me downright hilarious (and not just when I’ve got several hours of Autobahn driving behind me) is that the horns are totally out of synch with the rest of the band: while the strings and winds play sixteenth notes, the horns have triples. This produces a wonderfully disorienting four-against-three effect, with the horns always swooping upward to the high-note at the end their call prematurely. On the one hand this disjunction between the horns and the rest of the orchestra encourages a marvelous sense of space, as if the hunters are still in the distant woodland not yet having taken their place in the banqueting hall in which birds and beasts are being served up to the gourmands by the liveried staff. It is if the musical signifiers of the hunt are still out in the field and not under the watchful eye and controlling finger of the music director.

However expansive this evocation of adventure beyond the palace may seem to be, the music itself is amiss and a muddle. Even more bizarre than the rhythmic disagreement between horns and orchestra, the first important cadence is so fabulously botched and blurred that it produces a mighty nonsense if performed according to Bach’s precisely rhythmic notation.

In the 18th-century an orchestral rehearsal was a rare, nearly non-existent thing; the pages of music were put on the stands and the players read them off, the prince and his entourage feasting nearby. On a first playing of this concerto, one can imagine musicians and courtiers looking at each other in disbelief—the musicians feeling they were either screwing things up massively or being embarrassed by the composer; the nobles wondering if they shouldn’t slash their musical budgets after all.

Is Bach making fun of the idea of hunt music? Is he showing up the absurdity of evoking the glories of the field in the midst of the gluttony of the palace? Is he thumbing his nose at a princely connoisseur, checking to see if he’s actually listening? Such brazenness would seem unlikely coming from a Bach keen to please and advance his career. Or is Bach simply reveling in the idea of letting an orchestra careen out of control like a rampant stag, only to be reined in by the force of his musical will.  Whichever of these possibilities—or others—one goes for the effect of the music is brilliantly, virtuosically funny.  Bach presumably never wielded a blunderbuss, but with the opening measures of the collection’s very first movement he blows a big hole in that most prized beast of 18th-century instrumental music—the concerto.

There are more witty moments to come in the course of the piece, but especially in the third movement, which gallops out in triple time, before stumbling along for lengthy off-kilter duple passages—like a rider who cannot control his mount.  Then, near the end of the movement Bach suddenly reins in the tremendous momentum he has built up with a pathetic adagio cadenza that has no place in such a spirited allegro.  This outbreak of sentiment in the midst of the pounding of hooves and the thunder of horns might bring to mind a damsel in distress encountered along the hunters’ path, but Bach makes the turn such a burlesque that it sends-up the idea knight gallantry (still a favorite topic of novels of the day). This irreverent insert is but the quickest of swoons, for the hunt bolts away from the cadenza before it can even really get going, leaving the drama-queen adagio in the dust behind.

This may be the humor of a sage, but much more that of the inveterate prankster—the Bach we don’t hear enough about, the Bach who was one of the funniest composers and who not only rose early, but knew how to move and how to shake.

DAVID YEARSLEY s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. 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