In Upstate New York the long winter, even harsher than last, has been washed away by torrential rains. This morning at the Ithaca Falls the muddy floodwaters have risen to the walls of the wide gorge, the thunderstorms of yesterday having come so soon after the arctic blasts of last week. In spite of the warmth and the wet a few final remnants of ice cling to the steepest shale in defiance of the furious thaw.
After the morning’s visit to the falls, I return to my relatively watertight house—the only major leak is directly over the kitchen table—and open up the New York Times to see apocalyptic, aesthetically beautiful photographs documenting California’s drought—as in a shot of a Cathedral City hacienda-style MacMansion, like a green island in the sand unmoored from the nearby-but-still-so-distant suburbs with their cul-de-sacs, swimming pools, palm trees, and lawns. Other aerial pictures show a lush green golf course buffered from the white desert by only a two-lane road. In another edition of the Times this week, tiny Californian corn plants struggle to sustain themselves in the parched soil, as wells are drilled frantically all around.
My father—after retiring from a career in oceanography at the EPA has followed the great migration to climate science—sends me reports that explain both the summery winter of his Pacific Northwest and the arctic conditions of the eastern United States. Jennifer Francis of the Rutgers Climate Institute ascribes the bi-polar American weather to the erratic jet stream and rapidly melting arctic ice. Spurred on by feedback loops, that arctic ice won’t last much longer, geologically speaking, than the ice in the nearby gorge.
Some steel themselves against the looming catastrophe by reminding themselves that all generations have predicted an imminent doomsday, the current one conjured not by the church but by the cult of science. I seek refuge instead in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, for a couple of centuries now posthumous head of a global cult of his own. Especially as Bach was a deeply religious man and I’m an atheist, it amazes me that his works so often—and in such unexpected ways—encourage one to think anew about modern conditions and concerns. It’s an old and rather tired trope that great works of art engage the human imagination across several centuries: durability and mutability are taken as hallmarks of a masterpiece. But it is striking that Bach’s music can flourish in a secular society.
A great musical scientist even while he seems to have been at odds with many of the rationalist impulses of the Enlightenment, Bach was especially good on weather: storms; raging seas; high winds; even earthquakes.
In contemplating the current rains’ rout of winter’s snowy regime as well as the week’s headlines I’ve turned again to one of Bach’s early cantata, Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt (Just as the rain and snow fall from heaven), BWV 18. It’s all there: remorselessly inclement weather that nonetheless nourishes the earth and makes for a plentiful harvest; and even as the elements do their work enemy forces, both foreign and domestic, threaten the heart and the heartland.
Probably composed in 1713 while Bach was working in Weimar and was setting out to build up his corpus of scared vocal music, the cantata begins with an instrumental sinfonia—a kind of concerto that draws on the innovations of Vivaldi, himself renowned not just for his musical energy and mastery of form and pacing, but also for his gifts as a tone painter of the natural world, as in the Four Seasons. The main theme of Bach’s three-minute sinfonia to this cantata is a bare bass line full of unsettling downward leaps played by the lower strings and bassoon—like pelting sleet. This obstinate figure is then relieved by four violas and two recorders that seem to assuage the bleakness of the bass, which yields to this fuller, more harmonious texture and begins to signal a desire to accommodate itself to a somewhat sunnier outlook. But the bare and disjointed bass line keeps returning: winter’s rain, sleet, and snow will not let up, and the movement begins exactly as it ended, the relentless precipitation falling at last to bleak low G.
The sinfonia is followed by a bass recitative:
“Just as the rain and snow fall from heaven and do not return again to it, rather moisten the earth and make it fruitful and able to grow, so that it gives seed for sowing and bread to eat: So shall the word, that goes forth from my mouth be also.”
The words “rain” and “snow” are depicted by falling leaps, the action of the flakes and drops through the air evoked by swirling scales. Then the recitative—comprised of skeins of sung text punctuated by chords from the organ—breaks into a trot at the word “fruitful.” This aria-like music built into a recitative is known as arioso and here Bach uses it to paint for us the sowers working the fields, the dark damp of winter giving way to the bright joys of spring. This change of season is captured by Bach within a few seconds. It’s simple music in comparison to Bach’s multi-voiced choruses and erudite contrapuntal works, but a literally shining example of his gifts for musical depiction done with brilliant economy. In a few bars he demonstrates his skill not only with the darker musical hues but also with the brighter colors of the palette.
This first recitative for bass, is followed by one for tenor:
“My God, here is my heart: I open it to you in my Jesus’s name; so cast your seed within as on a fertile soil. My God, here is my heart: May it bear such fruit, and hundred fold. O Lord, Lord, help! O Lord, let it be accomplished.”
Over the subsequent decades of his composing career Bach would demonstrate his love for, and mastery of, juxtaposing old musical techniques with new ones. In this early cantata the operatically-inspired recitative also increase in tempo to become ardent ariosos that are in turn interrupted by soprano litanies—long notes in austerely archaic style riding high above double-time bass lines. These communal prayers ask that “Satan be crushed under our feet”; “that we, from the Turks and the Pope’s horrid murder and blasphemy, raging and fury, be fatherly protected.” Even as the climate attacks—and nourishes—the ISIS and Al Qaeda of Bach’s day threaten “civilization.” And there are other internal enemies, too: “Mammon,” sings the tenor, has also claimed many souls.
The movement concludes with the full choir joining in the soprano part to beg God “That all erring and misled ones be brought back”; this prayer comes to halt abruptly, if resonantly, on a final full chord.
A sweet soprano aria follows—“Mein Seelenschatz ist Gotteswort” (My soul’s treasure is God’s word)—in which the four violas are given a figure that does its fair share of cascading but then begins to ascend, tracing jubilant shapes upward. Sunny breezes lift the soprano still farther up towards blue skies.
A four-part chorale reiterating a heartfelt prayer for God’s grace closes the cantata.
For all its dark weather of sin and fear, this music has lot more optimism in it than the New York Times.