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On the Road to an Elegant Misanthropy

Even in these days when the public sphere is balkanized by a billion individualized audiotopias in which large portions of the world’s population are plugged into personal soundtracks, the question of what music to choose for a road trip retains its allure, even if an increasingly nostalgic one.

But less often discussed, though no less crucial is the music selected to prepare for the trip, be it down the interstate and across state lines or through the skies and over oceans. Depending on the mood and circumstance this prelude to a voyage could be one of frenzied anticipation; or a succession of high voltage jolts to keep awake while packing through the small hours leading up to an early flight; or a soothing tonic for jangled nerves; or consoling tones that salve the pain of an imminent parting. Music sets the emotional and moral course of the journey before it has begun.

In advance of my own transatlantic flight to visit the in-laws in England and then on to the continent for a month-long musical tour of Germany, I am for the umpteenth time filling a standing prescription against the dread of airports and planes, of boarding scrums and spilled coffee, of AWOL luggage and lost passports, of oxygen-deprivation and Duty Free shops, of jet-lag and missed connections.

The aural medication I now consume, as so often before, is Bach’s secular cantata Ich bin in mir vergnügt (I am cheerful in myself), BWV 204. The elegant misanthropy of its message is perfect for a certain kind of dyspeptic traveller. There is nothing more uplifting for the climb to cruising altitude, but also for the hours and days before takeoff.

Written for a solo soprano voice and lasting about half-an-hour, the piece was probably composed around 1728, just as Bach emerged from a tremendous outpouring of sacred music over his first five years as Cantor at the School and St. Thomas and Director of Music in Leipzig. During this stretch he produced a cantata nearly every week. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the dark vision of much of that church music gives way in this secular cantata to a carefree exuberance. The shackles of church and even home are thrown off in favor of thirty minutes of unencumbered contentment.

As I regard my bread-box-sized suitcase and the scores and shirts and socks that must be fitted into it, I think of the composer of the cantata that now plays. In his youth Bach was perhaps the greatest walker in the history of music: doing thirty miles each way to hear the great organists of Hamburg; four hundred round-trip in winter weather to learn from the great Buxtehude.

But by the time he composed Ich bin in mir vergnügt for an unknown occasion, Bach’s life had become a lot fuller: the resourceful orphan now occupied one of the top public music jobs in Germany. His life had filled up with many children and possessions: musical instruments, religious books, and the accouterments—like a silver coffee set—of the middle-class life he had attained, if tenuously.

The poem he set to music in this secular cantata was by Christian Friedrich Hunold, whose pen name was Menantes. Hunold was born a few years before Bach in the same region of central Germany. Like Bach, Hunold was orphaned at the age of ten, but unlike him received a vast inheritance. By the age of nineteen Hunold had squandered his fortune in what he called “gallant” living, in particular, an affection for the gaming table. He fled to Germany’s biggest, most vibrant city, Hamburg where he became a bestselling author of salacious novels. That he based these stories on real events and people—including his own amorous affairs—led to his eventual flight from Hamburg back to his place of origins in the Thuringian forest. There he turned his attentions increasingly to moral poetry in the decade before his death in 1721 at the age of forty-one from tuberculosis.

Given that Bach is often seen as unyieldingly stern, it may seem odd that this louche literary figure was perhaps the composer’s favorite poets. But then again, Ich bin in mir vergnügt turns from pleasure to renunciation: of things and even people. The opening section of Hunold’s poem, which Bach moves in his cantata to the penultimate seventh number, revels in a blithe self-reliance: the narrator has “no property in land” nor any monetary wealth whatever. Friends and pleasure are only reflections of “vanity.” Nor “would he fly high in the air”—presumably not even in business class.

The cantata opens in Bach’s rearrangement of Hunold’s text with a recitative declaiming in a forthright, even disarming style on the joys of personal fulfillment free of wealth and status. Yet for all its soaring passages suggesting the rapture of self-reliance the ensuing aria, “To be tranquil and contented within / Is the greatest treasure in the world,  is not unambiguous in its portrayal of this message. The soprano is shadowed by two oboes that do not seem fully to embrace the soprano’s pronouncements. Bach sews furtive doubts in the neat rows of Hunold’s poetry, as if the composer knew the libertine’s backstory. For its part, Bach music suggests even more vividly than the text the idea that inner contentment must be wrested from the debauched world that looms just beyond the self-imposed isolation of the moralist.

A second recitative enjoins the listener never to sell the “wealth of the spirit” to pay for admittance into the dungeon of “desire.” This mini-sermon then opens on to one of Bach’s most gracious and welcoming arias—the very one I’ve got looping endlessly this morning as I contemplate my overhead bag and the fate of travellers: “Die Schätzbarkeit der weiten Erden” (The values of the wide world).

Indeed, the wide world beckons in Bach’s insouciant ritornello, which gambols over a well-worn bass line path to gain seemingly endless vistas of possibility and promise. Yet the way the composing traveller walks that route, as if improvising on paper with his quill pen, has the ring of truth, both spontaneous and eternal. It is not surprising that this lovely and radiant obbligato line has been recorded by the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Hilary Hahn on anthologies of Bach arias.

For all its ceaseless grace, however, the aria also offers moments of repose with the long-held tones that leave “the soul in peace.” In the middle section of the movement, seamlessly stitched to the outer ones, Bach roughs up the smooth, if jaunty texture by having the voice nimbly urge the listener to seek richness in poverty with minor arabesques that are like mottos carved into the trunk of a tree encountered on the walk through a cool grove.

Even as I see myself wedged into seat 33E between a Mormon missionary and a teen plugged into Fast and Furious 7 on his iPod, I am already back on earth striding through green fields and alongside clear brooks.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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