Bach and the Floodwaters of Sin

Ithaca, New York.

Torrential rains, thunder and lightning punished Upstate New York this week. The region’s many gorges rage with angry brown water ripping at the last remnants of the ice clinging to the rock. Normally frozen solid this time of year, the majestic amphitheater that is the Ithaca Falls is a fulminating torrent.

In the old days, when February in this part of the world was a month of sub-zero temperatures and plenty of snow, this weather would have been called unseasonal. But just as in presidential politics, the old climatic categories appear more outdated every day. The New York Times reported this week that scientists have confirmed that the oceans are now rising faster than at any time since the founding of ancient Rome. This has led to increasingly frequent coastal flooding. Standing in front of the terrifying acres of vertical whitewater that were the Ithaca Falls this morning, I began to wonder if even the gorges and glens of the Empire State will be able to contain the ever-more-angry elements in years to come.

In Christian thought, floods have always been brought on by our moral transgressions, the height of the water standing in direct relation to the depravity of those inundated. The forty days of rain that sent Noah onto his ark represented divinely calibrated punishment for the abominations of human sin.

Guilt can figure equally in scientific and religious explanation for natural disasters. From the earliest age we are now taught that our own carbon consumption drives climate change. In this epoch of extreme storms, the weather gods, pagan and Christian, have never been busier doling out comeuppance. “Events” like this week’s deadly tornadoes in Virginia are as guilt-driven as the deluges of Bach’s time.

Legion have been the sermons blaming humans for stoking the fury of the weather. One of the greatest masters at evoking floodwaters in music, Johann Sebastian Bach must often have been exposed to this rhetoric of retribution. Take for example, Johann Heinrich Zedler’s great encyclopedia, the most ambitious undertakings of its kind launched in the eighteenth century; the work extended to sixty volumes, most of which appeared in Leipzig during Bach’s time there between 1723 and 1750. In this monumental reference work, equal parts Enlightenment science and early-modern superstition, Bach would have read that: “Floods are called the punishments and plagues of God.”

In German “deluge” is Sintflut (Sündfluth), which means “sin flood”: the word itself binds together high water and human immorality. The long Zedler article on “Sündfluth” is mostly a rebuttal of rationalist attempts to explain the Flood in scientific terms. It is a debate that continues to this day to course through Creationist thought, just as it did in Bach’s eighteenth century. How could it have been physically possible for waters to cover the entire globe? In grappling with this question, the Zedler article seeks to demolish the logic of Thomas Burnet whose Sacred Theory of the Earth, published in London in 1681, argued that the antediluvian earth was a perfect sphere filled with water; the weight and violence of God’s floodwaters created the world’s later topography.

In response to this hypothesis, the Zedler article reminded readers that God’s power cannot always be explained or calculated. Nonetheless, the author draws on physical evidence to support his argument for the totality of the inundation—that “flood of the entire earth that happened 1300 years after the world was created.” Science should not be ignored, but it could never challenge the truth that God was all powerful and could defy physical laws.

Zedler’s encyclopedia insisted that human sin was to blame for the world’s watery destruction regardless of any and all calculations of water’s density and the volume of the seas and of the hollow earth and the height and breadth of mountain ranges. Nor could this fact be refuted the evidence provided by fossils or by research regarding the sun’s evaporative power or by recently collected flood myths of the Chinese and of American Indians or by proto-Malthusian theories about overpopulation. Indeed, what is most modern about the Zedler article is not that science most be confronted, but that its findings can be deployed to reinforce a sense of guilt for, and fear of, natural disasters.

Bach was born some seventy years after the Great Thuringian Flood of 1613 when the water rose catastrophically above the gates of the city of Weimar. The aftermath of the disaster let loose a deluge of angry sermons blaming faithlessness as the cause of the ceaseless rains. The calamity of 1613 was still a topic of moral and meteorological discourse, in print and from pulpits, during Bach’s lifetime.

Whereas preachers were expert at the vivid language of fear—torrents ripping children from their mother’s grasp, churches and houses going under, scores of helpless people drowning—, composers writing for the church were also adept at dramatizing the destruction and death that the elements could visit on humankind. Bach’s contemporary Handel was also skilled at disaster music. The earthquake near the beginning of Messiah, with the thunderous bass voice of the Lord shaking the “heavens and the earth,” and the blast from the godly nostrils that sent the raging Red Sea over the Hebrews’ enemy in Israel in Egypt are just two of many examples of Handel’s musical representations of natural destruction.

The baroque theatre’s stage machinery could artfully depict the waves of an angry sea. But for congregants sitting in cold churches without such visual aids, catastrophes had to be played out in the imagination. The vivid music of floods and quakes and high winds were the special effects of the eighteenth century religious experience, the 3D glasses and Dolby Surround Sound of the Age of Brimstone. Indeed, music from the choir loft could gather even more terrifying momentum than the preacher’s words.

In Bach’s first year as Director of Music in Leipzig he produced perhaps his most striking flood music—the cantata BWV 81, “Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen” (Jesus sleeps, what can I hope for) for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, which usually comes at the end of January. The Sunday’s Gospel, from which Bach’s cantata freely draws, is taken from Mathew, Chapter 8. The Disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee when they are overtaken by a storm. Jesus is onboard but sleeping; the Disciples wake him and he calms the winds and water.

The cantata begins with an aria for soprano, a foreboding lullaby, reverently beholding the slumbering Jesus but fearful at what might befall the Disciples—and by extension all Christians—while he is, as it were, asleep at the tiller.

The ensuing tenor recitative selfishly complains further of the Lord’s lack of attentiveness. The flood is then unleashed in a bravura tenor aria: “The foaming waves from Belial’s streams / redouble their fury.” Have a listen to the powerful and virtuosic tenor Bernhard Berchthold’s gripping performance of this movement with the Bach–Stiftung in St. Gallen, Switzerland, led by the animated Rudolf Lutz.

Belial is one of the four Crown Princes of Hell; his flood pitches doubters into a tidal wave of damnation. The opening string line surges upward then froths down above a pounding pedal point before the tenor dives into the maelstrom, spouting scales and arpeggios as if his voice is surfing the deadly breakers. Unexpectedly, the storm lashes against the bulkhead of belief and gives way to a poised, though hardly resolute, recitation enjoining the individual Christian to “stand indeed like a rock, / when the winds of trouble blow about him, / though the stormy flood / seeks to weaken the strength of faith.” But such resolve cannot stem the tide, and the music jumps its banks again with exhilarating terror.

After all this disorienting commotion Jesus awakens to deliver a scolding arioso in the minor mode, expressing his disappointment that a mere tempest could induce such fright in his followers. Jesus repeatedly castigates those of little faith for succumbing to doubt: in the face of disaster, belief is the only lifeline. This aria is given a riveting performance by the Stiftsbarock Stuttgart with Ekkehard Abele as Jesus in the bow of the boat—or perhaps at the meteorologist’s green screen. (As always, I recommend the recording of the piece by Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir with the great bass Klaus Mertens at the helm of this tumultuous aria.

In this aria unison strings begin on the off-beat, as if Bach were catching the wave as it builds upward. He then lofts two oboes d’amore above its crest, like terns skimming the foam. To portray the building energy, Bach deploys a common harmonic progression of his time, one heard most famously in Pachelbel’s Canon and also shared with Handel’s “Thou didst blow” from Israel in Egypt after Pharaoh’s army has disappeared below the Red Sea. Whereas Handel used it in that aria to depict the serene aftermath of a flood, in Bach’s storm the predictable harmonic flow is darkened by the minor key and invested with tremendous power partly through its very familiarity: normally placid sea has been stirred into elemental fury. The strings seething without respite, Jesus shouts into the roiling waves: “Quiet heaving sea! Be silent, storm and wind!”

In contrast to what I presume to be Bach’s intended message, I hear Jesus himself being caught up in the raging waters. That power is in fact his own, for he literally commands the weather. Yet Jesus also seems on the verge of letting himself be carried away by the thrill of the storm. For the piece to achieve its proper dimensions Jesus’s orders must fall on the wind’s deaf ears: he issues a slew of futile commands. The aria lasts longer than Jesus’s omnipotence should allow.

This piece doubtless gripped those churchgoers who listened (not all did), striking real terror into many of them. But the work’s destructive majesty raises a troubling paradox: embracing music’s sensual power is just the kind of sin that spawns natural disasters. In a piece meant to inundate listeners with remorse for their own sins, it is the seductive thrill of concerted sound itself that opens the floodgates of a terrifying beauty.

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