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The Greening of Bach

As you might expect from someone apparently born on—or maybe just near—the vernal equinox, Johann Sebastian Bach had memorable things to say on the subject of spring, though you have to look quite hard for them among the vast stores of music he bequeathed to posterity across all seasons and time zones.

Bach first saw the light of the lengthening day on March 21st, 1685 in Eisenach, Germany, a place set exactly in the middle of Europe. The town lay at the foot of an imposing hill on which stood a castle called the Wartburg. It was there in 1521 that Martin Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German.  A quote attributed to the Reformer on the subject of the season has a dubious New Age ring to it, and indeed on closer inspection proves to be utterly apocryphal: “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.” If Luther ever said such a thing, he certainly never wrote it down.

The seventeenth century witnessed a cooling cycle in Europe sometimes referred to as a mini-Ice Age, a phenomenon many a deranged geo-engineer is nowadays eager to simulate. In Bach’s birth year the warmth promised by spring would have therefore been even more eagerly anticipated. The bees and buds would have made a fabulous show of themselves in the forests and fields of Bach country, a region called as Thurinigia and dubbed “The Green Heart of Germany” in tourist brochures and on bumper stickers.

The catch with celebrating baby Bach as a gift of spring is that by the year of his birth the vernal equinox had, thanks to the Julian calendar, opened up some eleven days distance between itself and March 21st.  The forward progress of Easter, whose date is set as the first Sunday after the first full moon to occur on or after the March equinox, meant that the marking of Christ’s resurrection would at some future point have to be refashioned as a summer holiday. While Catholic realms had adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, German Protestant States did not adopt the new system until more than a century later.

Finally, in 1700 the Germans disappeared the days between February 18th and March 1st. With one wave of the chronological illusionist’s wand Bach got eleven days older in the batting of an eye. Spring also made a big, eager leap towards the teenage Bach.

I’ve found no reports about what weather had to say about these human tinkerings resulting from an obsession with time unique to this peculiar species. But Bach himself did weigh in on the matter of pre-spring precipitation in the sinfonia to one of his early cantatas, Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt (Just as the Rain and Snow Fall from Heaven), BWV 18, first performed in February of 1713 or possibly a year or two after that. The cantata’s opening instrumental movement introduces a bass recitative, delivered in the voice of Jesus, which imparts a seasonal  message, the elements serving as an allegory for the nourishment that is God’s word:

Just as the rain and snow fall from heaven
and do not again return to it, but rather moisten
the earth and make it fertile and growing, so
that it gives seeds to sow and bread to eat: So shall the Word that emanates
from my mouth be also.

Bach’s meteorological prelude to this passage is both vivid and subtly descriptive. On his musical weather map—the green-screen that was his manuscript paper—Bach adds a prominent bassoon to the usual continuo group of organ, cello and string bass. With this addition he gives teeth to a unison line that sleets down in leaps landing on the strong beats of the 6/4 measures. To fall down continually the musical line must also rise up, but this jagged ascent is gained on the weak beats, the storm building a furtive strength as it strives for higher altitudes: the effect of the individual droplets in the arc of this rising line is to suggest the weather building intensity. When the most jagged drop of all—that of a so-called tritone, a queasy interval that splits the octave into two unsettling halves—hits bottom the pace of the downpour doubles from quarter notes to eighths. The line swirls upward, gathering force while simultaneously raining down in a buffeting harmony known as a diminished seventh, itself a collection of tri-tones like the one that launched the final gust in the first place. Amongst the ensemble of strings poking out the same single notes, the spiky bassoon feels like icy rain pelting the cheeks.

After the sinfonia’s opening unison line falls to the ground that is its closing cadence, the individual instruments break off into their own parts. But with the onset of the expected Bachian polyphonic texture after the monophonic motto, the ensemble reveals itself not to be the usual full spectrum of strings but instead four violas, huddled and somber—a unique sonority evoking low wintery skies. The text that follows assures us, nonetheless, that this gray winter weather will make the renewal of spring all the more verdant.

Soon after depicting the rain and snow that are the harbingers of spring, Bach named embraced the pleasures of season in a wedding cantata, Weichet nur betrübte Schatten [Be gone, mournful shadows], whose text was likely provided by the same poet, Salomon Franck, of BWV 18. The piece is made up of five arias interleaved with recitatives—a demanding nine movement cantata of some twenty minutes, the radiantly expressive and often flamboyantly virtuosic soprano line urged on by varied configurations of strings, oboe, and continuo.

In the cantata’s opening aria Adagio string patterns drift upward above an ascending bass line interspersed with long rests. The first harmony (a dominant seventh built above the home note of G) projects a sense of awakening—of change already underway: the aria begins poised on the cusp of the next season. Above this fragile musical landscape an oboe solo, more hopeful than mournful, entwines itself with a twisting, sometimes jagged soprano line darkened by minor inflections:

Yield you troubled shadows,
Frost and Wind, go to your rest!

The clouds and cold heed this command when the aria’s middle section breaks into a brisk Andante trot that quickly leaves winter behind. The figure of Flora, the symbol of spring, leads the way:

Flora’s pleasure
Will grant the breast
Nothing but joyful happiness
Because she brings flowers.

The gloom is gone, an eager bass line encouraging the soprano to come alive in arabesques of desire. Love is in the warming air, and it cannot be contained even if the wintery conditions are recalled once more with the return of the opening section.

After a recitative forecasting the renewal of spring, the second aria in which the soprano is accompanied only by continuo has a galloping bass line—fodder for Phoebus’ horses and the life-giving rays of the sun they pull across the sky. In warming the earth, Phoebus is likened to a “courting lover” with the soprano spurred to excited coloratura above the breathless, over-eager intensity of his desire.

Flora returns with the blossoms of spring to extoll the season of love in the next ardent recitative and the seductively swirling aria that follows it:

Recitative:

Love seeks his own pleasure,
when purple laughs in the meadows,
when Flora presents herself in full glory
and when in [Love’s] kingdom,
like the beautiful flowers,
hearts also are passionately victorious.

Aria:

When spring’s breezes caress
And waft through the colorful fields,
Love will come out
and seek his own adornment,
which, one believes, is this:
that one heart kisses the other.

In lilting triple meter the fourth aria hymns those who “cultivate the art of love” and “playfully indulge in caressing embraces.” The final recitative pays lip service to “chaste love” but then expresses the unexpected hope that “no sudden fall / or clap of thunder / startle and disturb your amorous desires.” Even the unpredictable weather of spring cannot keep the couple from their lovemaking. The word “fall” is depicted by Bach by the soprano line that bumps speedily downward and is followed by the bass in a pattern reminiscent of the driving sleet of Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee. Is this is a comic conjuring of a possible mishap in the marriage bed?  

Whatever the case, the closing Gavotte then hurries, but gracefully, towards the consummation of “the amorous urges” sealing the union with the traditional nuptial dance, bodies engaged in mutual movements that anticipate their later coupling.

In light of the musical record and in spite of vanished time and other chronological tricks, I still maintain that Bach was born on the first day of spring even if his birthdate was set according to the Julian calendar. The ever-fickle calendar-keepers want to make it ever harder to do so: for the last decade they’ve set March 20th rather than 21st as the date of the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere. Be all that as it May, April, or March, Bach was a first-day-of-spring baby, and he grew up to be portray with consummate climatic and comic skill the preoccupations of the season—its weather and its promise of eternal love to be enjoyed only after the delights of the earthly variant had been fully explored.

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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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