The Winds of Bach

Where there’s heat there’s wind. Both are gathering force. The crescendo was well underway in the natural world and in the halls of power long before the has-been tenor Donald Trump rose yesterday for his breathy aria announcing the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. The agonized chorus of the liberal, globalist punditry added still more turbulence to the hot-air vortex.  If only these mighty and pathetic strains sent the wind turbines spinning, rather than simply the mind.

Johann Sebastian Bach harnessed these very elements nearly three centuries ago in his cantata, Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde (Quick, you swirling winds), BWV 201. He was ahead of the curve on renewables, laying out the issues with clairvoyant genius back in 1729. Europe was just emerging from the mini-Ice Age of the seventeenth century, a period when German rivers and swaths of the Baltic froze. Through snow and freezing rain, the twenty-year-old Bach journeyed on foot 200 miles from his home region of Thuringia heading north to the capital of the Hanseatic League, Lübeck, to learn “one thing and another about his art.” Still deeper into winter, the young man walked back home, too. Bach knew about the weather; as Pullitzer-Prize winning novelist, Jeffrey Eugenides put it in his 2005 short story “Early Music,” (whose main character is a fictionalized version of me), Bach’s music “was like cold weather.  It sorted the mind.”

Twenty-five years on from those youthful peregrinations, Bach appears to have been fed up with his job.  As Leipzig’s Director of Music since 1723 he held a civic post. He’d been churning out top quality church music for some five years, yet felt under-appreciated, indeed stymied, in his musical pursuits by his municipal bosses. Like any artist bruised by the inconveniences of democracy, Bach did the sensible thing: he headed (part-time) into the private sector. In 1729 he assumed the directorship of a secular ensemble—a Collegium musicum that performed in one of Leipzig’s fashionable coffee houses where consumerist pleasures, from the bitter bean to Bach’s music, could be enjoyed. The economy was bolstered along with Bach’s own musical energies.

Among the many opinion makers of the day Bach had already acquired the reputation of being something of a musical technocrat. These critics found his work, with its canons and fugues and kindred constructs, to be full of tedious equations in which logic took precedence over expression. The newly Enlightened aesthetics of clarity, simplicity, and accessibility found complexity tiresome. The educated bourgeois enthusiast was now held up as the better judge of beauty than the highly-trained expert. Let the market of musical ideas decide.

Although he was an indefatigable and unmatched researcher into the building blocks of musical matter, Bach was not a policy wonk. Lacking the elegant rhetorical skills of his university-trained colleagues, this orphan-made-good did not enter into popular debates by drafting aesthetic white papers and or entering into breezy polemics, although the public sphere intellectuals let Bach have it on occasion. For his part Bach answered them not in print (though he did enlist a Leipzig teacher of rhetoric occasionally to do this for him), but with his music.

It is quite possible that his cantata, Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde marked Bach’s coffee house debut as leader of the Collegium musicum.  The cantata is a statement about musical plentitude outside the church: the work lasts nearly an hour and is richly scored for six soloists (and two more singers for the choruses that open and close the work) and full orchestra including strings, trumpets, timpani, oboes d’amore, flutes, and continuo. In staging the mythic singing contest between Apollo and Pan, the cantata is also a statement about the purpose of music—the rarefied beauty of song personified by Apollo and his refined lyre, as against the pandering simplicity of Pan and his rustic flute.

The opening chorus marshals the orchestral forces around the six-voice choral outbursts and urgings to capture the power of the winds: “Quick, / You whirling winds, / Into your lair together all at once!”

In brisk sixteenth-note triplets, high trills, and gusts of timpani. Bach brilliantly uses the wind instruments, divided between into groups of trumpets, oboes, and flutes, to conjure the breezes. Once these sustainable energies have been corralled in their cave, the human singing contest can begin.

On the slopes of Mount Timolus in Lydia the characters in the satire emit their own wind. In the duel Apollo and Pan each have their seconds, the latter supported by Midas, he of the golden touch that would have made him a useful interior decorator in Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago. In the end it is no surprise that Apollo’s artistry triumphs. Midas’s unflagging enthusiasm for Pan’s buffoonery earns him ass’s ears.

The God Mercury, the symbol of mercantile Leipzig, sums up the dispute in the last aria, the thirteenth of the cantata’s fifteen numbers. Here the metaphor switches to thermal energy and ancient grains:

Pompous heat (i.e., passion),

But few grits (i.e., smarts),

Gets the fool’s cap with bells,

Put on in the end.

Whoever does not understand navigation

But still takes the rudder

Drowns with damage and disgrace in the end.

Paired flutes tut-tut away in elegant reprimand. The bass line, initially rising up through the emphatic interval of a fifth, imparts a stern quality to the judgement, and then, in luffing paired figures, conveys a kind of knowing assent to the God’s summation.

This Mercury has a high voice, his alto rising up to a high point on “heat” (Hitze) and then fainting back down the interval of an octave. In one of many brilliant touches that show Bach to be a master of humor, Bach has the voice jangle high up in his range in a written-out trill between e-natural and d-sharp (at 1:48 of the YouTube recording) to evoke the bell’s on the fool’s cap.

An effective staging of this entertainment would have Pan costumed as Trump; Bannon would be his cheerleader, Midas. Bernie Sanders could be the King of Lydia, who boosts Hillary’s Apollo. Mercury looks and sounds like Wolf Blitzer. The personification of satire, Momus, could be a James Comey, cast against type of course.

Delirious from the climate-change-driven heat (Hitze), Mercury watches Pan/Trump stumble and flail into the second section of the concluding aria. Pan is at the tiller but has no idea what he’s doing: he lurches and lumbers through odd intervals that threaten to pitch him overboard, desperate sixteenth-note descents depicting his battle with the waves. The leaps down the octave return as the alto shouts “drowning,” then “”damage” and “disgrace” (at 3:10) the flutes circle above, unwilling to rescue the victim from his arrogant incompetence. After a bellowing vocal line not calling for help, but rather narrating the disaster, the witless helmsmen crashes his craft into a cadence in the wrong key, making the return to the disapproving opening even more disconcerting and damning.

Like Bach’s Pan, our Trump loves the sound of his own voice more than that of the gods. His song is itself a force of nature, a sustainable resource that brings with it rising heat and water—and always more wind.


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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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