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We Write the Symphonies, Beautiful and Terrifying

Back in July Trump boasted from Warsaw that, “we write symphonies”— “We” being the first two letters of “West, the.” The president’s speechwriters seem to have meant this salvo as a thundering musical reference to the unsurpassed cultural achievement of Europe and its superpower progeny across the Atlantic.  This errant bit of oratory did the symphony no favors, though as a musical institution it is strong enough to withstand the assault of enemies masquerading as allies.

As Trump would have known had he ever heard a symphony, there is might behind the music. Many are the movements and moments of beauty, but the symphonic reputation is founded on shock and awe, features with obvious appeal to the current U. S. Commander-in-Chief.  Symphonies are practically military campaigns in themselves. Like the European armies their structures were based on, symphony orchestras grew bigger in scope and required ever-larger performing forces across the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.  Discipline and  hierarchy are essential for symphonic success.

Triumphalism is built into the symphony nowhere more dauntingly then in the genre’s standard bearer—his Fifth. It seems doubtful that Samuel Morse and his collaborator Alfred Vail knew the work when they chose the rhythm of its opening motive (short-short-short-long) for the “V” in their code, first used in the American civil war some sixty years after Beethoven penned his theme.

But the metrical congruity between that most famous of musical figures and Morse’s “V” took on the quality of ineluctable truth when the Allies adopted it as their Victory theme in World War II.

The larger course of the symphony’s contest against evil is heard on the strategic level, too. The work moves from the tempestuous C minor of the opening and its celebrated motive to the blaring brass juggernaut of the fourth movement in glorious C Major with its furious closing barrage of seemingly endless “final” chords pounding the listener—and any doubters as to the rightness of the mission—into submission. The work ends in complete victory, not just for the composer over his personal foe, deafness, but also against the forces of darkness.

The Fifth’s fiery bombast resounds in Beethoven’s more overtly, but no more fundamentally militaristic Wellington’s Victory commissioned to mark the signal defeat of Napoleonic forces at the Battle of Vitoria in Spain in 1813. The parallels between the closing charges of both works—parallels unsettling to aesthetes, and the reason Wellington’s Victory is now heard almost exclusively from military bands and at fireworks shows—confirm the martial underpinnings of the symphony. Battle-station discipline is required of an orchestra if it is to carry out the commands of conductor and composer—one in the same person in case of the premieres of both pieces.

Beethoven is the hero.

Even the idealistic choral urgings of Beethoven’s Ninth that “all people become brothers” can make the meek tremble. Many have heard tremendous violence in the thrill and power of that humanitarian music as it rushes from hymn-like composure towards its ecstatic, terrifying goal.

“We write symphonies,” when uttered by any American President could—and probably should—be taken as a threat

Equally as menacing, at least when heard from this perspective, would have been the alternative: “We write cantatas.” There are vast stockpiles of such works written for the church and chamber. Johann Sebastian Bach’s output of some two hundred is slight in comparison to the levels of the proto-industrial production of his contemporaries, including his friend Georg Philipp Telemann, who churned out more than 1,600 of them.

The origins of this musical arms race began with the Lutheran Reformation, whose 500th anniversary passed by largely unnoticed ten days ago. Luther translated the bible into German and introduced the vernacular into the liturgy as a way not only of allowing people to understand religious texts, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to involve them in music making during the service.  The congregational singing of hymns was vital to his reforms, and resounds down the ages even to American gospel choirs.  After 1517 the common people sang to God in the divine service.  The Catholic church took up the idea only in the 1960s.

Within a couple of generations after the Reformation Lutheran churchgoers had hundreds of hymns memorized. Composers charged with commenting in music on the biblical passages read on any given Sunday could use this familiarity in endlessly creative ways, the intent—at least in theory—being to uplift and instruct the faithful much like sermons were meant to do.

Luther himself composed hymns, the most famous of which “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress is Our God), BWV 80. It has often been called the Battle Hymn of the Reformation—and not without reason, given the militaristic imagery of its text and the resolute contours of its melody.

The four verses of Luther’s chorale pervade one of Bach’s best-known cantatas, BWV 80, first performed on Reformation Day, October 31st in Leipzig in the late 1720s or early 1730s, that is, around the time of the Reformation’s bicentennial.

The cantata’s opening chorale fantasia is one of the most complex and triumphant in the composer’s output, indeed, in all of classical music. Bach lays siege to Luther’s melody with an astounding array of ingenuous and complex counterpoint: the first phrase of the chorale serves as fodder for a ripping fugue, but within just a few measures Bach demonstrates that that theme can be overlaid with the second line of the chorale. Like a commander surveying the battlefield terrain, Bach the brilliant musical tactician discovers this musical truth within Luther’s original material.  But Bach then bolsters his already-winning position with free counterpoint in the bass-line that urges the choral troops forward. This forward-rushing array culminates when Bach unleashes the opening line of the chorale in long notes in canon with itself in the highest and lowest parts of the orchestra—a pincer movement of genius. Bach stands as a kind of musico-military general directing the Christian formations against the armies of Satan so vividly conjured by Luther’s texts:

A mighty fortress is our God,
A good defense and weapon.
He helps free us from all distress
That now befalls us.
The ancient, evil foe
Earnestly plots against us,
Great power and much deceit.
Are his horrible armaments,
There is nothing like him on earth.

Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann increased the militaristic din of this brilliant and blood-curdling movement by enlisting trumpets and drums when he led performances of the work after his father’s death.  (This is the version heard on the YouTube clip under the direction of Frans Brüggen.)

The cantata’s next movement duet deploys a smaller commando contingent no less intent on victory. The soprano delivering the second verse of Luther’s chorale with covering fire from a more florid oboe while the bass spouts patriotic slogans about inevitable victory and is cheered on by unison strings. The verse concludes with the resolution that God “must hold the battlefield.” Bach’s terms are the unconditional surrender of the opposing forces.

It’s a good thing Trump doesn’t know just how beautiful and terrifying the canon of Western Music can be.

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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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