Bach’s Day and Night

Time is not just relative. It’s political, too. We often measure our lives by presidential terms: the Carter years; Clinton time; Bush I; Bush II? The end of time under Trump?

Time can be bent to the will of the majority. This week California voters approved Proposition 7 enabling the state legislature to make Daylight Savings Time year-round. In a signing statement sending the referendum for the people’s decision on election day, November 6, Governor Jerry Brown endorsed it with the motto of his alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley: “Let there be Light.”The measure was well-timed for passage since it came just two days after the clocks have been set back in the wee hours of the previous Sunday morning. Not yet used to the earlier onset of dark, Californians were yet more inclined to opt for eternal daylight savings.

While these electoral decisions confirm that time is a human construct, the heavens do not fix their course by referendum. The opening lines of one of Bach’s earliest cantatas, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s time is the best time), BWV 106 makes clear who is the keeper of the eschatological clock.

Another of Bach’s youthful cantatas Gott ist mein König (BWV 71)—“God is my King”—addresses both time and politics. It is a sumptuous public work scored for three trumpets and timpani, a full battery of winds and strings, double chorus, and even a solo organ part played originally by the twenty-two-year-old composer himself. Bach was commissioned to write the piece for the investiture of the new town council in Mühlhausen in central Germany in February of 1708. Then the organist at the church of St. Blasius in this imperial free city, Bach answered the request with a work of great expressive range and civic fervor, from the martial blasts of the opening choruses to the stoic determination of the first aria “I am now eighty years old.” The text for this movement is based on the Book of Samuel, but as Bach scholar Daniel Melamed has argued, it refers more immediately to the new mayor, Adolph Strecker, an old man of eighty-four. Strecker died within a few months of taking office, buried, as the aria text presages, “in the town of his birth.” It is into this aria that Bach weaves his obbligato organ part with its triplet figures drifting through the texture like wisps of smoke, as ephemeral perhaps as earthly life. A young man at the start of a great career not only portrays the fleetingness of the earthly journey in his music, but he also performs it.

A change of government was a major event in the cultural life of German cities. After the largest bell in the tower of St. Mary’s had summoned Mühlhausen’s populace at around seven in the morning, the councilors, old and new, processed into the church between martial columns formed by the town militia, their entrance accompanied musically by trumpets and timpani. The procession took place in the dim February light and in what must often have been inclement weather.  In 1708 the trumpeters and timpanist also took part in the cantata heard after the sermon inside the church. Bach’s is music of a theocracy: “God is my King” shouts the chorus at the outset, and with the closing movement the joyous embrace of the new administration (“This is our new government / In every endeavor / Crown it with thy blessing”) is sealed by God’s arms.

One can get a sense of this huge church where the piece first resounded by watching a film of the cantata performed by the Michaelstein Telemann Chamber Orchestra and Chorus in the church where it was first heard. This performance is without the austere pomp that filled the church in 1708 and that provided the original context for Bach’s festive piece.  All we get in this modern performance is the cantata itself. A restored altarpiece and bits of religious art cling museum-like to the restored walls of the church, but the images on-screen confirm that Bach’s music has long outlasted its theocratic origins.

Such was the importance accorded the music marking the change of government that the city fathers of Mühlhausen paid for the text and score of the celebratory cantata to be printed. As a result Gott ist mein Königis the only one of Bach’s cantatas to have been published during his lifetime, excepting the lost cantata he wrote for the same event the following year. Such was the esteem that the council had for the young organist, that it commissioned a second town council cantata from him even after he had left Mühlhausen for a better post as court organist at Weimar, forty miles away.

The central bass aria of Gott ist mein König, the fourth of the cantata’s seven movements, addresses the issue of time. With minimal means, Bach portrays God’s division of night from day. The text, like much of the cantata, is taken from Psalm 74: “Tag und Nacht ist dein” (Day and night is yours) Above the organ and cello accompaniment, pairs of recorders and oboes echo each other as if from the light and dark, but the parts also entwine in the interstices between day and night. The mood is pastoral, the instruments’ evoking the flutes and shawms of biblical shepherds. But the aria also projects a contemplative rationality, as if God did his temporal work with utter calm and care. The bass line seems to mark out time, but it also conveys a process of thought and choice through its directed, but hardly relentless, progress: the notes proceed in graceful succession, though not with regularity. Godly deliberation seems still to be underway. We experience the division between night as it is being mulled over and enacted.

But it is Bach’s treatment of the vocal line that sonically maps out the course of the day with the simplest of musical figures. The composer sets the words “Tag und Nacht” (Day and night) with three notes that divide the octave in half: a high F for “day” and a Low F for “night” with “and” sung to a C in between them.  With this barest of musical ideas, Bach elegantly, yet unforgettably defines the transition from day to night. The distance between day and night changes over the four utterances of the line in this first section of the aria.  When Bach repeats the figure soon after its first iteration, he has it rise up from “day” to “and” and then jump down seven notes—one note short of an octave—and then rise up the already-heard fifth for “ist dein” (is yours). When Bach repeats the line a third time, he leaps from a high C for “day,” overshooting the octave to a B-flat nine notes below. The fourth and final instance also uses this nine-note spacing. “Day” is always placed higher melodically, and set at a large intervallic distance from, “night”—a spacing that signifies the separation between them. The evocative power of these musical figures suggests both ineluctability and comfort: God has set out the day precisely and perfectly. Time is beyond human tampering.

The changing proportions between day and night in “Tag und Nacht” suggest that the proportion between them is in a state of flux, something the listeners in St. Mary’s church would have known simply from the dim morning light of Winter.

The middle section of the aria dramatizes the path of the sun as set by God: “You make both the sun and stars, and set them on their course.” The music suddenly becomes busier, the cogs of the cosmos whizzing round. This contrasts with the contemplative pace of the earlier music describing day and its transformation into night. It is not that human life is calm; Bach loves also to depict the frantic pace of human activity. By contrast, God’s time proceeds inexorably, immutably. As if to reassure the Mühlhausen faithful, Bach grants them—and us—a reprise of the opening music. God’s time encompasses not only earthly life, but also the aria itself.

As Melamed has shown, the cantata is rich in topical themes: reference is made to a devastating fire in the city the previous year, to the make-up of the new city council, and to the ongoing wars with France and Sweden prosecuted by the Hapsburg Emperor, the nominal protector (duly thanked in the text) of the Protestant Imperial City of Mühlhausen.

But I like to imagine that Bach’s confrontation with time in this cantata takes on greater meaning when we remember that it comes in the aftermath of the decision of the Protestants states of Germany to adopt the new calendar introduced into Catholic lands in the late sixteenth century by Pope Gregory XIII.  While many of the patchwork of German territories had already accepted the “Catholic” system over the course of the seventeenth century, the new calendar was accepted by the rest of the Germans on Monday, March 1, 1700.  The new calendar amounted to a major wrinkle in the fabric of the Protestant time, one that is theologically smoothed out by Bach’s gentle, profound aria: however, much humans may fiddle with the hour hand, the days, the months and the years, God is the ultimate time keeper.

Only God can divide the day from the night. Undaunted, humans of the Secular Age have, over the last century, been obsessively fooling with time. Daylight Savings was first implemented early in the twentieth century, when the Germans put it into effect during World War I to save coal. Using less energy has been the most frequent rationale for adjusting the clocks. FDR put the U. S. on perpetual daylight savings, or War Time, from 1942 to 1945. Nixon’s Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act of 1973 was a response to the oil embargo. Given their latitude and energy reserves, the OPEC nations have never bothered with changing the clocks. I can still remember trying to get my mind around the concept of daylight savings as a kid, wondering how it was possible simply to alter time. Bush junior expanded daylight savings again in his energy bill of 2005, robbing the early risers among us of a couple more weeks of morning sunlight.

Regardless of when they want their light, some in California might see Proposition 7 as a first step towards political secession from the federal government now presided over by Donald Trump, whose midnight tweets do not obey the rising and setting of the sun, instead forsaking the political future for night-time gratifications. If California’s legislators move ahead as the voters have now enjoined them, the feds will still have to approve the change.  Whatever the case, the sum total of darkness gets ever smaller as the world gets lighter. At least we can be thankful that, as Cole Porter put it more than three centuries after Bach’s luminous and shadowy cantata, there is still “Night and day, day and night.”

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