Bach on Fire

After the fires came the rains. In between, a NASA probe landed on Mars eager to drill deeply into the soil to see if the red planet can indeed support life—even while human life does its best to pull the plug on itself back on Earth. The specious techno-priest Elon Musk and other “visionaries” fan hopes for off-world escape, while smoldering California abides by Nature’s laws. More rain is coming, the fury of flames replaced by the threat of mudslides. GeoGeeks in Silicon Valley frantically seek start-up money to develop Four Self-Riding Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

It wasn’t just the planets that were aligning this week, but visions of the future: released amidst this startling news from across the Golden State and the solar system, the National Climate Assessment painted a Doomsday tableau, one done much more succinctly and powerfully (the NCA “highlights” alone are 140 pages long) by Hans Memling half a millennium ago (see the right panel of his Last Judgement).

Cleaving faithfully to his satanic script, earthly ruler Donald Trump said simply of the report: “I don’t believe it.”

The eschatological overtones of all this are clear. False prophets abound. Legion our those of little faith, who pay lip service to the new religion of science, then hop in their Tesla—an automotive update of the far more environmentally friendly Papal Indulgence. Rampant greed, gluttony, and pride (and the other four Deadly Sins to boot) have us hurtle towards damnation.

Before Thanksgiving I drove up from the Bay Area to Seattle on I-5 through the vast urban sprawl of California’s Central Valley and the even vaster sprawl of nut-tree monoculture, the “orchards” glowering in the smoke from the Camp Fire. Ascending into the mountains I crossed through the scars of September’s Delta Fire where it had swept across the Interstate. Only a trace of water remained at the bottom of the Lake Shasta reservoir. All snow was gone from the once-white-majesty of Mt. Shasta, a brown heap.

To get through the smoke and dismay, I listened to Bach—to what I now think of as his “fire” cantata, Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! (BWV 71). The opening chorus would rouse even Donald Trump from his Diet Coke stupor.

The trumpet that will be heard on the Last Day sounds the alarm. The orchestra follows in full gallop. But then in this instrumental introduction there are long stretches of harmonic stasis above bass drones, as if humanity is fearfully waiting, poised for doom.  The trumpet busts out of this suspended state, and the strings again answer the call, now joined by the frenzied voices that rise up in ecstatic acclamation:

Watch! pray! pray! watch!
Be prepared
Until the Lord of Glory
Brings this world to an end.

Swirling sequences seem to accelerate time, but Bach then dampens the pace, clinging to queasy harmonies that attempt, futilely, to escape the inevitable. The cadence cannot be avoided and the race to the finish starts up again.

The chorus is one of Bach’s earlier ones, composed after he had begun to dedicate himself to the composition of church cantatas around the age of thirty. He didn’t need much practice to be the master of musical terror. Never were apocalyptic voices more stirring.

The orchestra quakes menacingly to usher in the ensuing recitative. A shrill tenor voice foretells of “the day from which no can hide.” This fire-and-brimstoning gives way to ambrosial music promising heavenly joy for the saved and ends with a call not to despair, the trumpet of the Last Day echoing ominously just after these comforting words.

The cantata’s first aria follows:

When will the day come when we shall escape
The Egypt of this world?
Ah! Let us soon flee from Sodom,
Before the fire overtakes us!
Watch, souls, wake up from your complacency,
And believe that it is the end of time

In contrast to the richly scored opening two movements, the aria is accompanied sparsely by a plaintive solo cello line that continually moves forward then pauses, unsure and unsettled.  The so-called continuo—the wallpaper of the baroque bands of Bach’s day—ghosts this solo, the organist improvising chords with the right hand and doubling with the left the line played by the bassoon, its sonority imparting an edgy, urgent quality. The shrill alto voice then enters, that much higher than the bass of the preceding recitative—and that much closer to heaven, or at least to the Judgement Day. The vocal line skitters through rapid figures on “flee” and “flame”—text painting worthy of Memling. Bach spends a long time—seemingly too long—on the last two lines of text (the “B” section that is then followed by a reprise of the opening “A” in this so called da capo—i.e., “back to the head”—form). The prophetic voice shouts into the flames, hoping someone will hear.

The aria played over the speakers as I motored north past Chico, trailing carbon as I went.  But did I hear its message?

In this substantial cantata of eleven movements there are abundant cautions against being taken in by the “snares and traps” of earthly life and the weakness of the flesh. There are calls for faith in the face of mockers and doubters.

The cantata is in two parts divided on either side of the sermon; the second begins not with a renewed servings of gloom, but with a sprightly court dance, oboe and first violin gamboling happily above a jaunty bass line.

We have now left the misery and mayhem of the world and are, the long instrumental introduction tells us, in a princely palace, or, better, in the stately gardens onto which the ball room gives. (Needless to say, the heavenly hotel boasts five stars.)

The saved are greeted on the terrace by the tenor chamberlain, supremely elegant and assuredly upbeat:

Lift up your head
And be comforted, o righteous ones
So that your soul may bloom!
You shall become green in Eden
Serving God eternally.

After flight from cataclysmic fire we have returned to ecotopic Eden. If only one could believe in it awaits. In the smoke of the Central Valley the poise and assuredness of this music is more devastating than Bach’s raging sonic images of apocalypse.

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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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