Sword and Sheath Songs

That Anna Magdalena Bach’s musical Notebook of 1725 indulges in jokes about penis size is a fact as incontrovertible as it has been uncomfortable for guardians of the Bach legacy, especially editors charged with preserving the moral purity of the collection’s repertoire in the hands and minds of the millions of young keyboard students who have learned from it. The 1725 Notebook has been celebrated for its pedagogical value as much as for its piety, yet the original owner did not adhere to later moral codes separating coarse hijinks from upright devotion: thus Anna Magdalena inscribed a raucous nuptial poem in the final pages of the Notebook just after the last piece of music, the chorale “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort” (O Eternity, Thunderous Word), also in her hand. The wedding verses offers an exuberant corrective to the widespread notion (here formulated by Jeremy Denk) that the “two things missing in Bach’s music”—and by extension from the Bach family’s music-making—“are randomness and sex.”

The poem’s first strophe strews the fragrant petals of impending marital bliss:

Your servant, esteemed damsel bride
(Wishes you) much happiness on the occasion of today’s joy.
Whoever sees you in your bridal wreath
And lovely wedding dress,
His heart will laugh with sheer delight
For your well-being.
Small wonder, if my mouth and heart
Should overflow with joy.

This is all sweet and harmless enough. It is the ensuing strophe that scampers free from the bounds of decorum:

Cupid, the trusty rogue,
Lets no one off unshorn.
For building one needs stone and lime,
One has to drill the holes,
And if one is building only a hen house,
One needs wood and nails.
The farmer threshes the wheat
With small and large flails [Flegel].

Cupid’s appearance at the start of second stanza makes clear that the tone has been lowered, if humorously with the pun on “trusty”—the German word vertraut also meaning “betrothed.” The next line’s “unscathed” [ungeschoren] is just the first bolt pulled from the poet’s well-stocked quiver of sexual innuendo: when the god of love has prospective brides in his sights he does not let them keep their honor intact for long. The ensuing images confirm this claim with increasing vulgarity: already by the early eighteenth century Flegel had long been slang for penis. One hardly needs the buttress of historical research to understand the “drilling of holes” and the hen house nails as a reference to sexual intercourse. Buttoned-up scholars from the nineteenth century until the (sometimes) more promiscuous present have often averted their eyes from the poem’s shameless diction.

The lines were inscribed by Anna Magdalena in upright rather than oblong format; that is, she would have had to turn the book ninety degrees. The verses’ orientation literally runs against the grain of the (mostly) devout songs and uplifting keyboard music preceding it in the collection. In contrast to her many lovely inscriptions and the meticulousness of the official documents she prepared, the blotches and inconsistences of the poem’s writing show considerably less precision than that of her usual standard. Perhaps she was in a hurry to copy down the text from a friend’s poetry collection or bridal effects. Whatever the case, on this leaf we catch a devout Lutheran, devoted wife, and overburdened mother in the act of copying out dirty doggerel.

In contrast to most later editors of the Notebook, Carl Hermann Bitter’s 1865 Bach biography printed both stanzas of the poem, which, the author acknowledges, “cannot refrain from the then-current mode of double meanings.” Bitter thought the lines testified to “those beautiful hours in which (Johann Sebastian), filled with the blissful feeling that drove him into Anna Magdalena’s arms, appeared before her as lover and bridegroom.” Less attuned to the conjugal heat of the lines than Bitter, Charles Sanford Terry’s Bach biography of 1928 nonetheless agreed that the poem showed “how fond was the love she kindled in him.” The magisterial nineteenth-century Bach biographer, Philipp Spitta, scion of a long-line of Lutheran clergymen, had some fifty years earlier claimed the first verse as “striking proof of a happy married life” while acknowledging that the second was spiced “with the double meanings” then popular. Spitta believed the verses were the work of an anonymous, if rather foul-mouthed, Cöthen poet, who hadn’t even begun to exhaust his store of erotic puns and lubricious turns of phrase. Spitta even regretted the presumed loss of these additional off-color strophes. The English translation of Spitta’s biography by Clara Bell and J. A. Fuller-Maitland suppressed the second verse, a decision often followed since.

Arnold Schering, who prepared a complete—one is tempted to say unexpurgated—edition of the 1725 Notebook in 1935, printed both stanzas for the sake of completeness; but these remained untranslated in the American version of 1949, thus cloaking the erotic content for most Anglophone users. Schering asserted stuffily that the “not-too-refined tone and contents (of the poem) make it seem unlikely that it was meant to be recited in Bach’s house.” The possibility of extemporaneous musical elaboration of the lyric by the soprano Anna Magdalena, perhaps accompanying herself at the harpsichord or joined by her improvising husband, is not broached. The poem’s silly sex-talk could not be allowed to sully the volume and its owner’s domestic setting. These words were not to be loosed on children, be they Bachs or Baby Boomers.

As Schering well knew, these are not the only coarse lyrics associated with the Bach family. An abundance of genital jokes are found in the Quodlibet (BWV 524), probably stemming from 1707-8, around the time of the composer’s first wedding, and possibly performed at that celebration by members of the Bach family.

The Quodlibet is a fragment shorn of its beginning and end, but plenty of lewdness remains, much of it coming midway through the piece in a stream-of-conscience outpouring of images that, like the rest of the poem, revels in nonsensical collisions and outlandish disjunctions. In spite of the semantic confusion on which the genre of the quodlibet thrives, the sexual imagery is often shamelessly unambiguous. The first line of this section refers to the ceremony and the sex to follow: “Big wedding, big joy, / Big daggers [Degen], big scabbards [Scheiden].”

In the Bachs’ day, as now, “Scheide” is not merely figurative language for vagina, but the word itself: this is not just metaphor but a scurrilous pun. “Degen,” like all swords, has a long and colorful history as a stand-in for penis. The syllabic declamation of Johann Sebastian’s text setting makes every word clear as can be, and any room for a more polite interpretation is anyway closed out by its context—a raucous wedding feast. The run of one-liners that follow continues with more references to the male anatomy in: “Big arrows, big quivers”; “Big kegs, big taps.” The next rhyme adds the testicles to the equipment already mentioned: “Big balls, big clubs [Kegel].” By the Bachs’ time the word Kegel had many meanings, from bones to bowling pins: all of them sufficiently phallic for the poem’s ribald purposes. Directly after this line we again encounter a word shared with the Notebook’s poem in the pairing of “Große Bauern, große Flegel“ (big farmers, big flails). After this male strutting, the female object of desire is introduced: “Big maidens, big wreaths). The wreaths referred to are the floral crowns worn by German brides also referred to in the poem in Anna Magdalena’s Notebook; perhaps they, too, have some anatomical resonance that I have been unable to ascertain. Randy farmers come just before the maidens, randy farm animals right after: “Big donkeys, big tails [Schwänze].” Then as now, “Schwanz” is slang for penis. The more textured—and arguably more accurate—translation might be: “Big donkeys, big dicks.”

There are plenty of other blue moments in the Quodlibet: that renaissance font of sexual innuendo, Rabelais’s Pantagruel is praised for his lusty humor; foxes are skinned; and the running gag of Backtrog (possible meaning baking tray, and many other things, too) summons other conjugal and familial connotations: “Back” might evoke “Bach” and buns soon to be baking in the oven. An early piece unique in Johann Sebastian Bach’s oeuvre, the Quodlibet is not only the bawdiest of his works, but also the simplest, even when we take into consideration the bits of mocking contrapuntal artifice: the self-referential pun that concludes the torso of the piece—“Oh, what a nice fugue [schöne Fuge] this is”—turns on the compositional technique that most abundantly demonstrates Bachian manly prowess, even if the music that sets this line is hardly contrapuntal at all, at least not yet. (The manuscript breaks off at the end of this section, with the possibility of a more elaborate, if still foolishly fun, fugue hanging in the air.) But the phrase “schöne Fuge” could also be taken to mean “beautiful interstice” or “seam” like those between planks on the ships referred to elsewhere in the text: that is, the word could have been heard as a reference to the vagina. Whatever the case, the mingling of mock-contrapuntal voices in the Quodlibet is a prelude to the imminent joining of the newly-married bodies.

Like the rest of the section from which they are taken, the phallic couplets excerpted above are each made up of four two-syllable words. The humor of this part of the Quodlibet derives not only from the imagery but also from the rhythm, which forces the rhyme to be made with relentless regularity. Sex is often flagrantly obvious in the Quodlibet; in other passages salacious subtexts can be heard only when egged on by the music. Each of the four vocal parts (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) delivers pairs of lines alone, accompanied by alternating tonic-dominant harmonies from the continuo, eventually transposed, and, near the end of the section, forced into a predictable harmonic sequence of knee-slapping buffoonery. The sparse ingredients of this recipe contribute to the comic effect, both urging on the dirty doggerel and embracing its simplemindedness. Though written down, the stepwise melody and ready-made chords could easily be improvised, as such pieces apparently often were. Sex is often flagrantly obvious in the Quodlibet; in other passages salacious subtexts can be heard only when egged on by the music. The possibility of group improvisation again brings to mind Arnold Schering’s prudish claim that the poem in Anna Magdalena’s hand could not have been read aloud. This assertion conveniently ignores the possibility that it was sung at home or at a wedding celebration of family or friends.

The nuptial verses in the 1725 Notebook can be thought of as a kind of quodlibet; even though lacking this title, the poem traffics in the same characteristic nonsense—libidinous imagery, scattershot associations, inside jokes—found in light-hearted, celebratory rhymes delivered at weddings in Anna Magdalena’s lifetime and in Johann Sebastian’s celebratory romp. Many Bach devotees and scholars have taken it for granted that these outbursts of eros are confined to the light and irreverent genres such as the Quodlibet, since these are not the musical qualities typically associated with Bachian artifice and decency. Unfortunately for these defenders of the Bach family honor, the Quodlibet demonstrates real talent and taste for the lowest comic register on the part of the composer and the performers. Yet as I will argue here, listening for sex—for the erotic, unruly, and ribald—in the Bach family’s music offers a vital, if often repressed, form of appreciation of the joy of musical performance taken by a singer of Anna Magdalena’s training and ability.

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  dgyearsley@gmail.com