Head of State

Frontispiece of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1651).

The body politic has human parts: head, limbs, heart. That body has an abundance of these in the case of the royal giant that brandishes sword and scepter on the frontispiece of Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. This colossus has arms and torso made up of his anonymous subjects, their backs turned to the reader and their faces hidden for good measure beneath wide-brimmed hats. Yet we are sure that they look up in awe at their absolute ruler, the head of state.

Trump would like it to be that way. Most leaders would. There are probably gazillions of send-ups of the Leviathan frontispiece out there on the internet now with comb-over instead of curls and crown, sand wedge instead of sword, Diet Coke instead of scepter.

Rather than head to the gym, Trump would doubtless prefer to firm up his body politic with liposuction that rids him of whistleblower arm flab.

Critics would favor cutting off the monster’s head. That would be exciting for a second or two, though the audience down below in body-land would either die, or worse, be bored.

For the time being still attached, the head is that of a lunatic. The body politic below the Divine Right-Wing King is flailing and fulminating, but, most importantly, vigorously entertained by what the short-circuiting behemoth’s brain is having it do.

The soundtrack for this spectacle might be a dosage of EDM adrenaline (like Zedd’s Clarity when the beat finally drops after the minute mark…

or a dance-till-you-drop Slavonic rave by Dvorak.

For more comic treatment of the gyrations of the body politic we turn to Bach.

Bach spent the majority of his career working for town councils and having to heed, at least some of the time, the dictates of burgomasters and bureaucrats. True, he was thrown in jail by the Duke of Weimar in 1717 after nearly a decade of service, the misdemeanor being that he had “too forcefully” requested his dismissal so he could move on to a nearby court gig.

Still, Bach appears to have been happiest when employed by the petty princes of central Germany, each of whom considered himself a little Louis XIV and therefore had to have a musical establishment, if not as radiant as that of the Sun King, then at Ieast a warming reflection of that grandeur.

One such minor ruler of a patch of German forest, hills, and flatland was Duke Christian of Weißenfels. He belonged to the lesser branch of the Wettin family, the rulers of Saxony and, for a time, Poland. Like the primogeniture potentates in glittering Dresden, the seat of real power and opulence, the secundogeniture types like Christian distracted themselves with hunting, music, and women—pursuits that were never mutually exclusive.

So good at wasting money was Christian that, when his successor and son Johann Adolf died in 1746, the big boys in Dresden dissolved the debt-wracked Weißenfels Duchy. The Dukes had long been in arrears to many of their musicians, including the star singer Pauline Kellner, who was also rumored to be Christian’s mistress. Even Bach’s father-in-law, a trumpeter at Weißenfels, was owed back wages so that the Bachs had to loan them money, funds later extracted from the widowed Anna Magdalena Bach’s meager portion of her husband’s estate.

Relations between the Weimar and Weißenfels Dukes were cordial, though probably prone to one-upmanship. In February of 1713 Bach was dispatched by his boss to direct a birthday entertainment he had composed for Duke Christian. The piece—later reused for other grandees, and parts of it even repurposed for performance in church—is the so-called Hunt Cantata (BWV 208).

Like the servile and savvy functionaries they were, Bach and his librettist, the Weimar court poet Salomo Franck, pushed all the right buttons. The forty-minute cantata’s first aria (“Hunting is the joy of the gods”) begins with rousing horn calls and had Christian’s prima donna play the part of Diana (presumably in costume), the goddess extolling the joys of hunting by trilling like the quivering string of a bow firing off virtuosic vocal arrows. The cantata’s banquet of delights includes salacious love scenes and abundant portions of fawning praise of Christian.

The atmosphere of the cantata is one of unbridled pleasure—not as rare a musical mode for Bach, especially in his courtly guise, as many austere scholars and churchmen have long had us think. But hedonism does not preclude happiness for those beyond the banqueting hall, a place no less gaudy in its way than that of Mar-a-Lago. The cantata’s most famous movement is that evergreen ode to fine pasturage, “Sheep May Safely Graze”—a twentieth-century favorite for weddings and elevators. Even if the guy at the top is a profligate egomaniac, his subjects enjoy a prosperity that descends from him.

The cantata’s comic relief is provided by Pan, the goat-legged god of shepherds and flocks notorious for his ecumenical sexual interests. Franck and Bach have the character enter shortly before the midpoint of the proceedings, not to discuss his wild amorous adventures but to weigh in on political theory. First Pan blusters in a fauning recitative about his own sowing of good will, though he also takes pains to humble himself before Christian.

In the ensuing aria Pan likens the Duke to himself in a preposterous and presumptuous inversion that must cloak itself in humor, for who, one might rightly ask, would suffer a ruler who gropes his subjects, glories in his own genius, and lacks the restraint of reason?

Untroubled by self-awareness, Pan boasts on:

A Prince is the Pan of his country!
Just as the body without the soul
Cannot live, nor rouse itself,
So is the country a cave of death
That has no head and prince,
And thus is lacking its best part.

Bach, himself a monarchist, delivers this truism of reigning political thought with panache. The decapitated body will not be able to go hunting, chase lovely sheep, or play a round of golf.

The aria (here with the preceding recitative) jollies along in a triple-time C Major, almost prancing, but a bit too self-satisfied for that, though the head is attached and the body moves with sufficient vigor. The shadow of ill health soon passes over the music with a feint towards the minor with the words “body without the soul,” but robust vital signs quickly return. A long held not high up in the bass register on the first syllable of “Leben” (life) conveys a bluff optimism. The next long note, now lower, on “regen” (move) is a clever gag: by not moving on “move”—and when the music around that note is all jaunty motion—Bach’s presents a premonition of the lifeless leviathan. From this fragile good humor Pan descends chromatically along the dark and craggy walls of the “cave of death.”

Arriving at the final two lines of text, Bach gets to the crux of the matter, and the aria’s central image—the headless body politic. For the first statement of these words, Bach silences the partisan oboes and violins for a bare-bones utterance of the text. The music continues through the labyrinth of political illness, repeating, almost imploringly from the darkness the phrase “the best part” (das beste Teil), that is, the head of state—the Duke. Pan has now wandered into the farthest grotto of anarchy, passing even through C-sharp Major, geographically close, but in politico-musical terms dangerously far from the home key of C Major. Realizing his missteps he swerves back in the other direction, but now too far, brushing past B Major.

From threatening sharps Pan veers to flats and a mock-heroic, or perhaps desperate, line rising out of the depths, now insistently repeating the words the “best part” (Christian’s head) in close succession, almost like a modern-day chant at a political rally. Too quickly than sound musical sense would dictate, Pan finds his way back to the security of a C Major after achieving the highest note in his line, the D above middle C—a pitch heard only once earlier in the aria, and not coincidentally at the word “death.”

The head now reattached to the neck, the body dances on silently, cheered by the instrumental play-out that opened this unlikely and absurd political discourse.

Like so many of Bach’s musical ideas, the aria’s humor spans centuries: Pan is the Country’s President.

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