Beset by Bach

Back in December of 2011 while I was living in Berlin for a year, I filed one of my Friday morning CounterPunch columns as I packed for a trip to France for Christmas with friends. The piece was a shortened version of a review of a new edition of J. S. Bach’s Clavierübung III, one of the greatest volumes of organ music. I’d recently written it for a journal called Keyboard Perspectives, and thought I would just slip it into to my column for that week.

Within the hour Alexander Cockburn wrote back, remarking that mine was not the most engaging slab of prose that had come across his desk that day. There had been too much Bach from the Musical Patriot in recent months, he felt.

I could see why my latest had elicited that response, but I took a quick look at my CounterPunch folder for 2011 and counted five Bach-related columns. I admitted to Alex that this was perhaps too many, but pointed out that there had been lots of other stuff, too.

His response came back with characteristic quickness and verve:

David – I stand corrected! Your recitation of recent achievements leaves me humiliated at my short editorial memory – particularly of feasting my eyes on Ms Dasch [I’d just reviewed a wonderful concert of hers] and lavishing my dollars on her CD. And we relish a piece from you every week and hope to keep it that way. As for Bach, I know he stands there as solid as the Federal Reserve, ready to furnish a piece at the drop of a semiquaver …


Best Alex

I miss Alex’s Friday communiqués, and even more his Friday columns, especially now.

Since that exchange eight-and-a-half years ago there has been less Bach talk from me in this space, though readers of this column might recall that I returned to old Johann last week. If ever there were a time to cling to the gold standard and raid the reserves, it is now. What with the U. S. government printing up money, latexed hand over Purelled® fist and mailing checks to its beleaguered and beset citizenry, I might be forgiven, even by Alex, for getting back to Bach during these weeks of self-isolation …

During the Corona crisis musical links and shares proliferate. Some of these have even come sluicing over my transom as SMS and emails: family sing-alongs from the living room; irreverent mash-ups from man caves; balcony anthems from around the world (especially northern Italy); lip-synched odes; celebrity round-robin medleys; presidential parodies.

Others turn from the happy-clappy and seek solace instead in the dystopian. Legion are the curated lists of claustrophobic movies and novels that seem to have forecast present conditions and envision still more apocalyptic ones to come. To some, bleakness offers a weird comfort.

It is in this dark category—he says, imagining, perhaps even detecting, a Cockburnian sigh of resignation—that much of Johann Sebastian Bach’s church music should be placed.  In a 1991 New York Times article, the great music historian and public intellectual Richard Taruskin laid bare what he called the “dark vision” he had heard in the recently completed recording project  of all two-hundred of Bach’s sacred cantatas played on period instruments and using boy sopranos under the direction of early music pioneers Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt—the latter the more dedicated of the two in bringing out Bachian grit and gloom. Rather than prettifying Bach’s anti-Enlightenment worldview these interpretations did not shy away from torturing the ear. “His music was a medium of truth, not beauty,” wrote Taruskin. “And the truth he served was bitter. His works persuade us—no, reveal to us —that the world is filth and horror, that humans are helpless, that life is pain, that reason is a snare.”

Taruskin expanded on these provocative and persuasive ideas in his wide-ranging treatment of Bach’s sacred music in his monumental five-volume Oxford History of Western Music. Though Taruskin is not a Bach specialist, his writing on the composer is the most consistently illuminating and memorable that we have.

Bach was no stranger to death and disease. He was orphaned at the age of ten. Nine of the twenty children he fathered outlived him.

His world was a dangerous place. Security was an illusion, worse, a fallacy. As a church musician, Bach did not see himself as providing entertainment to congregations, as his contemporary Handel did in his biblical oratorios presented to a paying public in London’s theatres and, on at least one occasion, a tavern.

Bach’s music confronted pestilence and doom nowhere more unblinkingly than in the opening chorus of a cantata (BWV 101) that he wrote for a summer Sunday in 1724. The text and hymn melody heard in long, piercing notes in the soprano, was written a hundred years before Bach’s birth. Both tune and text had the force of truth and tradition:

Take away from us, Lord, faithful God
The heavy punishment, and great affliction,
That we with our countless sins,
Have only too well deserved.
Preserve us from against war and famine,
Plague, fire, and great misery.

In a hard-hitting paragraph devoted to just the second line of the chorale, Taruskin follows Bach into this musical wasteland, pointing to the composer’s thorny, “hardly credible” treatment of dissonance, his “reckless deployment of ‘non-harmonic’ tones,” the clashes intent on sounding “maximally discordant.”  This inhospitable musical landscape is made all the more frightening because it relentlessly reminds the congregation to of its own worthlessness. Taruskin concludes that:

“This music will never bring a smile, the way Handel’s famine, plague, fire, and devastation did in Israel in Egypt.  And that is only partly because the extremity of the musical means, which goes so far beyond the boundaries of what Handel or Burney [an 18th-century music historian who famously described music as “an innocent luxury”] or their audiences would have identified as good taste.  It is also because the sufferers depicted are not ‘them’ but ‘us’.”

This searing counterpoint is presided over by the timeless Lutheran melody that glosses the Lord’s Prayer. Hovering above the entire, desperate tableau is God the Father, who brings down suffering on humankind, even while he offers salvation to the faithful. The music is both a test and an affirmation.

In a stirring 2013 performance of the cantata by the Gesualdo Consort, the impact of Bach’s weighty message is only strengthened by lean instrumental and choral forces, and by the use of a good-sized church organ rather than a little positive like those heard in most modern performances.  (The cantata is introduced by Wolfgang Zerer playing an organ prelude by Bach in the key of C Major. Rather jaunty, especially in comparison to what follows, the prelude conveniently shares its central, “tonic” note with that of the cantata, even though the latter is in D Minor. The organ is set a  half-step higher than modern pitch and the baroque instruments a half-step lower. Everyone meets in the middle—close to modern C-sharp)

Throughout the cantata’s opening movement Bach lashes his listeners with half-step figures—not the typical chromatic sighs, but more like cries and groans elicited by these contrapuntal flagellations. At the close of this epic, the vocal parts conclude with soprano and bass parts made to hold out the final note on the one-syllable word Leid (Misery) for ten bars while the inner voices continue to writhe and worry. Bach robs the highest and lowest parts of their breath leaving them literally expiring and gasping for air as the tortured orchestral playout goes on for many bars. A modern staging of the piece might have the parched bodies of the singers sprawled in the desert.

As Taruskin rightly points out, the theological message of this chorus will find few modern adherents. The godless would likely call the work dystopian—a dark vision, indeed.

But I hear in the astounding ingenuity of its musical devices an antidote to the desperation it dramatizes.  Even the non-believers—to paraphrase Isaiah—who have walked in darkness begin to see light.

In my exchange with Alex in December of 2011, I had reassured him that there wouldn’t be too much Bach in the coming year, and I laid out some of the ideas I had for reporting on Berlin musical culture.  He responded (in the ellipsis of the email quoted above): “Your menu for 2012 sounds great!” He didn’t let on that he was battling cancer and would make it through only half of that year. I don’t think he would have much liked this grim Bachian chorus, but just the same he would have shot back on email—perhaps barbed, but certainly witty.

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