Bach the Poll Worker

Dance of Death: the City Councilman,  Matthäus Merian, 1725.

Bach would have been an excellent poll worker, even if in his professional life as a musical functionary he bristled under proto-democratic institutions and civic authority, preferring instead to work for enlightened despots. The musicologist Ruth Tatlow’s rigorously researched 2015 book, Bach’s Numbers: Compositional Proportion and Significance, demonstrates how in a host of remarkable cases the composer sought perfect symmetry and numeric exactitude on a grand scale: for example, the collection of six works for solo violin (BWV 1001-1006) and the six for violin and harpsichord (1014-1019) each contain exactly 2400 bars. That’s a larger number than the vote difference between Biden and Trump in Pennsylvania and Georgia as I write. Never mind that in the solo violin works that number of 2400 bars does not include repeats, whereas in the duos the repeats are figured in. Such alignment defies coincidence and documents Bach’s obsession with making the numbers add up—and to tabulating them properly. There may have been a few inkblots on these manuscripts, but no hanging chad— plenty of recounts, though, just to make sure.

He may have counted bars rather than ballots, but Bach was a master of political music. In his nearly three decades as director of music in Leipzig, Bach produced festive cantatas for the installation of the flourishing commercial-and-university city’s leaders each August. One of most famous movements——and certainly the most exciting—from these works, most of which have been lost, is a sumptuous, fully orchestrated version of the prelude from one of the just-mentioned solo violin works—the Partita in E major (BWV 1006).

In his adaption (BWV 29) of this piece for the 1731 installation of the City Council, Bach usurps the role of the lone violinist so as to command the assembled forces himself as soloist at the King of Instruments. From the helm of the technological marvel that was the organ, Bach demonstrated for the assembled populace and its leaders that their top civic musician was an indispensable sounding embodiment of the city’s cultural—and therefore political—prestige.

Across his long career Bach proved his skill at counting musical units and at making political music. This portfolio begins with Gott ist mein König (BWV 71)—“God is my King”— another festive public work also richly scored for trumpets and timpani, a full battery of winds and strings, double chorus, and 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. Blavius, Bach answered the request with a work of great expressive range and civic fervor whose opening martial blasts make no mistake that this is the jubilant music of theocracy.

Such was the importance accorded this work marking the change of government, that the civic fathers of Mühlhausen, a proudly independent Imperial city nominally under the jurisdiction of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, paid for the text and music of the celebratory cantata to be printed at great expense. As a result Gott ist mein König is 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. So great was the esteem that the Mühlhausen council had for the young organist that it commissioned a second installation cantata from him even after he’d left the city to climb a couple more rungs up the ladder of his chosen profession with a post as court organist at Weimar fifty miles to the west, but still well within the extended Bach family’s ancestral homeland.

Gott ist mein König is a work of great public ambition and power, but within its expansive boundaries Bach takes the opportunity to do some clever, clandestine counting. After the rousing opening chorus comes a duet for tenor and alto. The former sings the text “I am now eighty years old” taken from the Book of Samuel. But as Bach scholar Daniel Melamed has argued, these words refer to the incoming octogenarian mayor, Adolph Strecker, a man six years older than Joe Biden will be if and when he assumes office in January.

Above a bass line that trudges doggedly onward, the tenor declares his age then asks why “he should burden himself further” with the obligations of life. The direction of his march is not forward, but instead marks a return to his native city so that he can, the text tells us, die near the graves of his mother and father. Against this mournful, yet resolute melody Bach weaves his obbligato organ part with its ephemeral triplet figures drifting through the texture like wisps of smoke. 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.

The musical texture and its message are more complex still. The soprano voice—often used to represent the soul in German baroque music—delivers the melody and sixth verse of a venerable Lutheran chorale, O Gott, Du frommer Gott! (O God, You righteous God):

Should I upon this earth
Bring my life onward,
Through many a sour step
Urging it forward into old age,
Then grant me patience from sin
And shame, protecting me
So that I might bear
My gray hair with honor.

Bach leaves some of the chorale notes long and unadorned, but the phrase describing the years of life increasing (going “höher”) is decorated with rapidly rising arabesques. Later Bach makes the “sour steps” of the aged man descend through an acid chromatic line conjuring death.

This music is hardly in the celebratory mode of the opening chorus, nor does it shy away from the truth that the new mayor was extremely old, especially for a man living in the early eighteenth century. The musical adornments are not added to hide the chorale’s austere message: death comes to all, even the Bürgermeister. He has returned home to govern and to die.

But the town’s incoming leader, August Strecker, was not eighty, as the Bible has it, but eighty-four. The sacred text couldn’t simply be adjusted to match the Mühlausen facts of 1708. And yet the young Bach had a knack for number: his ornamented expansion of the soprano line was not undertaken simply to bring certain words into relief but, more importantly, so that the number of notes comes to exactly 85—the year of life at which the new mayor had arrived.

Perhaps the composer informed Strecker of his artifice, impossible to perceive in performance. More likely, Bach was content simply to inscribe this tally in the score and let it project its subliminal truth at the investiture service, marked in eternity by the Almighty—and later, by inquiring musicological note-counters.

Whatever the case, the musical reckoning was prophetic. Strecker died soon after assuming office in the town of this birth, in his eighty-fifth year.

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