Have Yourself a Revolutionary, Bachian Christmas

Christmas is a dangerous time, for it threatens social instability, political disorder, even revolution. At the culmination of the story kings kneel before a helpless baby; the powerful pay tribute to the seemingly powerless. In Reformation Germany one had only to recall Andreas Karlstadt, an iconoclast in the literal sense, shouting the words of institution in German—not Latin— and offering both the communion cup and the wafer to the trembling hands and lips of the unconfessed laity in Wittenberg on December 25, 1521 to understand the potency of Christmas.

Martin Luther’s 1522 sermon on the Epiphany can be read as part of his larger project to shore up the political order threatened by the radicalism of Karlstadt and others. In Luther’s view the heavenly king had not come to earth in order to destabilize the political order, even though the tyrannical Herod and those invested in his authority misinterpreted the divine birth as a direct threat. Luther’s account of the Epiphany relies on his Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, which posits one realm ruled by God and the other subservient to worldly regimes. But Luther couldn’t help but be attuned to the restive spirit of Christmas, acknowledging that Herod “feared that an insurrection would drive him from his kingdom.” The great insurrection of the Reformation, the Peasants’ War of 1524-5, was itself propelled by the centrifugal social forces Karlstadt had helped to set in motion.

The elaborate music Bach produced for the Christmas season two centuries after Karlstadt was not intended to make explicit the latent political dimensions of the Christmas story. Yet they are there in the music.

Bach’s cantata for the second day of Christmas, Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes (For this God’s Son has appeared), BWV 40, first performed in Leipzig on December 26, 1723, upends the political order, even while buttressing it.

The martial tones, ringing with princely hunting horns, make clear that Christ has come to earth not to gurgle and coo, but to wage a bloody campaign against the devil’s influence. The babe will be a fearsome warrior for good: “For this the Son of God has appeared, / That he destroy all the works of the devil.” (The menu at the upper right of the “All of Bach” video will help you navigate through the movements of the cantata discussed here)

The text is by an unknown poet, who, in the recitative that follows deploys formulaic courtly language to dramatize the inversion of political hierarchies:

… the great son of God
leaves the throne of heaven
and it pleases his Majesty
to become a small human child.
Consider this exchange, you who can think of it;
The King becomes a subject,
The Lord appears as a vassal
and is for the human race
– o sweet word in every ear –
born for our comfort and salvation.

The descending arc of the vocal lines, punctuated by upward exclamatory leaps, might be heard to convey the Godly movement from heaven to earth, that is, steeply down the ladder of power, from the throne of heavenand out into the world turned upside down.

The recitative is followed by an inward-turning chorale, which juxtaposes the suffering of sin with the joy brought by Christ. After the communal reflections of the chorale, a bass aria bursts forth onto the field of battle. With its galloping bass-line, spurred on by jaunty unison violins and pointed appoggiaturas at phrase endings, the opening ritornello leads into the spirited bravery of the hero’s music:

Serpent of hell,
are you not worried?
He who will snap your head
Has now been born,
and the lost
shall delight in eternity.

In this bloodthirsty piece, melodic fragments are cut short with angular leaps, and finished off with appoggiaturas as cutting as steel blades, rather than as soft as the aural silk more typical of these ornamental figures. Bach’s brutally graphic treatment of the word “zerknickt”— snap in two—with its sharp, dislocating scansion and bludgeoning repeated notes followed by gasping breaths is blood-curdling. This is ghastly, no-holds-barred combat. The unassuming baby is apparently capable—at least on the allegorical level—of bloody, violent acts.

In the cantata’s final aria Bach enlists a smaller contingent of hunting instruments—a bassoon and a pairs of horns and oboes—to sally forth with a single voice. Breathless and agitated, valiant and undaunted, they are eager to join battle with the foe. In this melee, Jesus offers protection and comfort. The metaphor of chicks taken under the wing of their mother offers protection from——or at least solace after—the grim combat depicted by the music. The music challenges the performers, for they too are locked in struggle with their instruments, Bach putting them to the test. This musical face is hot with bravery and flushed with the heat of hell:

Christian children, be joyful,
though the kingdom of hell rages,
Satan’s fury need not frighten you
Jesus will deliver you:
Will gather his chicks to himself
And enfold them with his wings.

One of Bach’s most swashbuckling choruses concludes the last of the of the six cantatas that make up his most beloved seasonal offering, the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248): “Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen” —“Now you are well avenged, / for upon the host of your enemies, Christ has broken, that which was against you.”

After the martial ritornello opens the movement, the chorus sings not in echoing polyphony, but an unadorned chorale in rhythmically unified four-part harmony, resolute and assured. The text is set to the melody of the Passion Chorale:

Now are ye well avenged
Upon your hostile host,
For Christ hath fully broken
All that which opposed you.
Death, devil, sub and hell
Are completely debilitated;
With God the human race
now has its place.

At the Epiphany, when the newborn baby is adored by earthly kings, the crucifixion looms: Bach raises the cross above the battlefield.

Bach was not a revolutionary. He courted the patronage of princes and generally flourished under their aegis while chafing against civic authority as Director of Music in Leipzig.

But what if the musical weapons he fashioned for Christmas should fall into the hands of revolutionaries?

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