J.S. Bach’s two musical confrontations with taxes span his career composing and performing cantatas. Nur jedem das Seine (To Each His Own!), BWV 163, dates from 1715, the year after Bach had been promoted from Court Organist at Weimar to the rank of Concertmaster. In this new post Bach was charged with producing one cantata every month.When it came time to treat the text from the Matthew’s Gospel “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” the thirty-year-old musical functionary towed the princely line: pay in full and on time. The tenor aria that opens the cantata buttresses state power with theology. Love the Heavenly Creator, but fill the earthly treasury.
To each what’s due him!
If rulers must gather
Toll, taxes, and tribute,
Let no one refuse
The debt that he owes!
Yet bound is the heart but to God the Almighty
Bach would spend a month in the ducal jail in 1717 at the end of his tenure in Weimar. He was thrown in the brig not for tax evasion, but for impudence at demanding his release to take up an appointment at another principality. Music was not just a form of entertainment for these rulers, many of whom were also amateur musicians; even these small-time potentates needed robust tax receipts to support the musical arts through which their status resounded and shone with the reflected glare of the Sun King. But when the inevitable budget squeezes came, the military always triumphed over music.
Bach’s last dated cantata returns to the theme taxes, but rather than adopting a chilling admonitory tone of the early work, treats the subject with burlesque wit. The so-called “Peasant” Cantata (BWV 212) was first performed in August of 1742 in the small, and seemingly unpronounceable village of Klein-Zschocher outside of Leipzig, Saxony’s leading commercial and university city where Bach had been director of music for nearly two decades. Bach’s main literary collaborator during his tenure in Leipzig was Christian Friedrich Henrici, who wrote under the pen name of Picander and whose poetic ranged extended from salacious verse romps to the lofty, harrowing lines of the St. Matthew Passion.
A clever schmoozer who used his knack for light , occasional poetry to ingratiate himself with the rich and powerful, Picander had become an Assessor, Liquor Tax Collector, and Wine Inspector in 1740. Two years later a nobleman named Carl Heinrich von Dieskau inherited the family estate at Klein-Zschocher. Dieskau was also Superintendent of the Collection of Taxes in Leipzig, and therefore Picander’s boss. The occasion thus provided Picander the opportunity for some more ingratiating, and it seems likely that the poet asked Bach to collaborate with him. Bach, too, was adept at paying musical tribute to the powerful princes and aristocrats, even as he bristled at proto-democratic municipal control over his artistic and professional activities.
The piece’s twenty-four numbers take about thirty minutes. Bumptious, rural tunes alternate in quick succession with exemplars of aristocratic refinement. The faked populism of the work made it appeal to Nazi musicologists. The notorious Joseph Müller-Blattau’s 1935 biography of Bach published in the 250th year after the composer’s birth brandished the first page of the autograph score as its frontispiece. When not devoting his scholarly energies to such learned matters as fugue, Müller-Blattau worked to show the ancient folk traditions that had culminated in the Horst-Wessel-Lied, the anthem of the Nazi party; Müller-Blattau’s Germanisches Erbe in deutscher Tonkunst (Germanic Heritage of German Musical Art) of 1938 proudly claimed an introduction by Heinrich Himmler and was funded by the Hitler Youth and the SS.
After World War II, East German musicologists harbored a kindred affection for the cantata, drafting it into service as evidence of Bach’s revolutionary spirit. It was in the sixth movement that these commentators heard Bach championing the Klein-Zschocher peasants of his day, some of them the ancestors of those who worked the collective farms that ringed Leipzig during the four post-war decades of the “Workers’ and Farmers’ State.”
But Bach’s entertainment was not performed by peasants, and it seems unlikely that they even were invited to hear this “Cantate en burlesque,” as Picander dubbed it.
The case for Bach’s social awareness—as opposed to his appropriation of his barnyard idioms, and Picander’s adoption of Saxon dialect—hinges on the sixth number, sung by the ever-rustic and often-randy bass:
Ah, Mister Tax-man, don’t be so mean
To us poor farm folk!
Don’t skin us;
If you’re going to munch our cabbage
Down to the bare stalk like caterpillars,
Let that be enough!
The simple, stepwise melody stomps up and down, one syllable per pitch, the beset bass/taxpayer fuming at the prospect of yet another fleecing, but ultimately accepting his financial fate with no less obedience than that of the courtly listeners of the earlier Nur jedem das Seine. The peasant tramps to and fro, pursued by the instrumental parts in a crude canon. The musical structure confirms that there is no escape from the tax-man.
This seems to be Picander sending himself up, admitting that it is the collector not the lordly higher-up who is hated by the masses. Transposing such truths to our own time, Bach, too, would certainly have understood how Biden can bump up the defense budget (consuming more than half of discretionary spending), yet it is the IRS not the Pentagon that is seen as the enemy of the people.
The cantata’s next aria, sung by the soprano (the other character in the “plot”) confirms these attitudes by heaping smarmy praise on the new squire:
Is a goodly man,
Whom no one can criticize.
Rather than simple-minded grousing, these words are set by Bach to an elegant French court dance based on a venerable harmonic progression. In this music state authority glides effortless free of the ugliness of taking from the poor and giving to the rich.
(Here’s a 2019 performance of the entire cantata from the ever-excellent J. S. Bach Foundation in Switzerland, done in goofy, faux-peasant garb, but brilliantly oscillating between the elegance and naivety that Bach must have intended.)