Bach on Fire

Yet another heat wave sears the American West as more than seventy wildfires burn. At 225,000 acres and growing, the Bootleg Fire in south-central Oregon is less than 10% contained: it’s now larger than New York City.  The Guardian reports this morning that more than 1,500 square miles are burning in the West, and its only the middle of July.

I grew up in the West, spent many days on the rapidly vanishing snowfields and glaciers of the Olympics and North Cascades.

Now I live in Upstate New York where June and July have been filled with thunderstorms.  All is wet and green, but I’ve been listening to Bach’s “fire” cantata, Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! (BWV 71). The opening chorus is a wake-up call.

The trumpet that will be heard on the Last Day sounds the alarm. The orchestra follows in full gallop. In the midst of this instrumental introduction there are long stretches of harmonic stasis above bass drones, as if humanity is waiting fearfully, bracing for doom.  The trumpet again busts out of this suspended state, and the strings again answer the call, now joined by the frenzied voices that rise up in ecstatic acclamation:

Watch! pray! pray! watch!
Be prepared
Until the Lord of Glory
Brings this world to an end.

Swirling sequences seem to accelerate, but Bach then dampens the pace, clinging to queasy harmonies that attempt, futilely, to escape the inevitable. The cadence cannot be avoided and the race to the end of time starts up again.

The chorus is one of Bach’s earlier ones, composed after he had begun to dedicate himself to the composition of church cantatas around the age of thirty and already a master of musical terror.

The orchestra quakes menacingly as it ushers in the ensuing recitative. (For a bone-rattling performance the rest of the cantata go here.) A shrill tenor voice foretells of “the day from which no can hide.” But this fire-and-brimstone diction gives way to ambrosial music promising heavenly joy for the saved, though the trumpet of the Last Day echoes ominously just after these comforting words.

The cantata’s first aria follows:

When will the day come when we shall escape
The Egypt of this world?
Ah! Let us soon flee from Sodom,
Before the fire overtakes us!
Watch, souls, wake up from your complacency,
And believe that it is the end of time

In contrast to the richly scored opening two movements, the aria is accompanied sparsely by a plaintive solo cello line that continually moves forward then pauses, unsure and unsettled.  The so-called continuo—the rhythm section of the baroque bands of Bach’s day—ghosts this solo, the organist improvising chords with the right hand and doubling with the left the line played by the bassoon, its sonority imparting an edgy, urgent quality to the sonic landscape.

The shrill alto voice enters, that much higher than the bass of the preceding recitative—and that much closer to heaven, or at least to the Judgement Day. The vocal line skitters through rapid figures on “flee” and “flame.” Bach spends a long time—seemingly too long—on the last two lines of text (“Watch, soul, weak up” etc.: the “B” section that is then followed by a reprise of the opening “A” in this so-called da capo—i.e., “back to the head”—form). The prophetic voice shouts into the flames, hoping someone will hear.

In this substantial cantata of eleven movements there are abundant cautions against being taken in by the “snares and traps” of earthly life and the weakness of the flesh. Faith is urged in the face of mockers and doubters.

The second of the cantata’s two parts, divided on either side of the sermon, begins not with more servings of gloom, but with a sprightly court dance, oboe and first violin gamboling happily along with the jaunty bass line.

We have now left the misery and mayhem of the world and are, the long instrumental introduction tells us, in a princely palace, or, better, in the stately gardens onto which the ball room opens.

The saved are greeted on the terrace by the tenor chamberlain, supremely elegant and assuredly upbeat:

Lift up your head
And be comforted, o righteous ones
So that your soul may bloom!
You shall become green in Eden
Serving God eternally.

After the flight from cataclysmic fire we have returned to ecotopic Eden.

The poise and promise of this music—if only its message could be true!—is even more devastating than Bach’s raging sonic images of apocalypse.


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