Bach on Torture

“The Spanish Boots”.

Opened after the attacks of 9/11, the prison at Guantanamo Bay has now outlasted the Afghan War that spawned it. The Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan has dampened Biden’s supposed desire to close Gitmo.  There is room in the notorious U.S. detention center on the southern shore of Cuba for the next generation of inmates.

The formal charging of three Southeast Asian men still held at Gitmo for their alleged roles in the 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali was postponed again this week. Encep Nurjaman; Mohammed Nazir Bin Lep, and Mohammed Farik Bin Amin have been in custody since 2003. Their attorneys claim that, during the first three years of their detention inside the secret network of C.I.A. prisons, the three men were subjected to a range of now outlawed “enhanced interrogation” methods that included waterboarding, sleep deprivation and beatings.

Torture has long history in the Enlightened West and its greatest artists have reflected on its moral and practical effects.

On such figure is Johann Sebastian Bach. He is hard to forget on torture. He treats it rarely in his vocal works, but when he does, no composer matches his uncanny ability to evoke torture’s harrowing extortion of truth and lies, the shattering recriminations it visits on both the tortured and the torturer. This is not music of the lash and the rack, but of mental terror.

Many interpreters of Bach’s cantatas and their libretti might claim that references to torture in these works are merely metaphorical, convenient literary weapons used to make religious arguments about morality and salvation.  But then as now, torture was an omnipresent, much-debated practice, thought to be a crucial means not so much for establishing guilt, but for confirming it. When Bach’s music referred to torture it was not an abstract, merely figurative, turn of phrase, but summoned thoughts of horrific punishments potentially to be visited on anyone accused.

How important and much-discussed torture was in Bach’s time can be gauged in the forty-fourth volume of the largest encyclopedia project of the eighteenth century and reading the article on torture.

Published in Bach’s Leipzig from 1732-1754, Zedler’s Universal-Lexicon includes an article on torture that extends to thirty folio pages of dense type.  One of the longest articles in the encyclopedia, this essay and the ancillary entries on related aspects of “torture” that follow consume more ink even than that devoted to Martin Luther.

The article begins by rehearsing the circular logic of torture, and suggests to me that even its eighteenth-century apologists knew their position was untenable. If torture weren’t effective, runs the argument by tautology, then the world would be full of criminals, since the innocent would have so often been convicted and the guilty freed.

The main purpose of torture is not necessarily to bring the truth to light, since “the painful question” [die peinliche Frage]—literally painful—should only be resorted to when overwhelming evidence indicates guilt. Rather, the idea is to force the accused to acknowledge their crimes and duly repent. Torture is a favor extended to the tortured: verbal expiation holds the possibility of redemption instead of damnation. Even if the death penalty is the worldly fate, salvation could be the eternal reward of the repentant earthly criminal. According to this bizarre reasoning, torture becomes a means towards truth and reconciliation.

But the violent extraction of a questionable “truth” suggests that much of this has to do with assuaging society’s guilt about possibly putting someone falsely to death. An admission of guilt, even if brought to the light of day with the instruments of torture, confirms for the benefit of the accusers that justice has been done.  Hardened refusal to admit to the crime seals the damnation of the criminal. Bach’s choirboys sang at public beheadings and hangings in Leipzig: even ten-year-olds were deemed fit to watch and to sing at such public spectacles.

The vast juridical and philosophical literature on torture is referred to throughout the Zedler article, while the still-current critique of it is also presented at several junctures. The main objection was—as it still is—that torture doesn’t work. The article cites several sources that assert that those with hardy constitutions can better resist torture, but those who are weaker will admit to anything just to stop the agony. The author admits that torture doesn’t always produce the desired result and that it can extort false admissions. But failing other more effective means, torture is valuable when used properly and legally.

In the Zedler article the practice of torture, then as now, is defended on technological and legalistic grounds that merely serve to divert attention from the brute fact of its wrongness. Enhancing the techniques of interrogation raise the Germans over the infidels. Merely tying up the accused and whipping him is condemned by the author as “just plain Turkish and downright barbaric.” By contrast, the modern instruments of torture are markers of civilization: the thumbscrews; the Spanish boots; resinous pine splints under the fingers; water torture (agonizingly relentlessly drops of waterboarding: near-drowning in which the mouth is held open and liquid poured in without stopping)—all these can be carefully calibrated and administered. Among the dozens of other grizzly techniques enumerated in the article are abrading and cutting the skin and then putting hornets or mice or other of “vermin” under a glass and holding them on the wounds; and slathering the cut feet with salt and letting a goat lick them.

The most meager of prisoner’s rights are recognized by Zedler, though this only highlights the brutality and illegitimacy of the entire practice:  nursing mothers with infants younger than six months cannot be legally tortured, nor the deaf and dumb. Procedures should not permanently disfigure or cripple the victim, and—surprisingly—if accidental death ensues, the overseeing judge can be held accountable and punished accordingly.

As for military combatants, the author’s approach turns from legalistic argument to commonsense. Since you can never trust your enemy, you shouldn’t believe what he says when he is pressed naked between two coffin-like plates and ropes on geared-spools are tied around his toes and then cranked.

But the most harrowing part of the article is not the list of instruments, ranging from the elaborate and simple, but the transcripts of sample torture sessions included as examples to the stenographer on how to take proper notes. One runs as follows:

“The Torturer [he’s also the Executioner, which adds to the horror] ties up the Accused. The Accused says he has done nothing illegal and that he is innocent. The Torturer applies the thumbscrews. The Accused says he knows nothing. The Torturer cranks the screws. The Accused says he knows nothing. The Torturer cranks the screws again. The Accused screams: “No, No, Lord Jesus.” The Screws are tightened. The Accused screams for mercy. The thumbscrews have failed to be effective. The Torturer fits the Spanish boots to the Accused. The Torturer hits the boots. The Accused screams that he did commit the robberies.  The Accused is asked who is accomplices are and without further torture quickly names his henchmen as Schnabsack, Tall Abraham, and the Polack.”

The much shorter article on “Torture Chamber” stresses that, like Guantanamo, it should be placed far from the sites of civic life.

Within two months of taking up his position as Director of Music in Leipzig in 1723, one of the most prestigious civic musical positions in Germany, Bach
led a performance of his cantata, “Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht” (Lord, do not go into court with your servant), BWV 105.


Paraphrasing the second verse of Psalm 143, the text of Bach’s opening chorus assumes that in the Godly courts all are guilty of heinous crimes. The orchestral introduction is simultaneously tenuous and inexorable, resisting judgment but realizing that there is no escape from its dark decrees. A series of doubting harmonies moves forward because there is no going back, the melody concluding with a series of sighing supplications just before the chorus enters with full, even oppressive, force. In spite of these pleas not to be brought into court, the chorus realizes it must face judgment. Once the choir enters it, too, trudges ahead like judges in solemn procession.

In setting the second line of the chorus “before You no living person is just,” Bach suddenly animates the texture with a frantic fugue, one that brilliantly conveys the turbulent, ephemeral rush of earthly life and sin, the perpetual conflicts with the self and others.  Like life, the chorus careens to a preemptory end that ushers the individual, heard in the subsequent alto recitative, before God. Here no torture is necessary to elicit the truth.  God is a “just judge,” and the individual’s admission of guilt is complete and untroubled:

I state my confession freely to you
and do not throw myself into danger
by denying, by concealing
the errors of my soul

The central aria (“Wie zittern”—the individual tracks are marked in “More Info” on the All of Bach video above) follows immediately with high throbbing strings.  There is no real bass line, no foundation to the sound.  The shimmering major harmony hovers like mist, or, as it turns out, deadly gas. Then a plaintive oboe soars into and above these yearning, trembling harmonies. The music seems to offer comfort, in spite of the dark minor tinges at the end of the oboe’s rapturous phrase that concludes its introductory solo.

The voice that emerges is also high, ethereal: the soprano describes “How the sinner’s thoughts tremble and waver / while they bring accusations against each other / and on the other hand dare to make excuses for themselves.” Bach unspools long arcs of striving melody on the words “accusation” and “dare” that bring to mind the tensions of legal wrangling and internal rationalization. What makes this music so unsettling is the mysterious way that Bach imbues this atmosphere of recrimination with a distantly glowing aura of solace.  For the sinner, the earthly courts of justice and opinion and the internal arguments one makes with the judge that is one’s own conscience, promise  distant hope.

But this hope cannot be sustained, as is already clear before the final line of the aria turns to the evil-doer’s “troubled conscience torn apart by its own torture.” In contrast to the long melismas heard over the first lines of the aria, Bach treats the word “torture” and the violent verb “to tear apart” [zerrissen] with grimly controlled emphasis. Only at the last repetition of “torture” does he have the soprano emit a high, anguished note over the central vowel, like a long cry of pain. The cadence comes as a kind of relief, like  the deliverance from pain that the torturer plays on when he at last allows the victim a gasp of air after near-death immersion, or releases the pressure on the thumbs.

After the voice falls silent, relieved of its anguish, the long introductory music returns in full, leaving listeners to contemplate the psychological implications of this aria. Finally, the music evaporates in a cloud of doubt with the vain hope of earthly validation still hanging in the air.

More than merely a figurative turn, the torture this music portrays attains its troubling and violent impact more through its calm serenity than its occasionally sharp inflections and its decisive turns of the crank. This is a torture conducted the isolated chamber of the mind.

America, they’re playing your song, one cataloged with bureaucratic precision and the official stamp of juridical truth: BWV 105.

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