Springtime for Sebastian

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Cover of the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach of 1725. (State Library Berlin)

Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday, March 21st, falls on the first full day of spring, if one calculates that date by mercilessly quartering the calendar.  The chronological coincidence is a fitting one: though Vivaldi gets all the Primavera PR, no composer enacted the regeneration of the season better than Bach.

Few monogamists have been as genetically reproductive as he, and none more musically productive. In addition to fathering twenty children, he brought into the world more than a thousand pieces of music (some of them massive works like the Art of Fugue and St. Matthew Passion) with hundreds presumed lost. Many commentators—all men—have posited links between Bach’s potency on paper and his potency when he laid down his pen and blew out the candles. Creativity at the organ bench and the composer’s desk is, in these accounts, the bedfellow of procreativity. These writers talk abstractly about artistic will but say nothing about the urges that the renewal of spring enflames.

Even though fully aware of Bach’s human and artistic output, a musician as perceptive as Jeremy Denk could claim more than a decade into the new millennium, in an article in the New Republic from 2012, that the “two things missing in Bach’s music are randomness and sex.” Given the just-mentioned Bachian yield, this foolish statement must be chalked up to the dominant image of the composer and his music as unyieldingly serious.

Denk apparently doesn’t know the Quodlibet (BWV 524) attributed to Bach. This riot of musical nonsense was concocted by the twenty-two-year old composer presumably to be put on at a family wedding, perhaps even his own in October of 1707.

Back in October of 2020, The Netherlands Bach Society brightened the pandemic’s gloom with a live performance of the Qudolibet as part of their ongoing “All of Bach” initiative that will eventually put all of the master’s music on-line in compelling, imaginative performances. Their staging of the Quodlibet brings rampant color to the off-color proceedings. The singers’ musical and physical ones have irrepressible fun with the non-stop wackiness that swerves between dirty jokes and mock solemnity. The doubles entrendres come thick and fast amongst the snatches of fake erudition and hyperbolic pathos. None of it makes any sense.

The All-of-Bach singers and musical bystanders help tally the occurrences of the piece’s main running gag by raising their hands each time the word of “Backtrog” (baking pan) crops up. In his world-turned-upside-down, the Backtrog can become a canoe to paddle away in or seemingly anything else. What seems tantalizingly obvious, however, is that it sounds like a play on the name “Bach.” Each time “Backtrog” is sung it counts as a yeasty cheer to the musical clan’s libido.

At their reunions the family improvised foolish fun of this sort, though Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, assures us that they indulged in such revels only after proving their piety by singing a couple of Lutheran hymns. The motions of godliness thus gone through, the Bachs promptly cracked open the beer kegs (also referred to the in Quodlibet) and cut loose.

Even the beloved musical Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach begun in 1725 includes a nuptial poem that, though shorter than the Quodlibet, is as equally, and unrepentantly, erotic. These bawdy verses come directly after a devout chorale.

Anna Magdalena became Johann Sebastian’s second wife soon after a twenty-year-old star singer was hired by him at the central German court of Cöthen where he was music director. The groom was sixteen years older than the bride, who was closer in age to her new stepdaughter than she was to her new husband.

Since the revival of interest in Anna Magdalena Bach more than a century ago she has been canonized as the perfect musical mother. Little wonder then that many editors of her Notebook have suppressed the dirty poem in her hand. (For more on the subject, I shamelessly refer you to my book, Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and her Musical Notebooks.)

The Bachian fascination with sex is by no means limited to the Quodlibet.  It’s not the only one of composer’s creations animated by a eroticism.

Johann Sebastian’s most celebrated and oft-performed wedding cantata, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (Be gone, mournful shadows), BWV 202 likely stems from the composer’s Weimar years, perhaps five years before his marriage to Anna Magdalena. The autograph is lost, but a copy made sometime around 1730 suggests its continued use by the Bachs. Anna Magdalena might well have sung it at weddings in Cöthen or Leipzig—even for her own on December 3rd, 1721, or a week later at the marriage celebration of the pair’s mutual employer Prince Leopold. There would have been many further occasions for its performance over the next three decades. Likely penned by the Weimar court poet Salomon Franck, the text of Weichet nur betrübte Schatten extols the joys of love brought on by spring. Five arias interleaved with recitatives make for a demanding nine movement cantata of some twenty minutes, the radiantly expressive and often flamboyantly virtuosic soprano line accompanied by varied combinations of instruments: strings, continuo, and oboe.

In the opening Adagio, string patterns drift upwards above an ascending bass line interspersed with long rests. The first harmony projects a sense of change already underway: the aria is poised on the cusp of the next season. Above this fragile musical landscape an oboe solo, more hopeful than mournful, entwines around a mostly sinuous, but sometimes jagged, soprano line darkened by minor inflections: “Yield you troubled shadows, / Frost and Wind, go to your rest!” The clouds and cold heed this command as the second section breaks into a brisk Andante that quickly leaves winter behind:

Flora’s pleasure
Will grant the breast
Nothing but joyful happiness
Because she brings flowers.

The gloom is gone, an eager bass line encouraging the soprano to come alive in arabesques of desire. Love is in the warming air and cannot be contained even if hibernal conditions are recalled once more with the return of the opening section.

After a recitative forecasts the arrival of spring, the second aria, in which the soprano is accompanied by the continuo alone, bolts into a galloping bass line— Phoebus’ horses racing across the sky, the sun warming the earth. The charioteer is likened to a “courting lover” with the soprano spurred to excited coloratura above the beat of hooves in which can also be heard the breathless eagerness of Phoebus’s desire. The third aria beats and flutters as “one heart kisses another” the soprano’s amorous games with the violin ascending to the inevitable climax and release. The ebullient fourth aria in lilting triple meter hymns those who “cultivate the art of love” and “playfully indulge in caressing embraces.” The final recitative pays lip service to “the bond of chaste love,” but ends with hopes that nothing “disturb the amorous urges.”

The closing Gavotte hurries gracefully towards the consummation, sealing the union with the traditional nuptial dance, bodies engaged in mutual movements that anticipate their coupling.

Even if there is nothing overtly vulgar here, as there is in the Quodlibet, the cantata embraces spring’s renewing fecundity. The pleasures of performance stoke the beckoning physical bliss of marriage. The music and poetry do not bother with matters of sin and propriety.  The cantata is not only a prelude to the physical delights of married life but also an embodiment of its sensual joys.

The figure of Flora, who first brightens the muted atmosphere of the cantata’s opening when she skips towards spring, is a symbol not just of the season, but of the libidinal desires that make this rebirth possible: procreation does not come from smiles and songs alone.

The article on “Flora” from the sixty-fourth volume Universal-Lexicon (the largest encyclopedic project of the eighteenth century published in Leipzig during the Bachs’ time there) first describes the festivities held in her honor in ancient Rome where “droves of completely naked whores, playing all kinds of games, fought as gladiators with one another, and perpetrated other debaucheries, which took place particularly at night by torchlight.” The author then reminds his readers that the festivities were of two kinds: the just-mentioned orgy for the rabble and another more seemingly decorous ceremony for patricians, at which, according to the Lexicon, Flora “was presented as a charming lady with a wreath of beautiful flowers on her head, and wearing a dress which is likewise strewn with the most lovely, colorful flowers.” In Bach’s cantata, as in the Zedler article, the picture of vernal purity might chase away wintery clouds, but it cannot fully suppress the image of the naked women in mock gladiatorial combat. From the shadows and the sunlight come paeans to the joys of the flesh.

It’s only right, then, that we mark Johann Sebastian’s birthday and the arrival of spring not with the sobriety and earnestness, but with the sexuberance of the season.



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