A Game of Dangerous Desire: Bach and Tennis

A painting of a person lying downDescription automatically generated

Giambattista Tiepolo, Death of Hyacinthus (c. 1752), Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.

Lawn tennis was born as a bucolic game of Victorian garden parties. As the ongoing U.S. Open relentlessly shows, the modern game has mostly paved things over and made them loud. The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City is a sonically raucous affair often conducted at high decibels: the hecklers; the grunts and war cries of the players; the hubbub of massed crowds in the arenas (Arthur Ashe Stadium Court holds nearly 25,000 people); that outbreak of “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” sung jeeringly at German player Alexander Zverev. Thankfully for tennis fans, though not for residents of Queens, the jets taking off incessantly from nearby LaGuardia airport are redirected, as air traffic and safety allow, away from the courts during the two weeks of the tournament.

Then there is the canned music blasted during the changeover pauses of matches. This year there’s been plenty of play for Harry Styles’s number 1 hit of 2022, “As It Was.” The pretty Brit sings first of gravity holding him back. At Flushing Meadows the line serves as polymorphous metaphor for the explosive rise of tennis’s popularity, for the Olympian ascent of U. S. Open defending champion Carlos Alcaraz, and for the flight paths of those ear-splitting LaGuardia jets.

Johann Sebastian Bach never played tennis. In his day it was a pursuit for princes not organists. Still, he must have known of its existence, if not its rules and rituals.

German potentates from the powerful to the petty took up the game across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in emulation of the French, whose language they often adopted at their courts—and on their tennis courts too. Long before the Victorians ushered the game outside, it was played indoors. The Saxon Electors, from whom Bach sought and ultimately gained professional favor, had a royal “ball house” (Ballhaus) in their glittering capital city Dresden. Bach played many famous organ recitals and often went to the opera there. A new royal church was dedicated in Dresden in 1751, the year after Bach died. The old chapel, which had previously been the opera house, was again repurposed, this time into an up-to-date tennis court for the Saxon rulers, who were also Kings of Poland and played the game at their palace in Warsaw.

One such blue-blooded racquets enthusiast was Wilhelm, Count of Schaumburg-Lippe-Bückeburg. He hired the youngest of J. S. Bach’s sons, Johann Christoph Friedrich, as his orchestra’s harpsichordist in 1749.

Just eighteen years old when he took up the post in 1750, J. C. F. Bach would spend his entire 45-year-career in this bucolic setting in the Westphalian hills. The Bückeburg Castle had a Ballhaus, and Wilhelm’s grandfather Friedrich Christian had died at the age of 72 after a strenuous match on his home court in 1728. Better to breathe one’s last after a good game of tennis than on the battlefield. The young Bach’s boss, Count Wilhelm, is best remembered today not for his tennis skill but for his claim, argued in a polemical treatise surprisingly not referred to these days by Zelensky, Biden and Blinken, that “only defensive wars are justified.” Wilhelm had been born in London and spent several youthful years there. King Georg I of Britain (also Duke of nearby Hanover) was his other grandfather. George II was his uncle. Neither subscribed to their Bückeburg kinsman’s theories of warfare.

Wilhelm inherited Bückeburg castle and its tennis court in 1748. J. S. Bach wrote a letter to the Count (addressing him in French) the next year thanking him for the gift of a “precious memento.” Also passed on to the Count had been a love for the game of kings, one that had ended his grandfather’s life and, later, that, of his second cousin, Frederick, Prince of Wales who died, probably from a pulmonary embolism, after being hit by a tennis ball in 1751.

Soon after Frederick’s death, Wilhelm commissioned the celebrated Italian painter, Giambattista Tiepolo to produce what appears to be a tribute to his beloved cousin: The Death of Hyacinthus, restored within the last decade and now on view in the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid.

The story depicted by Tiepolo is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Apollo and his lover Hyacinthus decided to engage in their own friendly, even amorous, contest of discus-throwing. Apollo threw first and Hyacinthus went running too eagerly after the toss. The discus rebounded off the ground and hit his head, killing him.

That mortal bounce could have been what allowed Count Wilhelm and Tiepolo to update the sport to tennis. Unlike the indoor game of the kings and princes of London and Bückeburg, Tiepolo sets the players of antiquity outside on a grassy surface, though one hardly as neatly manicured as Wimbledon’s. Propped on his elbow and gazing up at the heavy-hitting god, Hyacinth has not yet expired. The bruise on his cheekbone really doesn’t look so bad, and certainly hasn’t disfigured the youth’s beauty. Yet Apollo, the back of his hand raised to his own brow in the classic pose of astonished fear, knows that the boy is done for. The buffy Greek God of Music, Dance and Archery has not seen the blow inflicted from afar as in the original tale’s discus debacle, but has himself hit a smash at close quarters into his partner’s face. This shot may not have attained the velocity of young American hopeful Ben Shelton’s serve, clocked this week at 149mph, but it had achieved lethal speed nonetheless. Many are the YouTube highlight reels, mostly good-humored, of tennis players getting hit by balls, but this antique on-court incident is no laughing matter.

During the point Hyacinth had been at the net just a few feet behind where he now lies and visible between the legs of an onlooking guard who wields a halberd. Now there’s a weapon that U.S. Open officials might want to re-introduce in order enforce discipline among unruly players and fans, and the likes of the three climate protesters who so deftly stopped last night’s first women’s semi-final for a full hour.

Apollo has rushed to his lover’s assistance, trampling the net on his way. Hyacinth has dropped his racquet and the two balls he had been holding. The third, deadly projectile has rolled nearly out of the frame. The flower created by Apollo in memory of his lover and named after him already grows next to the boy’s racquet.

When he received the commission from Bückeburg, Tiepolo was at work on the epic frescoes still to be seen in the Prince-Bishop’s Palace in Würzburg, Germany. The painter and his large studio, one that included his two sons, still found time to produce the immense canvas nearly ten feet high and nine feet wide for Count Wilhelm.

This magnificent painting would certainly have been seen over many years by the Bach son. It is possible that the new Bückeburg harpsichordist could have brought with him (as his older half-brother C. P. E. Bach had to Berlin and Hamburg) a copy of their father’s depiction of the death of Hyacinth in the cantata known as Der Streit Zwischen Phoebus und Pan (The Contest Between Phoebus).

The cantata comes from around 1729, the year that Johann Sebastian Bach took up his post as head of a Leipzig Collegium musicum, an ensemble made up mostly of university students. Bach had recently run afoul of his municipal overseers and was keen to expand his activities beyond the church and into secular music-making. Vocal works such as this one, which might even have marked his debut as director of the Collegium musicum, enlivened the group’s performances in a fashionable Leipzig coffee house and that establishment’s summer garden.

The cantata’s libretto stages a musical contest between the gods Apollo (Phoebus) and Pan, the former representing high art (and therefore Bach’s attitude towards his profession), the latter serving up the rustic fare of the woods and fields.

Both gods are called on to demonstrate the full extent of their skill. Bach gives Apollo a rich lament on the death of his lover, Hyacinth—the long aria, “Mit Verlangen”:

With desire
I press your tender cheeks,
Charming fair Hyacinth.
And I love kissing your eyes,
For they are my morning stars
And the sun of my soul.

That Bach so powerfully evokes the grief-stricken love of one man for another has occasioned various levels of discomfort from later commentators or, more often, simply a refusal to acknowledge the content of the lyric and its musical representation. Yet it is undeniable that the supposedly austere Lutheran composer fully embraces the grieving homoeroticism of the scene.

Bach stokes Apollo’s longing through diverse and delicate means: with the upward yearning opening interval in the quavering flute and then the voice; with the caressing ornaments; with the fluttering triplets in the muted violins; with the long-held notes high in the bass voices’ range on the word Verlangen (desire/longing). The composer introduces tender, tactile dissonances when Apollo presses the cheek of Hyacinth. The kisses are made with subtle, sibilant trill in the instruments. Long melismas heartbreakingly trace the soul’s escape from the fallen body. These turbulent emotions are cast in a courtly minuet whose poise only makes the poignance of the music all the more devastating. The exertions of sport have collapsed into elegant agony and been contained musically within an ornate gilded frame like that of Tiepolo’s painting.

One can imagine an eighteenth-century performance of the cantata led by the Bückeburg Bach in front of Tiepolo’s painting—or today in Madrid gallery where it now hangs. At the time J. S. Bach wrote his thank-you note to Count Wilhelm in 1749 he had returned to the cantata, performing it in the latest round of the perpetual polemical battles between proponents and detractors of music’s educational value. Count Wilhelm would have been on Bach’s side of the net for that dispute. Could the Count’s gift to Bach have been to thank him for a piece of music—even a copy of the cantata in question?

The pulsing melancholy of Bach’s strains and the drama of Tiepolo’s tragic picture provide a different backdrop to the sweaty embraces in Queens after those five-set man-to-man tennis battles. That’s not Harry Styles I hear, but Bach’s “With Desire.”

These players don’t just want to win. They want to be loved.


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