Bach Hits the Road

A landscape with trees and a riverDescription automatically generated

Johann Alexander Thiele, View from the Lößnitz Plain towards Dresden (1751), Gemäldegalerie alte Meister, Dresden.

Written for a solo soprano voice and small ensemble and lasting about a half-hour, J. S. Bach’s cantata Ich bin in mir vergnügt (I am content in myself) probably dates from around 1727. As Director of Music in the city of Leipzig, Bach was then nearing the end of an outpouring of church cantatas produced at the rate of one every week, not to mention epic passions for Good Friday. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the dark vision of much of that sacred music gives way in this secular cantata to carefree exuberance. The shackles of public piety, demanding job, and crowded home are thrown off in favor of thirty minutes of guiltfree contentment on the open road: Spring Break for Sebastian.

In his youth Bach was perhaps the greatest walker in the history of music. He thought nothing of doing thirty miles each way to hear the great organists of Hamburg or four hundred round-trip in winter weather to learn from the great Buxtehude in Lübeck near the North Sea.

But by the time he composed Ich bin in mir vergnügt, Bach’s life had become fuller and fixed. The resourceful orphan now occupied one of the leading public music positions in Germany; he presided over a rapidly growing family, a large cohort of students, a huge catalog of his own compositions and a growing inventory of possessions: musical instruments, religious books, and accouterments—like a silver coffee set—of the middle-class life he had attained, if tenuously.

The poem he set to music in this cantata came from the pen of Christian Friedrich Hunold, who wrote under the of Menantes. Hunold was born a few years before Bach in the same region of central Germany called Thuringia. Like Bach, Hunold was orphaned at the age of ten, but unlike him received a substantial inheritance. By the age of nineteen while still a high-living university student Hunold had squandered this fortune in what he called “gallant” living most expeditiously at the gaming table. Pursued by debt, he fled to Germany’s biggest, most vibrant city, Hamburg where he became a bestselling author of salacious novels. That he based these stories on real events and people, including his own amorous affairs, forced his eventual flight in the direction from which he had come Hamburg—back to Bach country and the Thuringian forests. There, in the decade before his death in 1721 at the age of forty-one from tuberculosis, he turned his attentions to moral poetry.

Bach is often seen and heard as unyieldingly stern, so it may seem odd that this louche literary figure seems to have been among the composer’s favorite poets. But Hunold’s life, like the itinerary of Ich bin in mir vergnügt, proceeded from pleasure to renunciation, of things and even people. The opening section of Hunold’s poem, which Bach moves in his cantata to the penultimate seventh number, revels in a blithe self-reliance: the narrator has “no property in land” nor any monetary wealth whatever. Friends, possessions, and fun are only reflections of “vanity.” Nor “would he fly high in the air”—presumably not even if upgraded to first-class.

The cantata opens with a recitative declaiming forthrightly on the joys of personal fulfillment free of wealth and status. Yet for all its soaring passages rapturing in freedom, the ensuing aria, “To be tranquil and contented within / Is the greatest treasure in the world,” is not unambiguous in its portrayal of this message. The soprano is shadowed by two oboes that do not seem fully to embrace these high-minded pronouncements. Bach sews furtive doubts in the neat rows of Hunold’s poetry, as if the composer knew the libertine’s backstory. For its part, Bach music suggests even more vividly than the text the idea that inner contentment is not simply granted but must be wrested from the debauched world that looms just beyond the self-imposed isolation of the wandering moralist.

A second recitative enjoins the listener never to sell the “wealth of the spirit” in order to pay for admittance into the dungeon of “desire.” This mini-sermon then opens on to one of Bach’s most gracious and welcoming arias: “Die Schätzbarkeit der weiten Erden / Laß meine Seele ruhig sein” (May the wide world’s treasures be left in peace by my soul).

Bach’s music walks briskly along a well-worn bass line path that gains endless vistas of possibility and promise. Though elaborating on typical patterns of the time, the music comes off as utterly spontaneous, as if Bach were improvising on paper with his quill pen. It is not surprising that this radiant obbligato line has been recorded by the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Hilary Hahn on anthologies of Bach arias.

For all its peripatetic grace, the aria also offers moments of repose in its long-held tones that leave “the soul in peace.” In the middle section of the movement, seamlessly stitched to the outer ones, Bach roughs up the flowing texture by having the voice nimbly urge the listener to seek richness in poverty with minor arabesques that are like mottos carved into the trunk of a tree encountered on the walk through a cool grove.

In the last two of the four arias in the cantata, the natural world is embraced as God’s creation and happiness His gift—the noble sentiment of a rich kid (Hunold) who’s lost his all his money and then, far worse, his health, yet found happiness through faith rather than in possessions or even physical well-being.

The cantata concludes with a rollicking dance, the soprano rejoicing with the lively band:

Divine contentment,
you make the poor rich
and like princes,
my heart remains dedicated to you.

However gracefully jubilant, the music rings with bittersweet contradiction. The soprano sings and breathes as tubercular Hunold, who had loved to play the flute during his rowdy student days, could not at the time he wrote this poetry. The musical rejection of worldly accumulation relies on costly and beautiful tools: harpsichord, flute, two oboes, and strings to be heard in elegant salon, boisterous coffeehouse, lush summer garden, or opulent aristocratic music room.

The music embraces the paradox, relies on it to escape its own conditions. Hunold and Bach say they will not fly, but together they do.

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