Bach & Security
by David Yearsley, July 9, 2013
As has become even clearer this Fourth of July with the ongoing saga of fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden playing out on the world stage, what was celebrated on Independence Day in America is not independence from tyranny, nor even independence of thought and action more generally, but security. Safety has been confused with freedom, the former elevated far above the latter. Oppressive governmental power is now easily accepted if the fireworks can be shot off without terrorist counterattack, never mind you’re being spied on even during a celebration supposedly dedicated to the proposition that certain inalienable individual rights cannot be violated by government, be it in far away London or within our borders from Washington, DC.
The music of Independence Day is of course patriotic stuff, but the bombast of the Star Spangled Banner, whose first verse concludes with praise for the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, rings especially hollow this year.
The notion of certain inviolable individual liberties being protected from state power was foreign to Johann Sebastian Bach, yet paradoxically his music has something to teach us about security. While no one, including Bach, has ever enjoyed getting blown up in the backyard grilling the burgers beneath fluttering flags, his vocal works, especially at their most harrowing, are instructive about the complacency that supposed safety brings.
As director of music in Leipzig, a job Bach held from 1723 to his death in 1750, the composer had to supply music to glorify the rulers of Saxony, first August the Strong and then his less-than-strong son, August III. Leipzig was the commercial and university center of the realm and both monarchs enjoyed making state visits to the city, often with very little notice. For these appearances Bach was required to supply grandiose music performed outdoors by torchlight in the town square with the ruling family basking in festive glory on a balcony looking down on their subjects.
In the first half of the eighteenth-century the Saxony Electors also ruled as kings of Poland, having had to convert to Catholicism to assume the Polish crown. This was bald political opportunism, especially when one recalls that their forbear Frederick the Wise had been Luther’s protector two centuries earlier. Crowned in October of 1733, August III had had to secure his claim to the Polish crown against a native Polish contender, the War of the Polish Succession concluding some five years after his accession.
To celebrate the first anniversary of his coronation, August decided at the last minute to make the trip from Dresden to Leipzig. A text of glorification was hastily assembled and Bach was charged with setting it in a lavish style fitting the occasion. Miraculously, it seems that Bach wrote most of the music in the mere three days before the arrival of the royals. The result was Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen, BWV 215.
For the rollicking opening chorus, however, Bach drew on a movement written two years earlier to honor August the Strong, the deceased father of the new king. Crucial to the monarchic glorification, especially when the ruler was called Augustus, was the instrument evocative of Roman imperial power — the trumpet. The resident Leipzig brass virtuoso, Gottfried Reiche died from a stroke the day after the performance. The town chronicler suggested that he succumbed to the smoke from the torches, though the demands of Bach’s virtuosic music were perhaps more lethal. Fittingly, the on-line YouTube clip reproduces an oil painting of Bach’s fallen trumpet player)
With its opening unison flourishes, like a sabre cutting a swath across Europe, the first chorus is pure bravado, made martial by the trumpet that then joins in to bolster the charge. When the chorus enters it takes up the unison acclamation with the words “Extol your fortunate, blessed Saxony.” As the jubilant strains gather force the text and music thank God for securing August the throne. It’s an ecumenical sleight of hand that skirts the ruler’s self-serving conversion to Catholicism. The middle section of the movement ratchets back on the throttle and allows the chorus to deliver large chunks of text praising the land’s happiness and admitting that honoring God is not incompatible with kissing the hand of the earthly ruler. Bach depicts this courtly deference with an interlude featuring Frenchified flutes in contrast to the blaring trumpets of the opening.
The welfare of Saxony presided over by the king is made possible by the safety his rule ensures: the text concludes with the pronouncement that he “places his subjects in security.” Security [Sicherheit] is the last word of the poem and the people, as embodied in the voices of the chorus, rush into its embrace like children into a father’s protecting arms. While the music is doing what it must to meet the requirements of ceremonial convention, it is almost touching how eagerly and naturally Bach gives himself over to monarchic blessing and protection. This security is not lingered on, but has barely been voiced before the piece rockets back to the opening and to the music of military might and monarchic grandeur that are the supposed guarantors of safety.
This celebratory music, irrepressible and fawning, hymns earthly power. But the allusions in the text and music to heavenly might speak to a higher authority and to longer term concerns than which armies are marauding through your city or who has secured the Polish crown. A different take on “security” is heard in an alto aria from Bach’s Cantata (BWV 70 Wachet! Betet! Betet! !Wachet —Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch!) The alarmist exclamation points suggest the urgency of the situation confronted in this cantata, nothing less than the Second Coming and the end of the world.
The third movement of the work, composed in 1716 in Weimar but revived some years later after Bach’s move to Leipzig, is apocalyptic in its rejection of the false securities of the world:
Wenn kömmt der Tag, an dem wir ziehen
/ Aus dem Ägypten dieser Welt?
/ Ach! lasst uns bald aus Sodom fliehen,
Eh uns das Feuer überfällt!
/ Wacht, Seelen, auf von Sicherheit
/ Und glaubt, es ist die letzte Zeit!
When will the day come when we will
Pull ourselves from the Egypt of this World?
Oh! Let us flee Sodom
Before fire consumes us?
Wake, ye souls, out of security
And believe that this is the final hour!
There is a Taliban-like ring to this music that leaps away from the wealth and safety lauded in BWV 215 into the abyss of eternity. Bach sets the text as an alto aria with a bassoon playing a sparse bass line above which an independent cello gropes through the darkness towards Armageddon. Trumpets and massed voices are banished in favor of a lone voice delirious with yearning for end. The world is a penal colony like Egypt, a place suffocated in sin. The misery of it becomes unbearable as the voice sings a long melisma painting the word “flee” — an ascending line that sprints frantically towards freedom and away from the fire that threatens to engulf us all.
The tone shifts to one of grim resolve with the last two lines of the text and the repeated rising shouts to “Wake up from Security.” The question marks of the first two sentences are answered with the shrill command to face larger truths. The alto voice is even scarier when that order is given almost as a whisper. When the high complaints slither back towards the depths, there is fear but also implacable determination.
The temporal might of, for example, the Saxon rulers is an inconsequential illusion when seen through the lens of eternity and heard through the instruments of Bach’s dramatic eschatology. When Bach repeats the entire text of the aria he doles out further lashes to the complacent and distracted wanderers through the wasteland of Gomorrah, before giving one more urgent round of wake up calls. There is no comfort, only fear and fortitude.
However disturbing this intensely artistic music may be and however far it is from a theocratic worldview that even during Bach’s lifetime was being transformed by the European Enlightenment, the theological nightmare it presents has lessons for our own partially secular age: Wake up from Your Security! Don’t you believe in other, more important principles?
David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at email@example.com.