Bach Blows

by David Yearsley, November 1, 2017

For at least as long as people have talked about the weather, they have made music about it—from rain dances to pastoral symphonies, from the Paleolithic to Prince. Never mind that the ongoing destruction—and directly proportional destructiveness—of the climate increasingly renders small talk about the weather a depressingly grim ritual, less a conversational nicety than a bleak exercise in deadpan apocalyptic humor.

Yet there is always more to say about it, because the weather just keeps coming. The gusts and rains have not yet been bottled up for the season. Another low-pressure system stalks the Caribbean. It will be wet and windy, though with what force the elements will be loosed is something only the weather gods know.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 in central Germany as northern Europe emerged from the shivers of the so-called Little Ice Age of the seventeenth-century. During his warming adulthood, the experts were often nervous about changing weather patterns, not just in their native Germany, but also even in the distant Caribbean. Zedler’s Universal Lexicon—the biggest encyclopedia project of the age that ran to 64 volumes published in Leipzig during Bach’s tenure as the city’s Director of Music—defines a hurricane [Orcan] as “intense Storm Weather caused by many winds colliding, causing horrible waves to crash into each other.” While storms of this magnitude had previously occurred every seven years, according to the Zedler article, they had begun to be recorded more frequently.

One might read into these perceptions of warming and worsening weather an eschatological unease. As in our own scientific age that predicts imminent ecological doomsday, the theologians of Bach’s time were concerned about end of the world—as, we can surmised, was the composer himself. The soul had to be prepared for the Last Day. The weather was a sign of things to come, and things were coming far sooner than expected.

In his church cantatas, Bach uses storm music to evoke the turbulence of sin and God’s wrath: if hell is hot, the Lord’s fury on earth (at least in its northern Europe zone) was expressed with extremes of wind and water.

Bach composed less tortured weather works for occasions outside of the church. As director of music in the thriving university and commercial center of Leipzig, he was frequently commissioned to write commemorative cantatas for patricians and academics, military officers and politicians. In summer these works were often performed outdoors by ensembles made up of university students gathered in Leipzig’s streets or in the city’s renowned gardens.

German weather could not—and cannot—be relied upon to cooperate for festive occasions. This means that when putting on such alfresco entertainments the weather is an appealing topic. The music can mock the elements; it can pray for their forbearance; it can revel in—or revile—their power to dampen and destroy.

The windiest of Bach’s efforts in musical meteorology came in the secular cantata Zerreißet, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft (Destroy, burst, shatter the tomb) (BWV 205), one of his most lavishly scored and expansive musical productions: aside from strings, flutes, and oboes, Bach calls for three trumpets, two horns, and timpani. The brass and drums are expertly deployed for depiction of the power of the elements. This is Bach’s only surviving cantata in which horns and trumpets are heard in the same number.

Running to three-quarters of an hour, the work has fifteen movements—two choruses framing some seven diverse, masterful arias interleaved with recitatives. The forces of nature that endanger but finally retreat, after Aeolus, the God of the Winds, is placated by other singing deities—Athena, Zephyrus, and Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees like those collected so avidly by Leipzig’s gardeners and arborists. The work was put on in August of 1725 for the name day of the beloved Leipzig Professor of Philosophy, August Friedrich Müller, and likely performed in front of his house near Leipzig’s central square.

At first glance the cantata text for the opening chorus seems hardly to be the stuff of congratulations: there is a surplus of festive energy, but that power is marshaled at the start for the celebration’s destruction:

Tear open, burst, shatter the tomb

That keeps our fury within its bounds!

Break into the air,

So that even the sun is turned to darkness.

Slice through the waves, rage through the earth

To trouble even heaven itself!

Rather than adopting a more typical opening rhetorical gambit whereby winds are contained (Bach does this in another secular cantata, The Contest of Phoebus and Pan, BWV 201), this chorus threatens to unleash them. The movement opens with flutes swirling upwards; then as they swoop downward the oboes enter racing in the opposite direction—the winds, as in the Zedler article on hurricanes, colliding and rapidly gathering strength.

Within a few measures the whole band is blowing, the trumpets and horns heralding the menace, before the chorus announces its message, meteorologically unwelcome but musically thrilling. Never has a natural disaster warning sounded so joyous as in this perfectly staged evocation of storm-surge chaos: no note is out of place in this raging, rollicking ode to destruction. Imagine the goodly Müller standing at his window and looking down an orchestra and chorus of his students assembled in front of his house jubilantly singing and playing up a storm that, if it were real, would wreck his place. The effect is exuberantly, absurdly comic. The professor must have had a good sense of humor.

Master of the winds, Aeolus then enters with a recitative in which he promises to let out his charges when summer soon ends so that “from evening until morning” and “from noon until midnight” they can “rage with all [their] fury.”

An intemperate bass, Aeolus then launches into the aria, “Wie will ich lustig lachen” (How heartily I will laugh), cackling manically over the vicious gusts he’ll conjure. It is the most sadistically delivered weather forecast in the history of music—or for that matter, the evening news.

Bach’s late nineteenth-century biographer Philipp Spitta, scion of a long line of austere Lutheran pastors, was not amused by this aria and its description of “actions more suited to bloody tragedy than to a cheerful garden party.” This music strikes Spitta as malevolent gloating rather than as the grandstanding of a limelight-loving god with Dizzy Gillespie cheeks who will gleefully set cliffs atremble and splinter roofs, as Aeolus goes on to sing. Worse than all this for Spitta is that he hears in the cantata strains of the ecclesiastical style: “One does not adorn garden pavilions with church towers,” he admonishes. Spitta would have said the same had he had been alive today: it is immoral to make light of catastrophic storms.

But the stiff-collared historian, whose 1870s Bach biography was a vital cultural buttress for a Germany that had recently been unified as a modern nation, utterly missed the point of all this name day fun. For what is so tragic about a singer (probably a university student) standing in front of an assembled party and threatening to wreck the festivities—and by implication the honoree’s house—with the buffeting winds and drenching rains of a summer storm. Bach’s music makes the singer mimic laughter, and, the composer and his libretto must have hoped the listeners would laugh, too. The comic effect of exaggerated bluster of the vocal line would have been enhanced in performance through the singer’s gestures—his strutting, and mugging.

The occasion demands, of course, that at cantata’s end the winds remain confined to their tomb, and, one presumes, the party proceeds in full August sun.

Many were the storms of Bach’s day and many were the church towers felled by their gusts. The composer understood the anguish and death tempests caused: several famous storms of the period are named in Zedler’s encyclopedia, just as hurricanes are today, and their devastations tallied.

Listening to this windblown cantata as a tropical storms builds even past the October 25th close of the season given by Zedler, one yearns as much for a happy ending in which Aeolus relents as for a time when one could laugh about the weather.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J.S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com)

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