Why Bach Didn’t Go Swimming

by David Yearsley, August 4, 2010

Bach never went in the ocean for a refreshing dip. He never even set eyes on the Atlantic. He could have made it to the North Sea at Lübeck during his sojourn there to learn from Dieterich Buxtehude in the Winter of 1705-6. But the old city was an island moated by the Trave River and a canal drawn off from it, and was several miles set back from the mouth of the river (Travemünde) where it flows into the Baltic. Travermünde is now a seaside resort, this time of year teeming with beachgoers and bathers, many of them expansive of girth and wearing frighteningly small swim suits or none at all if one ven­tures into nudist FKK beach.

To get to the Baltic would have a required a walk of several miles, hardly any stretch at all, given that Bach had done more then 200 miles on foot just to get Lübeck in the first place from land-locked Thuringia. But in the dead of winter this would not have been the most pleas­ant of outings. Still, for a boy from the green, wooded hills of central Germany the lure of the sea must have been irresistible. There he stood gazing out over the seemingly endless waters.

Slowly emerging from the Little Ice Age of the 17th Century, the Baltic winter remained fierce in the first two decades of the 18th-century and there was much ice. Bach arrived in Lübeck in November, so perhaps he even ventured down to the water before any ice had formed to unstrap his leather shoes and peel off his stockings and dabble his feet — the most famous musical feet in his­tory — in the frigid waters? That scenario is as unlikely as Bach in a Speedo.

The sea itself was to be exploited for fish and used for trade, but otherwise to be feared, not only because it might sink valuable merchant cargo, but because few knew how to swim. The article on “Swimming” (Schwimmen) in Johann Zedler’s Grosses vollständiges Universal Lexicon, whose title goes overboard in stress­ing its zeal for total knowledge (Large, Complete, Uni­versal Lexicon). The project proceeded steadily over 1730 and 40s, the last two decades of Bach’s life, even­tually reached 64 volumes when finished in 1754. “Swimming” gets one measly column in the encyclope­dia. The entry begins: “Swimming for a human means, holding one’s self above the water through the extraordi­nary movement of arms and legs.”

How little the author knows about swimming — it’s clear he’s never tried it himself — is seen in the sen­tence: “The masterpiece of swimming is treading water. Through the movement of the feet alone the body is kept upright, submerged only to the navel.” The primary research for the article seems to have been watching Sat­urday morning cartoons, in which feet whir like propel­lers and speed a colorful character, from Scooby-Do to Road Runner, across the top of the water.

According to the Zedler article, swimming can be a necessary skill for soldiers; the author claims that after a long day of training, Roman recruits in training would often refresh themselves by plunging into the Tiber, the legionaries’ version of the Quantico Pool. Beyond its usefulness in rescuing one’s self in combat near rivers or near the sea, swimming was something the Europeans associated with the savages of the New World: “The Moors of the West Indies are very experienced at it,” claims the article. These savages teach their kids to swim by strapping them to boards and throwing them in the water.

No, Bach was not a swimmer, and he probably never even saw anyone try something so crazy as that. Waves and water are not to be gotten into and paddled about on; they are to be avoided at all cost. One of Bach’s earliest cantatas Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis in meinem Herzen, (I had much affliction in my heart), was first performed in 1714 in June, a time of year when the thoughts of modern Germans are turning towards the beach and bathing. As the title suggests, the music and text are wracked with self-doubt and fear of death. The second aria of the cantata is full of aqueous imagery, all of it meant to frighten and forebode. Its opening lines, “Streams of salty tears, Rush in unceasing floods” are introduced by, and set to, a mournful figure that turns in on itself like an eddy. The remorselessly descending tra­jectory of this figure is an elegant, if unstinting, evoca­tion of spiritual unrest. After this lament has offered its treatment, the voice and strings sound the alarm in shocking, full up-tempo emergency mode:

“Storm and Waves destroy me, And this sea full of tribulation / Would weaken my spirit and life, Mast and anchor would break.”

The tormented soul on the storm-tossed sea is favor­ite image of librettists for both the church and the opera stage. Against this deadly tempest even the brine-bath of tears in the dank Lutheran spa of sin and guilt is a kind of balm to be eased to when the aria returns to it after the tumult of the storm at sea in the movement’s interior. Given the prevalence of storm conditions on the moral seascape preparation is necessary. One has to know how swim — at least spiritually.

The same metaphor, but set by Bach instead in the major mode, animates the first aria of Cantata 178, Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält (If God the Lord does not remain on our side), composed a decade later:

“Just as the wild waves of the seaViciously dash a ship,So the furious enemy ragesAnd steals the soul’s dearest possession. They would expand Satan’s empire,And the little ship of Christ would wreck.”

Bach sets this disaster scene with a major-mode fig­ure that strides upward by step before falls back down more disjointedly, like a wave rising and falling. This motif repeats as the harmony pulls the musical structure downward. The waters are troubled still further by the lurching the scansion, full of syncopation and false accents against the overriding triple meter, which is itself difficult to grab onto in the flailing waves. Usually nothing is as reliable in Bach’s music as the meter, but here it offers no life-line to the safe rhythm of regularity: the beat is at sea, just like the soul. Through these seem­ingly simple, but in fact highly artful and complex means, Bach captures both the tumult of the waves and their disastrous effect on the cargo of redemption about to be lost to the storm.

The prospects for the Lifeboat of Christ adrift in the storm in the last line of the aria also seem dire. In the final movement, still three movements and many har­rowing minutes away, a simple four-part choral weather brightens, the clouds clear as God’s light quells the waves. Does Bach shed his kit and stretch out on the beach to enjoy the rays? Never! There will be no beach time for Bach: it’s back to work in preparation for next Sunday’s still more ambitious cantata.

Only in the secular cantatas written and performed in praise of Bach’s Saxon rulers do the waves lapping at the shore warm and welcome. The louche Wettin family, whom Bach appealed to for help against his unfriendly civic bosses in Leipzig, liked to stage musical entertain­ments on the River Elbe, and even on many occasions do some hunting from their royal barks in the shadow of the glorious city of Dresden, blasting at stags driven into the waters. Only for the Saxon Electors (who also, for a time, served as the Polish Kings) is beach music sweetened by warm, pastoral breezes, as in BWV 206 Schleicht, spielende Wellen, und murmelt gelinde! (Glide, playful waves, and murmur gently!)

It didn’t really surprise your assiduous Musical Patriot that he was unable to turn up a YouTube per­formance of this cantata. The image of Bach as the Fifth Evangelist continues to be robust even against, and probably because of, the depravity of the Digital Age. The trumpets that resound midway through the intro­ductory idyll of this cantata recall the bracing power of the rivers (Danube, Vistula, Elbe and Pleisse — the last thrown in because it was Leipzig’s River) personified in the piece because they are part of the Wettin dominion, geographically or genealogically. Secular water power is a good thing: these rivers don’t dash hopes and boats, but lift them up.

One of the movements from this cantata is, however, available on YouTube in an excellent performance by the English counter-tenor, Michael Chance. He sings as the Danube:

“Shoot from the high trunk of the Hapsburgs,The bright flame of your virtueIs known, admired and praised by my banks.”

Introducing the aria two Oboes d’amore flow briskly alongside one another in intricate countrpoint. This is a swift stream, somewhat turbid in the minor and darkened further by the tone color of these lower pitched oboes, more retiring and perhaps mysterious than their more well-nown cousin. The vocal part is carried forward on this current and is moistened by more than a little unease. Is there a surreptitious message in this beyond the need for musical variety demanded by a long can­tata? Maybe it is this: that even when royal waters are surveyed and enjoyed with the lavish accoutrements of monarchic power and pleasure Bach sees and hears a dark undertow beneath the glittering, whispering waves. ¥¥

(David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of “Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint.” His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London,” has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu.)

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