The erotic impulse in Bach’s music

By Satyajith Andradi

Last year, I had the good fortune of seeing the only surviving original portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach during my visit to Leipzig’s Museum of City History (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum, Leipzig), which is housed in the city’s old town hall. The painting had been carefully restored by a team of experts in 2017. It was painted by the well-known portrait painter Elias Gottlob Haussman in 1746, about four years prior to the great composer’s death. Bach commissioned the picture in order to submit it to the so-called Mizler Society – an exclusive association of eminent composers, which he intended to join. Interestingly, persons who wished to become members were required to submit their portraits.

Bach was 61 years old at the time the portrait was done. It depicts a well-built, middle-aged man. He has a serious, authoritative, and distinctly stern look. There is a touch of bourgeois affluence about him. He is elegant attired in a white shirt and a blue coat, and wears an elaborate wig. He holds a piece of paper with musical notation in his right hand.

As Bach submitted the picture to the Mizler society, it would have certainly received his approval. In all probability, it would have resembled his actual appearance at that time. Furthermore, it would have, by and large, been in line with his image of himself as an important public official and a musical luminary – Director of Music of the City of Leipzig and Electoral Saxon and Royal Polish Court Composer.

Bach’s prudish image

During his life time, Bach was recognised more as an outstanding organist and harpsichordist than as a great composer. However, this began to change shortly after his death. The world came to recognize more and more his greatness as an incomparable composer. Quite rightly, this change was largely due to the growing recognition of the inestimable artistic and spiritual worth of the vast body of church music composed by him – passions, church cantatas, oratorios, motets, chorale preludes, etc. However, the outward ecclesiastical associations of the bulk of Bach’s musical compositions have had a negative outcome. Thanks to them, Bach came to acquire the image of a Super-Churchman, posthumously: The fact that Bach spent most of his working life as a church – musician (i. e. as organist, and cantor) would have significantly buttressed this image. Needless to say, church music and churchmen are perceived to be, by and large, prudish, conservative, and dreary. Hence, Bach’s popular image as a dull and prudish personality. Hausmann’s ’ picture of the sixty one year old master has done nothing to alter it. On the contrary, it goes a long way to confirm and crystellise it. Perhaps, a picture of a 30 or even 45 year old Bach, sans wig and coat, would have hinted something quite different. Anyway, that is what his love music suggests.


Bach’s Love Duets

In addition to his vast body of church cantatas, Bach composed many secular cantatas. These include the delightful ‘Coffee Cantata’ (BWV 211) , ‘Peasant Cantata’ (BWV 212) , ‘Phoebus and Pan’ (BWV 201), and the wedding cantata ‘ Weichet nur betruebte Schatten’ (BWV 202, Recede, you gloomy shadows ). The happy-go-lucky character of such secular masterpieces prompted Albert Schweitzer to call them Bach’s ‘charm music’. In fact, the beautiful aria ‘Sich ueben in Lieben’ (to practice love) of the above mentioned wedding cantata is a veritable celebration of love. However, intriguingly, Bach’s best love music is found in the arias and recitatives of some of his great church cantatas. The overtly erotic nature of this music was a cause of embarrassment for Bach’s great biographer Philipp Spitta. However, Schweitzer, who found a ‘mystical love – glow’ in it, tried to justify its presence in church cantatas in theological terms. One of the most wonderful pieces of love music composed by Bach is the aria duet for soprano and bass ‘Komm mein Jesu, erquicke mich’ (Come my Jesus, refresh me) of the great church cantata ‘Ich hatte viel Bekuemmernis’ (BWV 21, My spirit was in heaviness). The piece is presented as a dialogue between the Believing Soul (sung by the soprano) and Christ the Comforter (sung by the bass). In spite of the piece’s religious setting, its lyrics have an overtly erotic orientation, with lines such as ‘ Ja, ach ja, ich liebe dich’ (Yes, oh yes, I love you). Bach’s expressive music immeasurably amplifies the erotic effect. This compelled Spitta to admit apologetically that ‘the piece is a charming love duet’ (Philipp Spitta ; Johann Sebastian Bach ; English translation Clara Bell and J. A. Fuller – Maitland). Schweitzer, writing a quarter of century after Spitta, held a contrary view. He asserts: “But the mystical love-glow that finds such eloquent expression in Bach’s work cannot be objected to from any standpoint of church music. So long as the Song of Solomon remains in the Bible, its allegorical language cannot be forbidden in religious music.”(Albert Schweitzer : J. S. Bach ).

The wonderful church cantata ‘Ich hatte viel Bekuemmernis’ was composed by Bach in Weimar in 1714 for the third Sunday after Trinity. However, Bach’s inclusion of love duets in church cantatas did not end with this. The exceedingly charming aria for bass and soprano, ‘ Dich hab ich je und je geliebet’ (I have loved you forever and ever) of the church cantata, ‘Ich geh und suche mit Velangen’, BWV 49 (I go and seek with longing ), composed by him more than 12 years later, stand testimony to this fact. In the context of the cantata, it is implicit that the dialogue is once again between the Believing Soul as the bride (sung by the soprano) and Christ as the bridegroom (sung by the bass). However, unlike in the case of the aria duet ‘Komm mein Jesu, erquicke mich’, the lyrics of this aria does not mention any spiritual or profane entity such as Jesus, Christ, Saviour, Soul, bride or bridegroom. Hence, if it is performed as a stand-alone piece, it would be a pure love duet with a decidedly erotic bent. The cantata ‘Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen’ was composed in Leipzig in 1726 for the twentieth Sunday after Trinity. However, Bach was yet to achieve his crowning glory in this sphere. It came with his incomparable aria duet ‘Mein Freund ist mein, und ich bin dein’ (My lover is mine, and I am yours) of the great church cantata ‘ Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’, BWV 140 ( Sleepers awake, summons the voice ).

Here again, as a piece belonging to the cantata, the duet implies a dialogue between the Believing Soul as the bride, and Christ as the bridegroom. However, if it is taken out of its spiritual context, it would be a wonderful love duet with a strong erotic impulse. Intriguingly, its verses are derived from a verse of the explicitly erotic Song of Songs of the Old Testament of the Bible: “My lover is mine and I am his; he browses among the lilies (Song of Songs 2.16 ). The cantata was composed in Leipzig in 1730 for the twenty seventh Sunday after Trinity. Its text is based on the Song of Songs and Philip Nicolai’s celebrated Lutheran hymn ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’, which is based on the parable of the ten virgin of the New Testament (Mathew 25. 1 – 14 ).


Erotic impulse of the Bach clan

Johann Sebastian Bach belonged to the largest known clan of musicians in history. The Bach clan was of sturdy Thuringian peasant stock. As a tribe of happy and healthy common people, they were no strangers to the erotic impulse. The clan held annual family get-togethers, which began with the singing of the chorale – congregational hymns of the Lutheran church. However, as the day proceeded, their musical festivities took a turn towards the profane. John Eliot Gardiner, an eminent practicing musician and a Bach specialist, eloquently describes, ” The rowdier things got, it seems, the greater the opportunity for extemporary jam singing , with all the brothers, organists, cantors and town musicians competing in the spicing up of popular songs which they transformed as quodlibets with plenty of satirical and sexual innuendo.”(John Eliot Gardiner : Music in the Castle of Heaven – A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach). However, the musical endeavours of Bach’s predecessors in the erotic plane did not end here. Bach’s father’s cousin Johann Christoph Bach (1642 – 1703), who was a notable composer, left a nuptial cantata ‘Meine Freundin, du bist schoen’ ( My Beloved, you are pretty ), of considerable musical value to posterity. Intriguingly, this work was conspicuously based on selected verses from the proverbial Song of Songs! Johann Sebastian had a high regard for Uncle Johann Christoph’s music, and was well aware of his nuptial cantata. It would have no doubt influenced his young mind.


Bach’s love life

As a young man in his early twenties, Bach served as the organist of the New Church of Arnstadt. Mainly due to his artistic temperament, he got into trouble with the church authorities, several times. On the last occasion, the church authorities accused him of ‘making music in church with a strange maiden’. The identity of the young lady has not been established as yet. However, some Bach scholars have suggested that the lady in question was Bach’s distant cousin Maria Barbara Bach. Bach left Arnstadt in mid-1707, and married Maria Barbara a few months later. She bore him seven children. Bach’s first marriage ended with her untimely death in mid-1720. It is worth noting that it was during this marriage that Bach composed his love duet ‘Komm Jesu, erquicke mich’. He was 29 years old at that time. It is not improbable that the young couple – Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara, would have spent many happy hours singing the duet together.

Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a talented professional singer, in late 1721. She was 16 years younger than Bach. Like the previous marriage, it was a happy one. The collection of keyboard pieces which Bach lovingly compiled for the instruction of his young wife stand testimony to this fact. Anna Magdalena bore him 13 children. The charming love duets ‘Dich hab ich je und je geliebet’ and ‘ Mein Freund ist mein, und ich bein dein’ were composed during the early part of the marriage. Bach was 41 and 45 years of age respectively, at the time of their composition. They were charming songs meant to be sung by Johann Sebastian and Anna Magdelena, as much as by the Believing Soul and the Holy Spirit. Anna Magdalena outlived Bach by almost ten years.


The erotic impulse in the music of Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach was above all, like William Shakespeare and Ludwig van Beethoven, a universal artiste. Accordingly, all fundamental types of human emotions were bound to find sublime expression through his art. These emotions necessarily include the erotic impulse, which is a key driving force of human existence. However, Private property interests have attempted to demonise and exorcize the erotic impulse in the name of culture, civilization, decency, and even spirituality. Organised religion, social customs, and laws are the most trustworthy weapons used in this exercise. However, in spite of such attempts, the erotic impulse, from time to time, has expressed itself through the medium of art. In a few instances, it has even breached the formidable walls of organized religion in a most subversive manner, and expressed itself through so-called religious art. The timeless love duets found in the church music of Johann Sebastian Bach prove the point.

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