Sick of Bach

J. S. Bach’s music has many lessons to teach us, though they are rarely for the faint-of-heart. Indeed, faintness of heart is one of Bach’s main themes. In this gnarled body of work, weakness and decline make for the central facts of earthly life, and the human susceptibility to moral and physical disease contaminates even the enjoyment of music itself. To listen to Bach is therefore to listen to a paradox: taking in his religious cantatas relies on bodily organs and inclinations prone to pleasure, sin and degradation.

Bach’s own sensual appetites, not to say stamina, can be gauged by the sheer quantity of his (pro)creative (re)production over five decades: he fathered more than a thousand works (many of more than an hour’s duration) and some twenty children by two different women. More than half of these children died in infancy. Nothing specific is known about the medical measures taken on behalf of these infants, though my survey of a number of household instruction books from the period shows that many of the ills, both grave and merely inconvenient, were treated with a variety of seemingly benign herbal concoctions as well as with powerful—and potentially lethal—chemical potions, including mercury. Then as now, what didn’t kill the patient tended to make him or her stronger.

Bach’s medical travails over sixty-five years are documented only near the end. Forensic historians generally believe diabetes was the chronic condition that eventually claimed him. Four months before his death in July of 1750, Bach was operated on in Leipzig by the womanizing English oculist John Taylor then traveling through Germany in his garish coach adorned with images of the eyes he liked to take his scalpel to. Taylor later had a go at the aged Handel’s vision, and with similarly disastrous results.

Caricature of oculist John Taylor, by Thomas Patch (1770)

That Taylor blinded the greatest musical minds of the age did not do much to buff his reputation, though it has secured him infamous cameos in dozens of biographies of Bach and Handel. Favoring the ploy of leaving town quickly after operating on a single eye and before he had to face the direct results of his botched surgeries, Taylor spent his last several years blind himself, a sentence of poetic justice that did not escape notice by his numerous detractors. For Samuel Johnson, Taylor showed “how far impudence could carry ignorance.”

Burial sermons and obituaries of Bach’s time often detailed the last hours of earthly life of the deceased, and consistently included a line or two about the efforts of the family to secure the best possible medical care for the dying. This rhetorical gesture was intended to salve the family’s collective conscience and to inform congregations and neighbors that the survivors had done all they could by bringing in experts equipped with the most advanced—and often costly—medical knowledge. The physicians either unwittingly delivered the coup de grace in the form of some toxin, or confirmed that further struggle was hopeless. So it is in Bach’s obituary: “ a few hours later he suffered a stroke; and this was followed by a raging fever, as a victim of which, despite every possible care given him by two of the most skillful physicians of Leipzig, on July 28, 1750, a little after a quarter past eight in the evening, in the sixty-sixth year of his life he quietly and peacefully, by the merit of his Redeemer, departed this life.”

Near the beginning of the most concerted creative outpourings in the history of Western music and still in the hearty haleness of mid-life, the thirty-eight year-old Bach—one wife recently buried and several of the children by his new young wife soon to die—composed a cantata, Es ist nicht Gesundes an meinem Leibe (There Is Nothing Healthy in My Body), BWV 25, devoted to human illness, spiritual and physical. In the time of pandemic, this is just one of dozens of Bach’s works that would nowadays require a trigger warning: “this cantata may contain unpleasant, unsettling, even disturbing material.”

The text of the opening chorus is overladen with guilt and self-loathing: “There is nothing healthy in the face of God’s threats, and there is no peace in my bones from my sin.” The cantata’s poetry is drawn from a collection published in 1720 by the Lutheran clergyman, Johann Rambach, who also a wrote a tract book on Christ’s crucifixion, a thick bludgeon of a book owned by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena. One of greatest master of Christian masochistic imagery before Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ, Rambach loved to write about pain and suffering, all the better to advertise the joys awaiting the saved in heaven.

After rising up from its opening pitch that seems to anchor listeners to their own depravity, the bass line at the start of the cantata is dragged down through a figure that by Bach’s time had long been the musical signifier of death. Up on the deck of this sinking ship we hear heavy-burdened sighs from the orchestra. A still slower, more lugubrious version of this same figure then emitted by the chorus—the mortal body bewailing its own ills in downcast song. At dramatic moments in the course of this portentous musical discourse, Bach introduces a full texture of brass instruments playing the familiar tune of the Passion chorale, whose text would have been known to contemporary congregations: “My heart is filled with longing / To pass away in peace.” From the tribulations of the earthly body release comes only from escaping the world itself; this hymn shimmers as if from heaven, both harmonious with, and independent from, the tortured, serpentine counterpoint of the voices and other instruments.

A tenor recitative follows this chorus. Like 18th-century operas, Bach’s cantatas generally alternate movements devoted to the quick delivery of slabs of text (recitatives) with more static reflections using shorter poetic units and involving a great deal of textual repetition (arias). In twisted, pain-wracked melodic contours and lashing chromatic harmonies, Bach lays out the central thesis of the work: “the whole world is a hospital, filled with countless people, even children in their cribs, stricken by illness.” One person suffers the fever of lust, another stinks with pride, a third (and here, one thinks of the Healthcare executives of our times) is tossed into a premature grave by the consumption of avarice. The leprosy of sin devastates the limbs of all people. “Who is my doctor?” asks the recitative rhetorically at its panicked conclusion.

The answer is voiced only late in the subsequent bass aria in ecstatic arcs of soaring melody—all joyful hope in contrast to the pained introversion of the preceding recitative: “You are my doctor, Lord Jesus, only you know how to cure my soul.”

The sicknesses here cataloged are both metaphorical and real: sin is the cause of all suffering, but Bach’s musical depictions of a host of maladies in the bass aria alone are so detailed and evocative that they must have made his infirm and often sickly congregations uncomfortably conscious of their bodies and all the diseases and discomforts that afflicted them. Death lived among them, not in the elder care center on the edge of town.

After the cry for help that opens this bass aria, “leprosy” and “boils” are depicted in twisting, repeated figures that capture both the immediate pain and the relentless progress of disease. Later, ineffective “herbs” and “compresses” offer glimpsed hopes of comfort, but these quickly give way again to pain and despair until the doctor Jesus makes his house call at the door of the soul.

Though composed before our antiseptic age, this aria offers an unforgettable evocation of the way the patient’s squirming and sweating in the waiting room gives way both to anticipation and to dread as the door opens on to the bright white of the examination room—except that during the pandemic the waiting room is most often your own ever-shrinking quarters, a real prison, or the street.

On the most obvious the level, the cantata retails the scorn for earthly existence harbored by millenarians and political quietists: in a world of questionable medical procedures and menacing diseases that killed the malnourished and maltreated with even greater efficiency than Covid, the only hope is offered in heaven.

In that Bach’s gripping music captures the opposing forces of hope and futility so often felt by sick people, then as now, it offers a strange solace. Even in its exacting representations of suffering, the cantata soothes, partly by looking beyond its immediate circumstances and sorrows, while at the same time wallowing in them. One doesn’t have to be religious to recognize the weirdly ecstatic quality in the music and the complicated psychological state it represents. Dependent on the body to be sung, played and heard, the cantata nonetheless strives to overcome the human condition, even if death is the only real cure. Does the music succeed in healing itself? There may be nothing healthy in this music, but it does not die. As the goodly doctor Hippocrates reminds us: Ars longa, vita brevis.

(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 Notebooks. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

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