article 82: Bach Bellows

Older readers will recall a now-moribund invention called the “Compact Disc” – CD for short. Towards the end of the previous century, lasers and digital recording were the latest big things. Business entities known as “major record labels” (now also mostly defunct) saw an opportunity for profits, and conducted sweeps for cheap new talent – preferably young and reasonably good-looking – to fill their catalogs. I was recommended by Nikolaus Harnoncourt for one such label, TelDec. It was the merged successor to a venerable German label, Telefunken. Using an even older technology, the LP, Telefunken had produced the series of gray-covered recordings called Das Alte Werk which brought a revolution in the performance of early music to the public ear.

TelDec made seven short-lived solo-CDs with me shortly before they were swallowed up by Warner Music. On the occasion of a rather large purchase of some of these, I talked the folks up in Hamburg into giving me the complete set of Bach’s cantatas which had been reissued as part of their BACH 2000 complete edition – a motley collection of old, very old, new and relatively recent recordings, which temporarily revived some of my work for TelDec. I had even been third-string organist on some of the original cantata issues on LP, with miniature scores included.

The 79 cantata CDs (with stickers on their backs: PR-Copy) duly arrived, together with a pile of my own recordings, on a wooden pallet which had to be fork-lifted from the delivery truck. I made a project of listening to them all. That was a long time ago – almost exactly half my present lifetime, in fact. The other day I realized my recollection of these masterpieces had faded to nearly nothing, and started another run-through, this time following the scores from the online Petrucci Music Library (IMSLP) on my iPad. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.

The huge recording project was divided between Haarlem (Gustav Leonhardt) and Vienna (Harnoncourt). BWV 1-3 were taken by the latter. I had forgotten how bad those first efforts were; shaky instruments, poor singing, mostly rushed tempi and shocking ensemble work. I will say nothing about Harnoncourt’s later evolution. Leonhardt’s immaculate conception remained unchanged throughout the 30-year marathon. I have his copy of the abortive “Bach Compendium”; the cantata entries are full of tiny, acribic notes and queries.

All this is just a prelude to what I have to say today, which regards the final aria of BWV 2, “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein”, the second work from the second Jahrgang of church cantatas (1724-5). Bach never quite completed his grand concept: basing this cycle of cantatas for all the Sundays of the church year on Lutheran chorales. After the titanic efforts of the first two cycles he seems to have lost much of his enthusiasm for work in service of the dreadful Leipzig town council and his ecclesiastical supervisors. And I hate to say this, but by the spring of 1724 Bach had already created so much (and may also have been under so much strain) that it seems to me that he was in a phase of sterile invention. BWV 1 and 2, both from this chorale Jahrgang, strike me as brilliant failures. The Master exercises his technical facility and seeks bizarre orchestrations, without ever striking the vein of rich musicality which served him so well when he was really trying.

The tenor aria in question has the following text:

Durchs Feuer wird das Silber rein,
durchs Kreuz das Wort bewährt erfunden.
Drum soll ein Christ zu allen Stunden
im Kreuz und Not geduldig sein.

(By fire silver is rendered pure,
by the Cross the truth of the Word is discovered.
Therefore a Christian should at every hour
be patient in Cross [= misery] and distress.)

This is a lamentable anonymous parody of Luther’s original verse from his 1523 chorale. Be that as it may, Bach took his text, as always, as point of departure for the composition. The locus topicus – a central message in the words – had to be found, and then inventio applied to create an audible image of the text using a range of musico-rhetorical devices. For an interpreter of the score, it can sometimes be a challenge to understand the results of this process. Bach can be as obscure in this aspect as his correspondent François Couperin was in the titles of his pièces de clavecin.

In this case, I think Bach’s choice for his musical imagery is an especially ingenious, if rather far-sought, classic example of hypotyposis – a rhetorical figure which attempts to make an object visible to the imagination. Its musical mutation seeks to create the same effect through tones rather than words. This example seems to have escaped the interpreters whose recordings I have checked. They are either too slow, because they focussed on the chromaticism of the Kreuz passages (most notably Harnoncourt, the self-proclaimed Romantic; the restlessness of the long-suffering performers is all too evident), or too fast, they having seized on the ever-effective word Feuer. But that old scamp Bach is actually depicting the bellows which, in a steady tempo giusto, blew the fires in the silver-smelting furnaces in the Saxony of his era. It’s even evident from the score that he partly conceived his aria as Augenmusik. The strangely slurred, sighing string figures converge and separate in stepwise motion, forming a virtual picture of a double-action bellows, as illustrated below.

Bach, a great walker, may have observed the complicated metallurgy somewhere in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) southeast of Leipzig. The mines there were a major source of the fabulous wealth of Electoral Saxony, as those in the Harz were of the rival Welf branch, the Hanoverians. But I think it more likely that he saw such bellows in action in Zella, a metal-working town in the hills of his home province Thuringia. It was on the way to his relatives in Schweinfurt, just down the road from us. At the end of his life he worked with the Schübler family of engravers in Zella on Die Kunst der Fuge (see article 30).

February 26, 2023

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