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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 7 Class of 1685 (II)
Richard Taruskin

Or perhaps not. We might actually learn a good deal about music and its purposes if we could hear a Bach cantata at its first performance—but only if we are prepared for a lesson that challenges our most basic assumptions about the nature and purpose of music.

Those assumptions were given a classic articulation by Charles Burney (1726–1814), the great English music historian, who knew Handel in his youth and played occasionally in his orchestras. “Music is an innocent luxury, unnecessary, indeed, to our existence, but a great improvement and gratification of the sense of hearing,” wrote Dr. Burney, who went on to define it more precisely as “the art of pleasing by the succession and combination of agreeable sounds.”18 These words, probably written in the early 1770s, were published in the front matter of Burney’s General History of Music, which began appearing in 1776. They are still paraphrased in most English dictionaries, and few readers of this book will find them surprising. They will seem to most music lovers merely commonsensical.

But even “common sense” has a history, and Burney’s definition of music reflects the intellectual history of the eighteenth century, when a complex of rationalistic (that is, antimystical, antimetaphysical) ideas now referred to as “The Enlightenment” rose to prominence and eventual dominance in Europe. They will receive a more extended discussion in a later chapter, when their musical manifestations (which we now call “Classicism”) come into view. We have had a glimpse of them already in Handel, whose career was shaped by a taste comparable to the one Burney described, and who regarded all of his music, even the most exalted or profound, as a distinguished entertainment.

They have much less to do with Bach, and virtually nothing to do with Bach’s church music, which embodied a pre-Enlightened—and when push came to shove, a violently anti-Enlightened—temper. Such music was a medium of truth, not beauty, and the truth it served—Luther’s truth—was often bitter. Some of Bach’s most striking works were written to persuade us—no, reveal to us—that the world is filth and horror, that humans are helpless, that life is pain, and that reason is a snare. Even in his most exuberant work, like Cantata no. 80, Bach’s purpose in church was never just to please, and the sounds he combined there were often anything but agreeable.

When his music was pleasing, it was usually in order to indoctrinate or cajole. Just as often Bach aimed to torture the ear. When the world of man rather than that of God was his subject, he could write music that for sheer, deliberate ugliness has perhaps been approached (mainly by much later composers, after Bach’s momentous nineteenth-century “rediscovery”), but never surpassed. The daring it took to write such passages is perhaps the best testimony to Bach’s unique genius. They would have ruined Handel. But Bach’s pious congregation would have understood his purpose in a way that we can do only by dint of great imaginative effort.

Take Ex. 7-11 to begin with. It is the ritornello to a bass aria, “Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen/hilft der Sorgen Krankheit nicht” (“Groaning [literally, saying ‘Ach’] and pitifully wailing or worrying won’t relieve sickness”) from Cantata BWV 13, Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen (“My sighs, my tears”). Despite its low BWV number, this is one of the later Leipzig cantatas, first performed 20 January (the second Sunday after Epiphany) 1726. With Seufzer in the title and Ächzen in the text, it is no wonder to see lots of slurred descending half steps—“sighs”—in all the parts. That was a conventional symbol that evoked the thing represented precisely the way a word does. Also to be expected were lots of dissonant appoggiaturas, a high degree of chromaticism, and (recalling Handel’s “They loathed to drink of the river”) chords of the diminished seventh.

But now consider the counterpoint in mm. 3–4: namely, the way in which the parallel “sighs” in the obbligato line and the basso continuo are harmonized. At the beginning of m. 3, the two voices move in parallel at the distance of nine semitones. This unusual way of specifying the interval is necessary here because, in terms of spelling and function, the intervals, though produced by parallel motion, are different. One voice progresses from one scale degree to another (E♭–D), while the other inflects a single degree (F♯–F). Thus the first harmonic interval formed between them is a diminished seventh, while the second is a major sixth. The harmonic progression, while unusual, can be rationalized as a “7 – 6 suspension” according to the traditional rules of counterpoint.

In the middle of m. 3, the intervals are still 7 – 6, even though the sixth is augmented and the constant parallel distance between the two voices is ten semitones, an interval always heard as a dissonance. This is a truly pungent progression that will take most listeners by unpleasant surprise, although on reflection it can be “justified” both in terms of counterpoint, and of course in terms of expression, since affliction and pain is the theme.

Only expression can justify what happens on the downbeat of m. 4, when the parallel doubling is again at the distance of ten semitones but both parts make degree progressions, so that both intervals are sevenths. By the rules—or, more pertinently, by customary practice—a progression of parallel sevenths is a solecism, a mistake. The writing is diseased. The effect on the naivest ear, all the more on a schooled one, is almost literally nauseous. This kind of direct analogy goes beyond Handel’s ingratiating ways of representing horror. There is no way this passage could be described as pleasant or entertaining. That is not its purpose.

What Music is For

ex. 7-11 J. S. Bach, Cantata: Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, BWV 13, bass aria, “Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen” (ritornello), mm. 1–8

One can find such examples in abundance in Bach, many of them much stronger than this one. The text, of course, is the key to finding them. Cantata BWV 101, composed in Leipzig for performance on 13 August 1724, opens with a chorale fantasia that pits the melody of the Lutheran Lord’s Prayer (“Vater unser im Himmelreich”) as cantus firmus against a choral counterpoint that carries the text of a sixteenth-century hymn:

  • Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott
  • Die schwere Straf und große Not,
  • Die wir mit Sünden ohne Zahl
  • Verdienet haben allzumal.
  • Behüt für Krieg und teurer Zeit,
  • Für Seuchen, Feur und großem Leid.
  • [Take from us, O Lord, thou faithful God
  • The heavy punishment and great distress
  • That we with our numberless sins
  • Have only too well deserved.
  • Preserve us against war and famine,
  • Plague, fire and devastation.]

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ex. 7-12 J. S. Bach, Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, BWV 101, opening chorus

Ex. 7-12 is a “piano reduction” of Bach’s setting of the second line, so that the scarcely credible dissonances with which he evoked punishment, distress, war, famine, plague, fire, and devastation can be most compactly represented and easily observed. Almost all of them, semitonal clashes, false relations and all, arise out of a reckless deployment of “nonharmonic tones” that arise in turn out of expressive “sigh” motives or their inversions, equipped with pickups that render the first notes under the slurs maximally discordant both harmonically and melodically. This music will never bring a smile, the way Handel’s famine, plague, fire, and devastation did in Israel in Egypt. And that is only partly because of the extremity of the musical means, which goes so far beyond the boundaries of what Handel or Burney or their audiences would have identified as good taste. It is also because the sufferers depicted are not “them” but “us.”

Even more unsettling are the choruses and arias where Bach—following what Carl Friedrich Zelter, a choral conductor who played a major role in Bach’s nineteenth-century rediscovery, called his “altogether contemptible German chuch texts”—gave vent to what not only Zelter but all “Enlightened” thinkers of his day despised as the “earnest polemic of the Reformation.”19 Indeed, many of Bach’s texts express ideas that most listeners, not only in Zelter’s day but in our own, would find abhorrent, for almost all modern ideas of social justice, reasoned discourse, and personal integrity are derived from the ideas of the Enlightenment.

There is no evidence that Bach believed in them. On the contrary: we have every reason to assume that he believed not in freedom, equality, and human institutions of justice as saving forces in the world, but in faith and God’s grace—as we may learn from a harrowing tenor aria, “Schweig nur, taumelnde Vernunft!” (“Shut up, stumbling reason!”) from Cantata BWV 178, composed in Leipzig in the summer of 1724. The text is a paraphrase of a verse from a sixteenth-century hymn. Past the first line the message of the text is one of comfort, but Bach is fixated on that fierce and derisive opening line—indeed, on just the opening word. Out of it he builds practically the whole first section of his da capo aria, crowding all the rest into a cursory and soon superseded middle section.

Over and over the tenor shrieks, “Schweig nur, schweig!” leaping now a sixth, now a seventh, now an octave (Ex. 7-13). Meanwhile, the accompanying orchestra, Reason’s surrogate, reels and lurches violently. The effect is nothing short of terrifying—perhaps even more now than in Bach’s own time, since we who remember the twentieth century have greater reason than Bach’s contemporaries ever had to wince at the sound of a high-pitched German voice stridently shouting reason down.

What Music is For

ex. 7-13 J. S. Bach, Cantata: Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält, BWV 178, tenor aria, “Schweig nur, taumelnde Vernunft!”, mm. 11–17

Even when Bach is not expressing actively anti-Enlightenment sentiments like these in his cantatas, his settings are pervaded with a general antihumanism such as we encountered (at least according to one interpretation) in the Brandenburg Concertos, with their implied religiously motivated contempt for human hierarchies and power relations. The contempt is much more overt in the cantatas and shows up precisely in Bach’s seeming unconcern for practical performance considerations. A work like Cantata no. 80, plausibly beyond the capabilities of the performers to whom it was perforce assigned, could be looked upon as “idealistic” in this sense, deliberately contriving a splendor and suggesting a perfection beyond terrestrial accomplishment (though certainly not beyond imagining or aspiring to).

There is another side to this as well, when Bach seems deliberately to engineer a bad-sounding performance by putting the apparent demands of the music beyond the reach of his performers and their equipment. Ex. 7-14 contains two “middle sections” from cantata arias. The first (Ex. 7-14a), “Liebster Gott” (“Beloved God”) from Cantata BWV 179, composed for Leipzig in 1723, is scored for a (boy) soprano and two oboi da caccia or “hunting oboes,” ancestors of the modern English horn. The aria begins and ends in A minor, but the middle section weirdly modulates ever “flatward,” so that it makes its final cadence in C minor.

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ex. 7-14a Cantata: Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht, BWV 179, soprano aria “Liebster Gott,” mm. 62–81

Not only is the flatward modulation symbolic of catabasis, or “falling” in the theological sense (as a sharpward modulation symbolizes anabasis or elevation), the specific key chosen for the cadence also puts the instruments in a harmonic region where they are simply incapable of playing in tune, especially when playing, as Bach forces them to do, in their lowest, least tractable range.20 The boy, too, is asked to descend to the very bottom of his range and even beyond, where he loses all tonal support. The whole performance will inevitably come out sounding loathsome and disgraceful. And these are the words (adapted from the prophet Habbakuk): “My sins sicken me like pus in my bones; help me, Jesus, Lamb of God, for I am sinking in deepest slime.”

Nowadays, with instruments that have undergone more than a century of adaptation and with no strictures to prevent a secular performance by a well-trained mezzo-soprano, the technical demands of the aria could be easily met. But would the performance thereby become a better one? Or would an important part of the religious message of the piece—that humans are helpless and hopeless in their fallen state—be lost for the sake of mere sensory gratification?

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ex. 7-14b Cantata: Du Hirte Israel, höre, BWV 104, bass aria “Beglückte Heerde,” middle section

The bass aria, “Beglückte Heerde, Jesu Schafe” (“O lucky herd of Jesus-sheep”), from the pastoral Cantata no. 104, Du Hirte Israel höre (“Hear us, O shepherd of Israel”) is on the face of it a sweet and gentle (if slightly macabre) lullaby, but it harbors within a veritable assault by the composer on the performer. The text of the middle section (Ex. 7-14b) reads, “Here you shall taste of Jesus’s goodness and look forward, as your reward for faith, to the sweet sleep of death.” The vocal line extends for eighteen measures in a stately meter without a single rest, and with notes lasting as much as nine beats. It will reduce any singer who assays it at an appropriate tempo to a gasping, panting state in which, were the aria to continue another two minutes, he would surely receive his reward.

This undermining of human agency is something that Bach engineers again and again. Unlike Handel’s music, Bach’s church music serves the purposes of the church—that is, ministering to the soul’s salvation—and presents modern secular performers with a dilemma: either adapt the performance to the tastes of the modern secular audience (whether by modernizing the performing forces, for example, or by “secularizing” the tempos or the general demeanor) and risk losing the full force of the expressive message encoded in the music, or perform the music in an appropriate manner and risk perplexing, fatiguing, or even insulting the audience. That is why only a handful of Bach’s cantatas can be said to have really joined the modern performance repertory, and a thoroughly unrepresentative handful at that.

Besides a couple of amusing secular items like the so-called “Coffee cantata” (about a young girl’s passion for coffee—then a novelty—and the headaches it causes her father), composed for Bach’s Collegium Musicum (which actually performed in a coffee shop), the “popular” cantatas include no. 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (“Rejoice in God in every land”), a brilliant display piece for soprano and the only church cantata Bach ever composed for a women’s voice (and one of the few pieces he actually called a cantata); and no. 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (“Wake up, the [watchman’s] voice is calling”), in which Bach set a couple of love duets between Christ and the Christian soul in the style of “the pretty little Dresden tunes.”


(18) Burney, A General History of Music, ed. F. Mercer, Vol. I (New York: Dover, 1957), p. 21.

(19) Carl Friedrich Zelter to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1827), quoted in R. Taruskin, Text and Act (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 310.

(20) See Eric Chafe, Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J. S. Bach (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), p. 15.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07009.xml