Yield Troubled Shadows: Bach and Modern Society

March 17, 2017

David Yearsley

On Friday March 17, 2017, a special event organized by the Department of Music and co-sponsored by the ICGS celebrated the continued power and relevance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Entitled “Yield Troubled Shadows: Bach and Modern Society,” the event featured performances by the Cornell Early Music Lab and the Cornell Chamber Singers, as well as lectures by Profs. David Yearsley (of the Music Department) and Robert Hockett (of the Law School) connecting themes in the librettos and structures of the music to perennial issues of everyday life, issues as relevant in Bach’s time as in ours.

After opening with the motet Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, Yearsley introduced the performance of Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten by discussing sexuality in Bach’s music. Despite buttoned-up conventional wisdom’s notion that Bach’s music has nothing to say about sex, Yearsley argued that Weichet nur…, a wedding cantata, demonstrates that Bach thought not just about the pleasures of sex, but also about the difficult moral and social problems surrounding the relationship of sex to marriage and to procreation in his eighteenth-century German context. Even in theocratic Lutheran Leipzig of the 1720s and ‘30s, sex had to be discussed, and music too was a venue for this discussion. While, in the libretto, “Phoebus hastes with rapid horses through the newly-born world… [to himself] become a lover”, the cantata also prays, “so may the bond of chaste love, committed pair, be free from the inconstancy of change!” For Yearsley, the cantata itself “embraces the sensuality of musical bodies,” meditating on the conditions of the happy and long-lasting union to result. Indeed, it was also personally relevant to Bach to celebrate sensuality and sexuality as joys of marriage in this cantata. It may have been originally written for the occasion of Bach’s wedding to Anna Magdalena Bach, but was without doubt, according to Yearsley, performed many times with Anna Magdalena herself as lead singer. Sex and marriage are as present to Bach as to us, and are not glossed over in Lutheran piety.

But if sex is in Bach’s music, so is money, argued Prof. Robert Hockett of the Law School. Not a music scholar himself, Hockett said his joining the event demonstrated that Bach’s music speaks to music appreciators from all walks of life, not just specialist scholars or professional musicians. Hockett prefaced the final performance – of the cantata Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort – with a discussion of the motifs of debt, forgiveness, and responsibility. Bach’s cantata, following long-standing Judeo-Christian tradition, uses metaphors of credit, debt, and payment to reflect the weight of sin in the relationship to God and the trials of social obligation in the relationship to others. “All is but borrowed wealth; That I throughout my life am holding; Soul, being, will and blood; And post and rank, all by my God are given.” Hockett reflected on the history of institutions of debt forgiveness, including the Jubilee of ancient Jewish culture and bankruptcy laws in the contemporary world, and found in Tue Rechnung! a reminder of the importance of accounting, honoring obligations, and settling debts, but also of debt-forgiveness, clemency, generosity and mercy. And beyond that: a reminder of the beauty of natural symmetry, manifest in time’s forgiveness of all debts, and in the presence, for the cantata, of God’ justice and clemency throughout the world. In this way, although we may find Bach’s concern for commerce and debt something we have in common, the contemporary moment may also benefit from reminding itself, with Bach, of the spiritual value of forgiving material debts. (Juan-Jacques Aupiais)