PURELY instrumental music dominates Bach’s creative work during his six years’ residence in Köthen. He wrote relatively few church cantatas1 (although more than had hitherto been believed) ;2 religious compositions are conspicuously absent from the list. The great G Minor Fantasy and Fugue that Bach played for Reincken on his visit to Hamburg was his only organ work. The two or three ornamental chorale improvisations were composed for his immediate family, together with a very few songs in this mood. Since Bach’s chief occupation was to furnish the music for Prince Leopold’s musical soirees, we find a fair, but not unusually great number of sonatas, suites, and concerti for various groupings of violin and harpsichord; viola de gamba, violoncello, flute, either with harpsichord or unaccompanied; as well as for larger orchestral ensembles and for harpsichord or clavichord alone. This comparatively small amount of chamber music can hardly have filled concert programs for five years of weekly (or perhaps more frequent) performances. Works by many other composers must have supplemented the repertoire—probably by various members of the assembly as well as those whose scores could be found in the rather meagre library of the young prince.3
How many works of Bach’s pen may have passed through the music room into oblivion shall never be known. He must have entertained Leopold and his guests often with his famed improvisations on various keyboard instruments and perhaps also on the violin. Our ignorance of this spontaneous art, an essential element of Bach’s music, prevents us from gaining a full understanding of his art. In his improvisations he seems to have combined the greatest intensity of divine inspiration with the finest clarity of exposition reached during that century—and, it is safe to say, on the basis of all accounts of the astonished witnesses to these rare experiences, at any time in history.4
Bach’s art of accompanying is also irretrievably lost. The keyboard parts to the violin, cello, gamba, or flute sonatas were not played as written. In those days, a second harpsichordist customarily supplied the harmonies indicated by the scores for figured basses, translating the figures into full harmonies. But Bach undoubtedly served as his own thoroughbass player, developing the harmonies with phenomenal ability. He filled in the parts not only with blocks of harmony but with inner counter melodies.5
This fuller harmonization of the sonatas seems to have been facilitated by a pedal harpsichord. A set of pedals like the common accessory of the organ could plunk a separate set, or sets, of strings, and could be placed under either a harpsichord or a clavichord.6 In spite of this, purists today, jealously safeguarding what they take for an unpolluted, uncorrupted style, give us only the bare bones of a once living organism when they play the work with empty basses. In the concerti and orchestral suites (which Bach called ouvertures because they are introduced by a symphonic piece in that style), Kapellmeister Bach followed the prevailing custom of conducting the ensemble from the harpsichord. He probably confined himself to more simple harmonies, through which the rhythm could be more firmly marked, rather than to development of a florid contrapuntal treatment.
A Musical Reconciliation of the Sacred and Secular
In 1718 or 1719 Bach received a commission from the Margrave of Brandenburg to compose the six concerti now known as the Brandenburg Concerti. Bach composed these works at leisure and with utmost care, and they were not delivered until the twenty-fourth of March, 1721. The Brandenburg Concerti represent the fruits of Bach’s earlier profound study of th$ concerto form and constitute the first large-scale instrumental works for orchestra in this form. In Weimar Bach had copied numerous concerti by Vivaldi, Corelli, Marcello, Bontempi, Bononcini, and Legrenzi, but in this culmination of his study, he far surpassed his models in scope and import.
Originally the concerto played a ritual role in the sixteenth-century Italian church service, and Bach did not entirely forsake this religious heritage. In spite of his use of such secular elements as French court dances, in the style of the sonata da camera (sonatas for the music room), the music itself is not secular in spirit. In fact, a very large part of all Bach’s “secular” music eventually found its way into church cantatas, Masses, and oratorios. Thus later in Leipzig, the first movement of the first Brandenburg Concerto is used in place of the introductory symphony (Symphonia) to the cantata “Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht” (Treacherous World, I Trust Thee Not),7 sung on the twenty-third Sunday after Trinity. Bach recast the first movement of the third Brandenburg Concerto in a similar role in the cantata “Ich liebe den Hochsten vom gantzen Gemute “ (I Love the Highest with All My Heart).8 And again, the famous Preambulum in E Major for unaccompanied violin,9 which may have been played more than once by either Bach himself or one of the violin virtuosi on the staff in Köthen, became the Symphonia of the cantata “Wir danken dir, Gott “ (We Thank Thee, God).10 Sung in Leipzig on the occasion of the election of City Councils in 1731, the piece was transposed to D and scored for three trumpets, two oboes, two violins, one viola, an obligato organ part, and a continuo, probably taken by double basses or celli. The organ assumes the virtuoso role taken by the violin in the Köthen version. (Pianists need have no qualms about playing this piece on the pianoforte, even with underlying harmonies; Bach himself arranged it thus for the harpsichord and even for the lute.)
The happiness, inner strength and exuberance, and warmth that emanate from these pieces is not of ordinary dance music. The strong dance element, instead of calling up superficial gaiety, is sublimated through the sturdy, unrelenting rhythm into a symbolic pronouncement of firmness of faith that to Bach was the source of true joy. Bach’s transformation of the dance was one realization of the Lutheran-Augustinian philosophy of reconciliation and merging of the human with the divine.
Bach also adapted several harpsichord concerti for church cantatas. The cantata “Geist und Seele ivird verwirret “(Spirit and Soul Become Confused When They Contemplate Thee, G09I)11 borrows an entire movement of a harpsichord concerto (only a fragment of which remains today)12 for its introduction, with the organ taking the part of the solo harpsichord. All seven parts of this cantata are sung to concertizing obligato parts for organ that may well have their origin in solo pieces first used outside the church. The alto aria on the words “spirit and soul become confused” is sung to the slow movement of another harpsichord concerto. Again, in Cantata 49, “Ich gehe und suche mit Verlangen” (I Walk and Seek with Longing), a harpsichord concerto with orchestral accompaniment, transferred to the organ, introduces the cantata, while obligato organ parts continue the accompaniments of the arias in the same concertizing style.
One of the most striking examples of these invasions of secular harpsichord concerti into the church is the appearance of the famous D Minor Concerto. The entire first and second movements are taken over in the cantata “Wir mussen durch viel Trubsal” (We Must Bear Much Sorrow to Enter Into God’s Kingdom).13 The first, as usual, is given to the organ, accompanied by the orchestra. On the second movement Bach superimposed a chorale-like, four-voiced chorus. The original obligato bass is preserved and sung by the bass voices and double basses. The harpsichord solo, transferred to the organ, is also kept perfectly intact. The chorus now sings the text of the title of the cantata to this melody. The entire work is a most interesting example of the evolution of an art work finding its final destination in a deeply religious contemplation. Originally Bach had written the work as a violin concerto, the features of which we can clearly recognize even though its model is lost. This violin concerto in turn derived its style from its prototype, the Italian concerto, and especially that of Vivaldi. Thus, what seems today to be a triple plagiarism is really a continual rebirth until the final form with its spiritual text reached its true destination. Bach’s concerto was born in the church of San Marco in Venice and wandered over the earth in worldly garb before finding its home, in the Lutheran sanctuary.
Bach adapted four other harpsichord concerti to church cantatas. The moving, universally appealing melody of the famous slow movement of the F Minor Concerto14 introduces Cantata 156, “Ich stehe mit einem Fuss im Grabe.”15 As the harpsichord, and even the pianoforte, seem the most unsuitable of all instruments for the full realization of this moving melody, in the cantata Bach gives the melody to the solo oboe, the instrument most able to express the long, sustained notes that cry for a crescendo. But before he found its ultimate fulfillment, Bach scored the melody for violin.16 Cantata 169, “Gott soil allein mein Herze hob en” (Only God Shall Possess My Heart),17 incorporated two movements of the E Major Piano Concerto.18 The gentle, rocking rhythm of the second movement, reminiscent of a sicilienne, now accompanies the words “Die in me, world, and all your love, that my heart may develop the love of God.” A soprano aria19 in Cantata 120, “Goff, man lobet dich in der Stille” (God, Man Praises Thee in Stillness)20 is accompanied by an elaborate obligato for the violino concertanto, which turns out to be the slow movement of a sonata for violin and harpsichord composed in Köthen.21 The soprano sings the melody of the violin solo but with simpler figuration.
Of the 43 extant cantatas classified as “secular,” only two are thoroughly worldly—the Coffee Cantata and, most obvious, the Peasant Cantata.22 The majority of secular cantatas, written for inaugurations of notables, for weddings, and for birthdays of princes and kings, have a vestigial religious character, and Bach used music from most of them at some time or other in church cantatas, Masses, and oratorios. But the Peasant Cantata has a pungently earthy quality. The dialect in which the text was written is almost untranslatable.23 The uninhibited frankness of its language may surprise those who think of Bach as a severe and gloomy churchman. The thoroughly rustic tunes and ditties, some of which are folk or street songs, could never be transformed into a spiritual context. The Coffee Cantata is a jolly little comedy, ridiculing the prejudices of the time against the new vice of coffee drinking. Bach’s broadminded attitude toward these harmless fads comes out nicely in this delightful musical farce.
Bach tried his hand at one other type of secular cantata, the Drama per Musica. This classical opera on a very small scale generally presents classical characters—Hercules, Diana, Endymion, or Pan—allegorical figures—Fortune, Fame, Diligence, Gratitude, Zephyr, Aeolus, or German Rivers—or other conventional vehicles of edification. The works were performed in the open air, generally in the gardens of notables, where nature provided the only scenery. Costumes were omitted, and action was limited to the musicians entering the scene to a musical march. Bach seems to have stepped outside his realm when he wrote these.
In music of the Catholic church, folk and dance tunes were sometimes merged with religious music, but only after they had been so completely changed and dismembered by altered rhythms and by such wide distribution of musical motifs that the original tunes were no longer recognizable. Bach, however, left the dances completely intact in his cantatas. They remain dances: only the words have been changed, and the organ instead of the harpsichord is used for the accompaniment. The dance plays an exalted role in Bach’s religious music, as a sublime expression of the human spirit endowed with transcendental possibilities. All his dance suites were composed for our Gemuthsergotzung, the delight of our spirit, as he expressly inscribed their title pages.
The dance was very dear to Bach. He composed and taught numerous dances and many of his compositions are related to dance forms. At Köthen and on his visit to Cassel he can hardly have missed observing numerous balls, and although he would never have danced with the ladies of society, he enjoyed this pleasure within his own circle. He wrote many dances for his friends and, graced by his wife whose “form” he so admired in his poem to her, joined them in steps to his own charming music. To the creative musician, however, the music of the dance, not the actual dance experience, would always be its essential element.
In Köthen Bach wrote a cantata for his friend and sovereign Prince Leopold. “Durchlauchter Leopold” is a gay, graceful musical eulogy to his youthful master, which contains two minuets. The first, a duetaria for soprano and bass, shows a remarkable resemblance to that of the first Brandenburg Concerto, in the opening motif and in the manner the bass imitates the melody of the violin. The second, for four voices, recalls the C Minor Minuet in the French Suite of that key for clavichord. The entire six movements of the cantata, minuets and all, were transferred at a later period to the church as “FLrhotes Fleisch und Blut, f (Exalted Flesh and Blood).24 The first minuet sings the words “So hat Gott die Welt geliebet” (Thus God has loved the world), the second, “Rühre, Hochster, unsern Geist, dass des hochsten Geistes Gaben ihre Wirkung in uns haben” (Move, Highest, our spirit, that the highest gifts of the spirit may have their effect upon us). Bach seems purposely to have chosen dance rhythms here to express the Lutheran philosophy of reconciliation of life on earth with life of the spirit.
Bach recognized the universal power of the dance to lift man’s spirit to extravagant and apparently irrational realms of self-identity. The primitive savage, hypnotized by his dance, imagines himself possessed of demoniac forces through which he can cure, kill, bring rain, or lead his tribe to victory. The Dionysian orgiastic dancer also was transported into a realm where he could call forth fertility, rebirth, sometimes aided by human sacrifice. In the Orphic mysteries the intoxication of the dance could stir emotions that the mind had prepared and refined through ages of civilization. During Bach’s time in the unique atmosphere of French court life, the dance was more than a mere etiquette: it portrayed the most refined graces of the soul, expressing devotion and reverence for the Roi Soleil, the highest embodiment of idealism.
The noble idealism inherent in the dance music of French culture proved to be perfectly compatible with Lutheran humanism in Germany. In the eighteenth century the sentiment of adoration for an almost deified king was almost the same as that bestowed upon divinity. The delights and tender transports of these highly refined dances were quite acceptable, just as, for Luther, conjugal, sexual love was reconcilable with a divine life. Only the puritan Calvinist saw in dance music an antithesis to holiness. Werckmeister justified the use of dance music in the liturgy with the words: “To the pure, all is pure.” Buxtehude, the exemplary Lutheran composer, had composed a dance suite on a hymn theme with the words “Auf meinen lieben Gott trau ich” (On My Dear God I trust in Fear and in Need).
Ironically, much of Bach’s dance music originated in Köthen, and little of it in Weimar. Prince Leopold, although ostensibly a Calvinist, was more tolerant and more human than Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar. Thus, despite the calvinistic environment, Bach’s Lutheran spirit was more free here and his sojourn in Köthen was indeed the happiest time in his life. Although he must have regretted not having a musical post in a Lutheran church, he did not forsake his religious mission in music, even while he was composing secular music. As we can see, much of his music from this period had qualities of depth not usually found in court and chamber music, and eventually these compositions were transformed into music for church service. Especially in his treatment of the music for the dance we can see the master’s ability to perceive sacred elements in everyday life and to endow the secular with eternal significance.