Yield Troubled Shadows: Bach and Modern Society

Project Synopsis

Where does the church music of J. S. Bach belong in today’s world? Originally written to serve as “musical sermons” in the context of Lutheran church services, Bach’s cantatas were intended to provide listeners the opportunity for ethical reflection and inspire them to right action. Might something of that ethical function still be possible in a modern, secular context? Times change, but many issues of concern remain the same.

This concert-forum is a two-fold experiment. On the one hand we hope that these cantatas might spark thought, discussion, and maybe even productive action on issues like gender and economic justice. At the same time, we think that experiences of these modern-day concerns could amplify our aesthetic appreciation of the music itself. These are huge, complex issues, but huge issues are exactly what Bach had in mind when he wrote his church music. It was a matter of heaven and hell for his first audiences; the cantata themes are still ones of life and death today.

The motet Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf optimistically affirms that human beings are essentially good, even when we feel at a loss for what to do or say, and encourages us to muster the courage to act in accordance with our consciences.

Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, a wedding cantata, is about sex and the gendered roles of the lovers. Prof. David Yearsley (Music) spoke on the courtship and conjugal customs and mores of the eighteenth century and thereby endeavored to demythologize and so humanize the person of Johann Sebastian Bach — often imagined to be a disembodied, floating brain of a genius. But Yearsley’s lecture provoked a hearing from the perspective of a person in the flesh, in a way that corrected the idealist, romantic fiction of a poet of pure spirit while avoiding the reciprocal error (common in ‘posthuman’ discourse) of a singly bodily, mechanistic person. Both fictions misunderstand the radicalness paradox of Cartesian dualism, in which mind and body are coextensive but incommensurate.

Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort trades in a more familiar imagery of fire and brimstone to urge listeners to repay the debt of sin. But by using the earthly language of money and commerce, it draws a connection between spiritual and material debts—holding up salvation and fairness as equal goals. Prof. Robert Hocket (Law) tied Judeo-Christian concept of the Jubilee, a year of universal pardon of both spiritual and material debts (cf. Leviticus 25:10), to the structural causes of and potential remedies in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and the ethical problems that inhere in both. Prof. Hocket also offered a meditation on the aesthetic likeness between the beauty and balance of Bach’s counterpoint and of double-entry bookkeeping.

Part of the purpose of this concert was to foster discussion and audience engagement with both issues and music. We can report that the post-event reception lasted over 90 minutes, and the audience were deeply invested in discussing the music and the historical and ethical perspectives suggested by the speakers. Some of the eminent guest performers, too, remarked that this was one of the most unique contexts in which they have presented Bach’s music, which they otherwise are very familiar with. We think it is a good thing, for example, when a violist and a lawyer can have a meaningful and progressive conversation about Bach and interest rates.

The event brought together many musicians and scholars with personal connections to Ithaca and Cornell. Many of the collaborating presenters indicated that their earliest professional inspirations were fostered on Cornell’s campus at Barnes Hall in particular, and they delighted at the opportunity to contribute to such an experience for current Cornell students.

Barnes Hall was filled to capacity (about 280 persons), and the audience included members of the Cornell faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates, as well as members of the Ithaca community.