A Homoerotic Love Air in the Cantata
''The Quarrel Between Phoebus And Pan''
By Johann Sebastian Bach
By Frank Schrader
(translated by the editorial staff of the Androphile project)
Many of the lyrics to Bach's cantatas appear strange to the modern listener, because they are too much rooted in the time and circumstances of their creation. Bach scholars have explored the sacred cantatas and scrutinized almost every word for its theological content; some of them even regard the texts as a direct expression of Bach's piety and attitude of mind. An interpretation of the secular cantatas seems to be more difficult, as they are often topical, and the local facts and affairs that are alluded to were well known to the audience at the time but are not easily comprehensible today. Frequently, especially in the homage cantatas, the text is based upon antique myths. Though there are extensive studies in the secular cantatas too, apparently the theologically formed image of Bach as it was developed in the 19th century has been an obstacle to full understanding. Actually a close look at the mythological background may lead to interesting observations, as the following example will show.
The Creation Of The Cantata Bwv 201
(Translators' note: BWV = ''Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis'', index of the works of Bach)
Johann Sebastian Bach's 'dramma per musica' 'Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan' BWV 201 tells of the quarrel between the Olympian god Phoebus Apollo, the creator of the kithara, and the rural god Pan, who invented the flute. The text was written by a postal clerk and amateur poet in Leipzig, Christian Friedrich Henrici, called Picander, and published in 1732. The exact occasion for the creation of this cantata of approximately one hour playing time is not known. C. L. Hilgenfeldt remarks in his Bach biography of 1850 that the cantata was probably written in 1725 for the Saxon court. However, the features of the paper and the handwriting of the score reveal that the cantata was not written before autumn 1729. Klaus Häfner assumes that BWV 201 together with two other cantatas of the same length, of which only the texts by Picander have survived, formed a kind of trilogy produced by Bach when he had assumed his duties as director of the ''Collegium Musicum'' in the spring of 1729.
Two other performances during Bach's lifetime can be proved. The first one of them, in the second half of the 1730s, was probably Bach's reaction to attacks on his music by Johann Adolf Scheibe in the year of 1737. The performance in 1749 and the change of the text of the last recitative were presumably caused by a quarrel about a headmaster in Freiberg named Biedermann, who in his school programme maintained that too intensive a musical culture was detrimental to young people. Bach may also have alluded to the test for the office of a choirmaster undergone by Gottlieb Harrer, a protegéé of Count Heinrich von Brühl, on the 8th of June, 1749.
The Mythological Background of the Phoebus Air
It is to be supposed that Bach was less interested in giving an exact account of the antique tale, but mainly used it as a representation of the then current conflict between ''highly artistic, metrical, serious style'' on the one hand and ''light, merely pleasant style'' on the other hand; in the guise of Phoebus he says something for his own cause, in order to fight for his demanding music. Therefore in Bach scholarship special attention has been paid to the cantata and above all the Phoebus air. According to Philipp Spitta, the air in B minor, ''very beautiful and written with obvious passion, is a self-portrait of Bach''. Its text runs:
Drück ich deine zarten Wangen,
Holder, schöner Hyazinth.
Und dein' Augen küss' ich gerne,
Weil sie meine Morgen-Sterne
Und der Seele Sonne sind.
I press your tender cheeks,
Lovely, beautiful Hyacinth.
And I like to kiss your eyes,
Because they are my morning stars
And the sun of my soul.)
The Phoebus air is probably the first clearly homoerotic love air in musical history. That it is held in high esteem among experts could be proved by several other quotations. Nevertheless most of the authors who wrote about this cantata passed over in silence the homoerotic content of the air and restricted themselves to musical analysis; apparently it did not fit in with the traditional image of Bach that the master should have given his artistic credo in an air that depicts a homoerotic love affair.
For information about the mythological background of the air, a listener of the performances directed by Bach might have resorted to a book entitled ''Gründliches Lexicon Mythologicum'', an encyclopedia of antique mythology by Benjamin Hederich, published in Leipzig in 1724, according to which
''Hyacinth [...] was an exceedingly beautiful boy, wherefore not only Thamyris conceived with him a kind of love that is against nature [...] but also Zephyrus and Apollo at once fell in love with him. But as he esteemed the latter higher than the former, this one was piqued, wherefore once upon a time when they both were exercising with the discus, and Apollo had thrown it high, Zephyrus blew it at Hyacinth's head so that he remained thus henceforth lying, whereupon Apollo pursued Zephyrus with his arrows, while he changed Hyacinth into a flower of his name.''
(Bach was not the only composer to treat the theme ''Apollo and Hyacinth''. At the age of eleven years, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed a Latin school comedy ''Apollo et Hyacinth'', which was first performed in 1767 in Salzburg. However, the author of the libretto, the Benedictine Father Rufinus Widl, transformed the tale thoroughly. As the performance of a play with homoerotic content by the pupils of a Catholic school would have been impossible for reasons of morality, the father added a female character, Melia, the sister of Hyacinth, and lets Apollo fall in love with her. Another work treating the theme, the chamber cantata ''Apollo und Hyacinth'', improvisations for cembalo, alto and eight solo instruments after lyrics by Georg Trakl, was composed by Hans Werner Henze [*1926] in 1948.)
Bach exercises all his skill to give an adequate idea of the passion with which Phoebus desires to kiss Haycinth. He shows his mastery of metrics without making the air appear studied. Phoebus's voice is accompanied by strings and basso continuo, a flute and, very appropriately, one ''oboe d'amore''. Musically the air is of no different model than heterosexual love airs by Bach. In 1865, the Bach biographer Carl Hermann Bitter wrote of the air of Phoebus:
''It is worked with great care and of the noblest melodic charm. Obviously Bach wanted to represent the perfect art of the god not only in his singing but also with the orchestra. The instruments, led in sweet mellifluence, move, elaborately entwined, with and beside the singing. This develops into a love song on the beautiful Hyacinth, which speaks of yearning and tender desire. Here is the feeling and soul of expression, here are the sighs of ardent love dying away in soft chords breathing voluptuousness, here rises the melody in swelling modulation, all enveloped with a fragrant filmy veil woven by the instruments. We see the divine form of the handsome singer, wrapped in the heavenly charm in which ancient Greek myth lets the sun god so often descend to human propensities, and we see next to him the blooming beauty of the boy, for whom the soft enraptured singing sounds. Bach wanted to give the best he could give in such a way, and he has delivered a delicious masterpiece which would have done the immortal singer of love, Mozart, honour.''
In a review of the cantata by Selmar Bagge which appeared in a magazine, the ''Leipziger Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung'', in the year of 1866, it is said that the competition between Phoebus and Pan begins with Phoebus
||. . . singing a tender air to the "beautiful, lovely Haycinth". It would appear more appropriate by our modern standards that he should direct his tenderness to some beautiful goddess. However, the tale is set among Greek gods, and in the last century one was not yet prudish enough to take umbrage at such things [...] Our highly educated age condemns, certainly with perfect consistency, such a text as childish or even silly. The refinement that reigns today is indeed not capable of taking a naive point of view. One shrinks back at a gross expression as a sign of a crudeness luckily overcome, while the vileness and villainy that is offered us from the stage in a thousand colors is accepted without special disapproval by our 'educated' society.
How Bach's contemporaries reacted to the performances, whether they really did not ''take umbrage at such things'', as Bagge says, has not come down to us. Since Bach repeated the performance at least two times, it seems that no one was especially infuriated by the love ''against nature'' between Apollo and Hyacinth. Considering the great reservations against homoerotic love that the vast majority of the population was prone to at that time (and still is nowadays), this appears at first quite surprising. But in view of the high esteem and rank of antique fables and myths in 17th and 18th century poetry, such a benevolent reaction appears understandable, even though there was also no lack of criticism of mythological subjects, particularly on the part of orthodoxy and pietism.
The Author of the Text
Bach never used text of his own for his music. Little is known of his literary criteria and his relations to the librettists. Usually he took the lyrics for the cantatas as he got them. Therefore it is not possible to say exactly whether Bach or his good friend Picander was responsible for the content of the Phoebus air. But with this special cantata, which he used to defend his view on music, Bach might have left nothing to chance and also had an influence on the text.
Contemporaries reproached Picander with ''leading a dissolute life''.
In view of the Phoebus air the question arises if he might have been homosexual. At any rate it is conspicuous that he did not marry until the age of 36. Only four years after the death of his first wife he married for the second time. Both marriages remained childless. Still, his family circumstances might also have been owing to his changeable career.
Picander's poetic talent is now considered negligible. In his own time, his writings were quite popular but also infamous for their very free language, as they did not recoil from erotic suggestiveness. Picander had a partiality for provokingly lascivious wording and had ''the most offensive and nasty things printed''. The council of Leipzig even confiscated several of his works. A biography from the 19th century relates that he tried to amuse rough minds with tasteless humor and coarse, indecent jokes, and that his poems contained many proverbial sayings of an often obscene nature. So some Bach scholars were troubled about the provable fact that Picander was on good terms with Bach. For example, Albert Schweitzer remarked in 1908: ''One wonders that the master should have been drawn to such an unmannerly and barely engaging man.'' Schweitzer did not object to the content of the Phoebus air, though.
From such opinions on his poetry, it does not appear very surprising that Picander should have chosen the sexual relationship between two males as subject of an aria, though he also could have let Apollo sing of one of his 42 female ''courtesans'' that are listed in Hederich's mythological encyclopedia.
The Case of Johann Rosenmüller
Maybe the Phoebus air has an actual historic background. About 75 years before its first performance, a scandalous incident shook the musical life of Leipzig. In 1655, the composer Johann Rosenmüller (c1619-1684), who had been designated choirmaster of the ''Thomaner'' by the council of Leipzig in 1653, was accused of sodomy with boys of the Thomas School. He had to flee to avoid punishment, presumably first to Hamburg, and then went to live in Venice, from which he did not return to Germany before 1682, when he became director of music at the court of Duke Anton Ulrich of Brunswick in Wolfenbüttel. Despite the moral accusations against him, Rosenmüller was already considered a musician of distinction by his contemporaries, and is now regarded as ranking with Buxtehude and Pachelbel among the foremost German composers between Schütz and Bach.
So the question arises whether Bach's homoerotic Phoebus air might be an allusion to the Rosenmüller scandal, a veiled protest against the unjust persecution of Rosenmüller. (The survival of Greek mythology in the Renaissance and the baroque period, and therefore also of the theme of ''homosexuality'', combated by Christianity, offered to authors and artists a possibility of at least indirectly expressing things that were socially tabooed.) This seems to be a daring hypothesis, but a close inspection of the circumstances allows the assumption that it is at least possible, even though, like so much else of Bach's life, it cannot be proved.
Johann Rosenmüller is not mentioned in the remaining documents of Bach's life, but there is sufficient indication that Bach knew him and his life-story. For the cantata BWV 27 ''Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende'' (''Who knows how near my end is''), Bach adopted the choral movement for five voices ''Welt ade, ich bin dein müde'' (''World farewell, I am tired of thee'') from Rosenmüller. Bach probably took the movement from the hymnbook of Leipzig by Vopelius from 1682. It was quite unusual for Bach to adopt a foreign choral movement: only three choral movements are proved to be from other composers in his extensive cantata works. So the use of this choral most likely shows his great appreciation of the outlawed Rosenmüller.
Already in Lüneburg, where Bach attended the Michaelis School from 1700 to 1702, he might have got to know music of Rosenmüller in the extensive musical library of the school. Also in Erfurt and Weimar there were quite large collections of Rosenmüller's works. In 1712 or 1713 Bach performed his ''Jagdkantate'' (''Hunting cantata'') at Weißenfels, where he had many relations and acquaintances, and where Johann Philipp Krieger was director of music between 1680 and 1725. Krieger had been a student of Rosenmüller in the 1670s in Venice. During his 45 years of work in Weißenfels, Krieger performed numerous compositions of Rosenmüller. In Leipzig itself there were also some works by Rosenmüller in the musical library of the Thomas School. In addition, Bach had personal connections with Wolfenbüttel, where Rosenmüller had once been director of music. Perhaps Bach, through his cousin and friend Johann Gottfried Walther, also had access to the musical library of Heinrich Bokemeyer at Wolfenbüttel, which contained over 100 works of Rosenmüller.
Johann Gottfried Walther explicitly mentions the accusations against Rosenmüller in his ''Encyclopedia of Music'' of 1732. Walther completed the editorial work on his encyclopedia provisionally in August 1729. Could Bach, who presumably collaborated on Walther's encyclopedia, have been prompted to write his Phoebus cantata in the autumn of 1729 by the article in the encyclopedia? Or did Bach plan to perform a work of Rosenmüller in Leipzig, but failed because of the opposition to the person of Rosenmüller? Doubtless the scandal of 75 years ago was still remembered by the citizens and the authorities of Leipzig.
Even though the circumstances of its creation cannot be entirely elucidated, the air of Phoebus in Johann Sebastian Bach's cantata ''The Quarrel between Phoebus and Pan'' has remained up to now the most important treatment of a clearly homoerotic love affair in Western music.
(Translators' note: The copious notes to this essay, mostly referring to source material written in German, have not been translated. They may be looked up in the original, which is also available on the World History of Male Love site.)
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'The Quarrel Between Phoebus And Pan'
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