Bach and the Plague

The spring of 1694 was a time of upheaval for the young Johann Sebastian Bach. His elder cousin, Johann Christoph, had been sent for to repair the organ of St. George’s church near Sebastian’s family home. As J.C. tinkered with the organ and the young Sebastian Bach looked on in wonder, a messenger arrived at the church to deliver news to the two Bachs: Sebastian’s mother had suddenly taken ill and could not be revived.

Johann Christian Bach

Within days, Bach’s father Ambrosius would fall ill in a similar fashion to his wife, without even a hope of recovery. The following weeks were chaos for the orphaned Bach children. Their family’s home was put up for sale, and Sebastian Bach was sent to live with his elder brother of 14 years, (also named Johann Christoph) in Ohrdurf. Although Sebastian would have much preferred to become a music apprentice to the cousin who was with him on that terrible day, Johann Christoph lived in what was quickly becoming a quarantined region of Eisenach.

In those days, the bubonic plague was known to surface in certain Thuringian towns before receding once sanitation precautions were put into effect. A particularly deadly variant was sweeping over J.C.’s home right at the time that Bach’s parents were taken by illness. Had he been old enough to decide for himself, a young Sebastian Bach traveling home with J.C. would have surely run the risk of contracting this variant…and one of the most influential composers of the Baroque era may have succumbed to devastating illness before the greatest musical works of his life were penned.

The memory of losing both parents to illness travelled with Bach as he matured into an outstanding composer. At the age of thirty-eight Bach composed his twenty-fifth cantata, “Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe“ (There is Nothing Sound in my Body“) following the dreadful outbreak of plague in Marseilles, France. Conditions had been so poor in the areas hardest hit that an estimated 100,000 people lost their lives to the deadly disease. The text Bach chose for his cantata is particularly moving in light of our world’s current pandemic scenario, as Johann Jacob Rambach’s poetry describes a people stricken with sickness that stubbornly refuses to leave them.

Turning to his music as a fortress of comfort during times of uncertainty throughout Europe, Johann Sebastian Bach marched ever onward in his ambitions as a composer. Giving the beauty of his music back to a world which had unjustly torn him away from his parents far too soon, Bach turned the tragedy of a youth touched by pandemic into endless compositional achievement. Perhaps Bach’s faith in the healing power of music is what inspired him to choose Rambach’s poem for Cantata No. 25, the most poignant line of which reads “My plague cannot be healed by any herb or ointment, other than the balm of Gilead.” In all we have to face as the pandemic rages on, we must remember the cleansing effect that music has for our collective soul.

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