Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

It’s been about three years since I posted on this particular blog, but I’ll be honest, COVID-19 has driven me to it. Plus I now have a bit more time on the weekends.

As many of you may know, I work in marketing for an orchestra. In Australia. And so, in less than two weeks, a group of talented musicians, many of them my friends, went from performing for an audience nearly every weekend to now being stuck at home, victims of a ban on public gatherings that started at anything larger than 500 people in one place and very quickly turned into anything greater than 100.

So here I am at home on a Saturday night – and not facing up to the prospect of going out to a concert tonight. (To be fair, there wasn’t one scheduled for this Saturday – it was next weekend. But you get the idea. I’m going to have to keep the moths off my concert-going clothes.)

But what I wanted to drill right down to today, because I can be as relentless about oversharing as I can about pursuing cold shivers – is the fear of death.

This week was exhausting. In fact, I checked Twitter on Friday afternoon and the word “Exhausted” was trending. (Sorry I didn’t screenshot that. You’ll just have to take my word for it.)

There are many reasons for this exhausted feeling (unexpected work, sudden change, trying to work out how to video conference!), but my theory is that the biggest reason for this collective collapse-in-a-heap – even if we’re not saying it out loud – is that my nation has taken a collective adrenaline shot of the fear of death.  Sure, we’re all talking about locking down and working from home to “flatten the curve”. But I think when we read the words “flatten the curve”, we’re not just talking about the idea of slowing down the rate at which we get sick. I think for many of us, what we’re hoping is that we won’t get sick. And we’re hoping that, because many of us aren’t ready to die.

Or maybe it’s just me? Whatever, I’ll ‘fess up.

In my head, up to a couple of weeks ago, my money was on me lasting maybe to my late 60s at least. The idea that this year or the next could be my last – no, that was not featuring in my thinking and planning. And these last two weeks have exposed how deeply I fear that changing. And I say that even as a Christian, someone who feels confident that there is life beyond this one.

There was an interesting blog post by Stephen McAlpine recently, back a few weeks ago when the biggest thing going on in Australia was the lack of toilet paper. I’m truncating his full thoughts, but he made these comments:

There’s a thin veneer of confidence in the Western world that is completely untested by any major traumatic event that sweeps all before it … It is a confidence that has held no weight and has no knowledge of anything that could break it. Yet. …

It’s like those videos of people in turbulence-rocked planes, with oxygen masks and luggage bouncing around, crying and screaming out that they don’t want to die.  And then the plane lands and they don’t die. And they have their holiday in Fiji and their massages and their cocktails on the beach.

But somewhere tucked in the back of their mind is the fact that actually they don’t want to die, but they will someday have to. It just wasn’t today.  And it just wasn’t that way.

This idea that we walk around with a fear of death tucked under a thin veneer of confidence was striking to me and has played on my mind.

But rather than get too philosophical about that (I’ll leave that up to Stephen and others!), it got me thinking about several bits of music I’ve come across over the years that deal with death. Maybe I’m morbid, but if fear of our own mortality is what we’re facing, music can sometimes be a more subtle way of looking it in the eye.

So I was thinking I could do a series of three or four blog posts sharing different music that I’ve come across that has a strikingly open view of death. But the one that I wanted to start with was one I stumbled across several years ago – the opening chorus of Bach’s Cantata BWV8.

A quick bit of background if you’re not aware of Bach’s cantatas. The great composer J.S. Bach used to compose music for the Lutheran church and wrote about 250 short works (about 20-25 minutes long) for orchestra, choir and soloists called cantatas. They would have been performed in the Sunday service and would have been tied to a particular Bible reading or theme for that particular Sunday.

The BWV8 cantata was composed for the 16th Sunday after Trinity on the calendar and it’s the day where, as far as I can tell, the congregation contemplated their mortality.

So this chorus “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?” literally translates as “Dearest God, when will my death be?” I cannot think of any church I’ve ever been to in my 41 years of church going that ever got as in-your-face about death as Bach does in this opening line of the chorus.

The full lyrics in English are:

Dearest God, when will my death be?
Now my days run ever on,
And the heirs of the old Adam,
In whose number I, too, am,
Have this for their legacy,
That they for a little while,
Poor and wretched, earth inhabit
And then are with earth united.

Here we go – in one chorus, we’re inhabiting the earth poor and wretched for a little bit and then get united with the earth. The next few sections of the cantata expand on this and explicitly and deliberately  work through the fears of death and offer the comfort of Jesus. (You can go read the full lyrics here to see how it plays out.)

But just have a listen to this opening chorus, because even despite the somberness of the sentiment in the words, Bach spins it out with some of the most delicate beauty ever created in music. There are long pauses between each line of singing, with a glorious duet between two oboe d’amores (an older version of our current oboe). Underpinning all that, if you listen closely, you can hear a very insistent rhythm, a slow ticking in the low strings, and a fast furious ticking on the flute. (Almost like one is the minute hand and the other is the second hand on a clock.)

I can’t prove this and maybe a Bach scholar can help me out, but even if it wasn’t done on purpose, the idea that this chorus literally ticks like the clock of our life, while discussing the idea that that clock will stop one day, is just musically spectacular and utterly moving. Somehow, miraculously, Bach has moved the fear of today’s age front and centre and said, “Let’s talk about it.”


2 thoughts on “Music and Mortality #1: My thoughts on COVID-19 and Bach Cantata BWV8

  1. Welcome back! I haven’t listened to the Bach yet, but it’s striking how much things have changed in a few centuries.

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