Subject to Death & Life
Paul Celan’s Todesfuge, J. S. Bach & the Passion of Christ
by Timothy A. Smith
Death is the intractable problem of the human condition, yet remedied by means of death, that is, the life-giving death of Christ. In his Confessions, Augustine writes:
Death, victim, and sacrifice—these are the subjects from which arise life, victory, and Christ’s saving priesthood.
There is a musical expression for such an arrangement of subject and, if you will, countersubject: the fugue. Death was the underlying subject of “fugues” by two very different men—Johann Sebastian Bach, “master of the fugue,” and Paul Celan, the premiere German-language post–World War II poet. A careful study and comparison of the “fugal responses” of Bach and Celan to suffering and death will deepen our appreciation of the Passion of Christ. We begin with Celan.
Death in Germany
Paul Celan’s Todesfuge ( Death Fugue) haunts the literature of the twentieth century. His most famous phrase, “Death is a Master from Germany,” comes from this most disquieting poem. Its driving dactylic meter, punctuated by staccato repetitions of trinken (“drink”), conveys the physical and spiritual horrors of a concentration camp:
Born in 1920 in Romania to Jewish parents, Celan’s real name was Paul Antschel. In 1942, his parents were sent to a concentration camp in
Ukraine, where his father died of typhus and his mother was shot. Paul remained in Romania, forced to labor for the Nazis until the Russian “liberation” of 1944. After the war, he lived in Bucharest briefly, then Vienna, finally settling in Paris in 1948, where he later became a French citizen. In April 1970, forty years ago this spring, he drowned himself in the Seine.
At his mother’s insistence, Paul had spoken German at home—the language of politics, literature, and the arts. Upon hearing of his mother’s death, he wrote: “And can you bear it, Mother, as once on a time/ the gentle, the German, the pain-laden rhyme?” While fluent in seven languages, Celan continued to honor his Muttersprache by writing almost exclusively in German, the language of his oppressors, and also a reminder of all that was beautiful in the culture he had lost.
A Poetic Fugue
Why did Celan call his poem a fugue, which is a musical term? A fugue explores a theme (subject), often in harmony with another theme (countersubject), exposed by a number of “voices” and contrapuntally developed.
J. S. Bach’s G-minor fugue ( The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I) is a case in point. The contrapuntal stitchery of this fugue is revealed by the inversion of the subject’s beginning at the countersubject’s end. Similarly, the subject’s end is inverted at the countersubject’s beginning. Thus, the subject and countersubject are only superficially different; in essence, they are the same. Those who do not understand this will hear only differences; those who listen more thoughtfully will perceive their essential sameness.
Formal parallels between Todesfuge and its musical counterpart are tenuous, yet the poem is a fugue—not in its formal mimicry but in its purpose and essence. Its purpose is to reveal multiple connections between seemingly unlike things, which it does by developing an idea in slightly different ways each time. Its purpose is also to demonstrate relationships, which it does by revealing new ideas born of old ones, but also in counterpoint with the old.
And, as in Bach’s fugue, the subject and countersubject of Celan’s poem are inversions of the same essence. Most commentators identify Todesfuge’s subject with its oft-repeated first line, Schwarze Milch der Frühe (“Black milk of daybreak”), a metaphor for the gritty mix of fog and human ashes from the death-camp ovens. Its countersubject is heard in the continual references to graves—in the sky ( Grab in den Lüften) , in the ground, and in the clouds. Thus, for the victims of Himmler’s crematoria, the “black milk of morning” became their “grave in the sky.”
Sisters of Gold & Ash
Another inversion lies in Celan’s final couplet: dein goldenes Haar Margarete/ dein aschenes Haar Sulamith (“your golden hair Margarete/ your ashen hair Sulamith”) . The scholar John Felstiner observes that the combination of golden hair with Margarete recalls the romantic ideal of the feminine: Heine’s Lorelei had golden hair, and Margarete was the heroine of Goethe’s Faust.
Celan the Romanian, like most Jews of the intelligentsia prior to World War II, admired Germany as a nation of artists. Margarete’s golden hair represents that Germany—the land of Goethe, Schiller, Trakl, and Rilke. She is the apotheosis of German artistic genius. But in the poem, the significance of Margarete’s golden hair is colored by the context; it follows mention of “a man . . . in the house” who “plays with his vipers.”
A telling phrase insinuates itself between the mention of the man and the mention of Margarete: “It grows dark in Germany.” This is a moral darkness by which a presumed Teutonic brilliance (not least presumed by Nazi propaganda) is eclipsed by genocide. Celan is implying that the genius of Germany, the imagination that produced its treasured music, poetry, and art, was sired of the same intellect that approved the slaughter of three-fourths of Europe’s Jews.
By contrast, the line dein aschenes Haar Sulamith memorializes the ashen hair of Solomon’s Shulammite. In the Song of Solomon, this beloved Jewish girl is adored in the most sensuous language—her hair is likened to a flock of goats and a royal tapestry. But Celan called it ashen, with a lamentable double meaning.
At the beginning of chapter 6 in the Song of Solomon, the Shulammite’s friends ask where her lover has gone. To Celan, the lover of German lyric poetry and language, Himmler’s diabolical “solution” has eviscerated the German psyche. By the end of chapter 6, the Shulammite’s friends wonder where she herself has gone: “Come back, come back, that we may gaze on you,” poignant words for six million lost.
Todesfuge’s lamentation is not only for the Shulammite, however; its tears, terror, and anger are also for Margarete. The fate of one mirrors that of the other (a very fugue-like construction). They were indeed sisters, both sacrificed to the sadomasochistic machine of National Socialism.
Did Celan imagine the fugue itself as an archetype of Germany? The word Fuga means flight, implying that the nation had taken leave of its senses. In addition, Germany (if one may personify the state) was in what psychologists call a fugue state, a term for one who is aware of what he is doing at the time, but incapable of recalling it afterward.
The German philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno claimed that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, but Celan proved that wickedness recalled in brilliant language is not barbaric, but artistic. That a Jew could employ the words of his tormenter after Auschwitz is proof enough that Margarete and Sulamith once were sisters.
Death in Common
Like Celan, Bach lived in an era when death touched everyone, and often. He was born in 1685, the second generation after the Thirty Years’ War, a tragic period during which the Holy Roman Empire declined from 16 million souls to fewer than 10 million—six million lives lost.
After the war, Bach’s ancestors endured waves of plague. His parents died when he was 10 years old, and his first wife at 35. Only half of his 20 children survived to adulthood. Understandably, death becomes one of the great themes in Bach’s music, not only on account of his own grief, but also because his office frequently required him to compose funeral music.
But why conflate the wordless G-minor fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier with the grim reaper? Because fifteen years before composing the fugue, Bach had used the same subject in music composed for the funeral of his uncle, Tobias Lämmerhirt of Erfurt.
This work, Cantata 106, begins with a sonatina—a short piece for instruments. This peaceful exordium reminds us that the dying, and those who mourn, need consolation. For the Lämmerhirt family, comfort would come in favorite Scripture passages that, by Lutheran tradition, they would have asked Bach to set to music—a sermon for the living more than a requiem for the dead.
The choir’s reminder that “God’s time is the best time” lends the cantata its name: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit. An allusion to Psalm 139 affirms that life has a natural span, from conception to death, and that God’s purpose is for it to be lived fully, without interruption, for the duration of its given length. The tenor’s presentment of Psalm 90, “O Lord, teach us to number our days,” prompts the bass to forewarn, “Set your house in order,” from the parable of the rich fool who died while building bigger barns to hive his wealth.
Then follow the lines for the music that Bach would later reuse, wordless, in the Well-Tempered Clavier: “It is the ancient law; man, thou must perish.” To convey this “ancient law,” der alte Bund, Bach turns the admonition from the ninth chapter of Hebrews into a fugue—a form that is academic, compositionally unforgiving, and rooted in centuries of tradition.
Nor can he resist satirizing der alte Bund, with its etymological proximity to highest law, by assigning alte to the lowest pitch of the subject. The repeating notes of “thou must perish” aver certainty.
But then, abandoning the formal and academic for the au courant, Bach has the soprano continue: “Yes, come, Lord Jesus,” from the end of the Apocalypse. The high voice, through which Bach personifies the disembodied soul, is that of Uncle Tobias. Having satisfied the demand of der alte Bund, he awaits the resurrection.
The soul’s tenuous dance with the ancient law is vied by recorders, which interpolate a chorale whose words are not sung, but upon hearing the melody, every grieving Lämmerhirt would have remembered them: “My cause is God’s, and I am still/ Let him do with me as he will/ Whether for me the race is run/ Or scarce begun/ I ask no more—his will be done.” An ingenious counter-exposition then harmonizes the newly introduced motifs of consolation with the old fugal subject, the law of death—themes thought to be irreconcilable. Analogous to the Pauline paedagogos, Bach’s fugue points us “to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” The soul, separated from the remaining voices, concludes the fugue alone, affirming: “Yes, come Lord Jesus.”
Jewish & Christian Voices
Death, whether natural or inflicted, is the intractable problem. In response, both the Jewish Celan and the Christian Bach turn the fugue into a token. But to some, Bach implied a more sinister connotation. Though he died two centuries before the Third Reich, his music has nevertheless come under a cloud. Had such an unspeakable atrocity not been perpetrated against Jews in World War II, it is doubtful that Bach would have been accused of anti-Semitism. But in recent times, painful questions have been raised about his attitude toward Jews, and they deserve a serious answer.
The issue received national attention in 1995 when students at Swarthmore College refused to participate in a performance of the St. John Passion because they perceived it to be anti-Semitic. The incident, provoked by misinformation and fueled by media attention, posed vexing questions nonetheless. In response, Swarthmore professor Michael Marissen produced an apologetic: Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion. Marissen contrasts Bach’s treatment of the Passion with that of his contemporaries, revealing Bach as one who refused to participate in the common practice of Jew-baiting (one reason why none of Telemann’s 44 Passion settings is performed today).
Ironically, the complaint against Bach devolves from his skill as a dramatist—what his critics regard as (too) vivid settings of the Gospels. What goes unnoticed is the uncommon effort he made to imply culpability on the part of every believer. Nevertheless, there are sound reasons why, to many Jews, Bach’s Passion music represents an irreconcilable difference between themselves and Christians.
There is something fugal about this most heartbreaking of relationships in Western civilization—that of Christians and Jews (Margarete and Sulamith?). Returning to the G-minor fugue, we have already seen that the subject is followed by a countersubject in the same voice, with the counter being a retrograde inversion of its ancestor. The counter is also accompanied by a fresh statement of the subject in a different voice.
Here, parallels to the Judeo-Christian experience are found: One is generated of the other; one could not exist without the other having gone before; and each has the ability to accompany the other. In spite of sometimes agonizing dissonance, Jews and Christians are voices in the same fugue. We share much, yet we maintain essential differences. We should hope neither to blur the distinctions nor hype the common ground. But where relationships have been strained, we should strive for reconciliation.
In 1997 my wife and I toured Thuringia and Saxony, starting in Eisenach, the town of Bach’s (and Martin Luther’s) birth. We ended in Leipzig, where we placed flowers on Bach’s grave.
Although we did not inspect the nearby death camps, we were aware that, to Hitler’s victims and the survivors, the Bach cities are associated with scenes of appalling cruelty. When the American soldiers arrived in Ohrdruf, where 250 years earlier the newly orphaned Bach had come into the care of his older brother, they forced the townsfolk and prominent Nazis to view stacked bodies in the crematorium. Bergen-Belsen is on the Lüneburg heath, where as a youth Bach was introduced to the stile antico of Palestrina and music in the French manier. Buchenwald is a mere five miles north of Weimar, the city of Bach’s first employment. Mühlhausen, the darling town where he married, is the site of Buchenwald’s subcamp, Dora-Mittelbau; and Leipzig, where he composed the B-minor Mass, The Art of the Fugue, the Passions, and Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier, harbored an industrial satellite of Buchenwald.
Our return flight departed from Munich, where we arrived early. Having some free time, we resolved to pay our respects at Dachau, a ghastly place reserved for Hitler’s political opponents, Catholic priests being singled out for Dr. Rascher’s experiments with infectious diseases. I will not forget the memorial with NEVER AGAIN engraved in five languages. One area of common ground for Christians and Jews is that such sadness and suffering should happen never again. Never again should there be a Todesfuge.
Echoes of Death
But if the fugue teaches anything, it is that every subject, heard again, will be with variation: trumpeted as something not yet seen, something beneficent, a cure for Parkinson’s disease, or the getting for your child of that extra eugenic ounce. It may be Mengele’s twins among half a million human embryos in cryogenic limbo, or Sophie’s “choice.”
It may be inflicted not upon a race but on a religion—Christians in southern Sudan—or upon the old, or the very young—the children of Beslan—or upon the ill or handicapped—when one’s “right to die” becomes a duty that must be embraced “for the good.” We hear these developments as echoes of ideas from long ago.
In 1995 Pope John Paul II used “culture of death” eight times in his Evangelium Vitae ( The Gospel of Life). The more affluent cultures especially, he said, are dominated by powerful interests overly concerned with efficiency, leading to a “war of the powerful against the weak.” Persons who, by reason of illness, age, or handicap, are perceived as compromising this efficiency, are “looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated,” and a “conspiracy against life” is thus unleashed. While it often begins with individual choices, this conspiracy engulfs families and societies, to their detriment.
Following his fourth reference to the culture of death, John Paul II expounds a culture of life, reminding Christians, in Moses’ words, of their Jewish roots: “See, I have set before you life and death . . . therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.”
The pope bids his audience to turn their minds from the Todesfuge toward its opposite—a Lebensfuge—a fugue of life. Life brings death, and death life. Like the fugal complex, they seem antithetical, but are somehow irreducibly joined. Christians believe that life grows from the seed of Christ’s death, a fugue-like paradox that Gustav Aulen called Christus Victimae and Christus Victor. The contradiction is this: None of us chose to be born. We were chosen. And no sane person, when offered life, would choose to die.
Yet Moses must invite the choosing of life. Command it even. And the Holy Father enjoins Christians to do the same. The goal is obvious enough: If life was chosen for us, we must choose it for ourselves all the same, and for others.
Not so obvious is the method. In a society that tolerates the choosing of death, what are people of goodwill to do? What is my responsibility? If I’m not a party to it, can’t I just relax and read a good book? (So, too, in Germany in 1938?) Or does decency demand the active choosing of life for persons who may resent the intrusion?
While modernity prates its coming to its senses with respect to genocide, can it pronounce the shibboleths of abortion, embryonic stem cells, assisted suicide, and euthanasia, and still choose life? Doesn’t Todesfuge still haunt us?
Such would seem to be the sermon of the G-minor fugue. Like the age in which we find ourselves, Bach’s subject implies dissonance, polarization, and lack of resolution.
In the gebunden (strict) style that his music otherwise epitomizes, the extreme leap of a minor sixth in the subject should have resolved, by step, in the opposite direction (resolution enough for today’s ethical leaps as well). Instead, Bach embitters this already sorrowful interval by continuing in the same direction, a “mistake” that would have drawn red marks for any composition student daring to do the same.
In Lämmerhirt’s funeral fugue, the “error” was even more discomfiting—the leap of a tritone—what the ancients called diabolus in musica, the devil in music. Recalling der alte Bund, the words that Bach applied to the fiendish interval, one can begin to appreciate his genius for imagining symbols of enduring spiritual substance. The “ancient law” of death is occasioned by a missing of the mark, a mistake, a sin.
The most imaginative application of Bach’s motivic complex is heard in his aural ciphering of the Greek letter chi, the first character in Christos and also a graphic representation of a cross. As one who sometimes substituted chi for the complete spelling of Christ (and cross), Bach’s profound understanding of this ancient symbol is beyond doubt. Also, there is the testimony of a little-known canon, (BWV 1077, dedicated to theology student Johann Gottlieb Fulda), in which Bach employed a strategy identical to that in the G-minor fugue. Beneath Fulda’s canon he wrote, as if to banish all doubt, “This is a symbol of Christ who will crown those who carry his cross” (Symbolum, Christus Coronabit Crucigeros).
The composer’s answer to the intractable problem is heard in motives trading registers and turning upside down. The unresolved leap is remedied by the musical equivalents of repentance (turning of intervals in the opposite direction), atonement (one voice carrying the motives of another), and resurrection (what had descended now ascends).
Heard in this way, the fugue is an application of Luther’s theologia crucis, a tonal synthesis of Jesus’ words: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Matt. 16:24–25; Luke 9:23–24).
How do we choose life? Although Bach parsed his answer in tones instead of words, his homily agrees with that of Fr. Gonzalo Miranda, dean of the School of Bioethics at the Pontifical University in Rome, who asserts that not to choose life is to live in “a culture in which death is seen as a solution.” Sadly, we do indeed live in a day when death is regarded by some as their final solution. It is not that we love death, but we have “lost generosity, the ability to support the one who suffers.”
In deciphering the meaning of Bach’s motivic complex, we can hear his heart in the matter: The more difficult the subject, the more thoughtful must be the countersubject, the more pensive the resolution, the more deliberate the counterpoint.
Recalling that passio means suffering, Bach reminds us that the resolve to carry the cross is always accompanied by thankfulness and remembrance of Christ’s passion. Suffering and death are givens that we cannot change. But compassion is the divine counterpoint to suffering, and love the only diapason to death.
An English translation of Todesfuge is accessible on-line at: www.celan-projekt.de/todesfuge-englisch.html.
Timothy A. Smith is a professor of music theory at Northern Arizona University and the author of the Canons and Fugues of J. S. Bach website. He lives with his wife and the youngest of their three daughters in Flagstaff, where they are members of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany.
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“Subject to Death & Life” first appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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