From Adolescent Rebellion To Creative Sublimation

Bach is for me one of the last figures in the history of German culture for whom there is not yet a divorce between what one might call the artist and the intellectual… there is not with him the slightest separation between intelligence, art and life, nor is there a conflict between “profane” and “sacred” music, with him everything is on the same plane.
Jean Marie Straub

Bach was precisely someone who reacted against his own inertia, although he was deeply rooted in his times, and was oppressed.
Jean Marie Straub

“Chronicle” critiques the exploitation of artist in the mode of production.
Jean Marie Straub

Throughout the film, it appears that piece after piece that Bach composes is commissioned after a loss, to be played as hymn. There are some works made simply in praise, but even then, these are often located in this chronicle aside another lost Bach child.
Ryland Walker Knight, “A glance at J-M Straub and Daniele Huillet’s ‘Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach’” (2009)

Bach’s compositions became a receptacle for the turbulence of his life, including the loss of his parents as a child and later his first wife and 12 of his 20 children before they had reached the age of three – well beyond the average, even at a time when infant mortality was ubiquitous.
John Eliot Gardiner, “Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach”

Bach’s education was troubled by gang warfare and bullying, sadism and sodomy – as well of his own extensive truancy.
John Eliot Gardiner, ibid.

We yearn to know what kind of a person was capable of composing music so complex that it leaves us completely mystified, then… so irresistibly rhythmic that we want to get up and dance to it, and then… so full of poignant emotion that we are moved to the very core of our being.
John Eliot Gardiner, ibid.

Jean-Marie Straub, Daniele Huillet and “The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach”

Jean Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, young and enlighteningly thoughtful

Genius starts with being a child

According to documents, in Bach’s first school (Eisenach Latin school in Thuringia, Germany) attended by the children of bourgeois tradespeople, the boys were “rowdy, subversive, thuggish, beer- and wine-loving, girl-chasing … breaking windows and brandishing their daggers… Many parents kept their children at home – not because they were sick, but for the fear of what went on in or outside the school. For punishment, boys endured beating and threats of ‘eternal damnation’”. “The Guardian”, John Eliot Gardiner’s ideas about Bach’s life.

Straub/Huillet’s semantic construction of this shot includes, it seems, not just humorous, but satirical connotations. Look, how wide and hard some chorus boys open their mouths while singing. It’s not just “severe training”, but a pedagogy hooked on perfectionism fed on imaginary, and based on child abuse and probably sexual exploitation. Composition of the shot suggests that in the worldview dominant in church schools during Bach’s time in Germany, there was place for two kind of “children” – the first are angels supporting the heaven (we see them behind the chorister boys who are the second kind and first of all need a strict discipline). In other words, the best kids are those who are doing the impossibly difficult job of physically supporting the universe by the fact of their angelic goodness, while the worst kids (kids as such) better learn – how to glorify god through church singing and mechanical obedience to teachers and social authorities.

Chorister boys and the young men during a session of singing training

Metaphoric landscape corresponding to a worldview which asserts that human beings are supposed to be above nature and must please god with their efforts to transform “pagan” nature covered by veil of sins through their redemptive efforts.

Johann Sebastian’s everyday work

Gustav Leonhardt in the role of Johann Sebastian Bach

Handwriting of Johann Sebastian

On the left and behind the musicians following Bach’s conducting we see again the angels keeping the Creator’s world from collapse – a widespread motif of the church‘s interior design: the courageous innocence that keeps the world existing.

The composition of the shot seems to suggest that the sublime beauty of Bach’s music makes the human soul move up, as if, closer to the throne of the creator.

Johann Sebastian (Gustav Leonhardt) as a chorus-master and spiritual pedagogue.

Personal life and dedication to art’s “organism” and otherness

Bach’s second wife Anna Magdalena Bach (Christiane Lang) is rehearsing, with her and Johann Sebastian’s daughter by her side.

It’s not easy to keep the amorous flame alive between a rigid social system, an incredibly difficult profession, cultural obligations, raising children, the call of the music and the expectations of Johann Sebastian’s talent.

Angel of creative inspiration again has kidnapped Anna-Magdalena’s husband from his family

Bach with Anna Magdalena (an accomplished musician herself) are working together

Johan Sebastian and Anna Magdalena are rehearsing together

When human development is the growth of professionalism and special talent

Bach again and again at the piano

Bach at the harpsichord perfecting his own piece

Don’t miss behind the chorister boys the motif of angel supporting the universe. Gardiner examined the records of the three schools Bach attended. “A villain of one place, where Bach was a chorister was a master and church cantor at Ohrdruf. The teacher was a sadistic disciplinarian inflicting on the pupils ‘intolerable punishments’. He was eventually sacked as ‘the plague of the school, the scandal of the church and the cancer of the city’, but the 12-year-old Bach had endured an ‘unusually close exposure to him’”, according to Gardiner.


Jean Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet are an exceptional phenomenon in filmmaking. They’re “on the side” of the quality of human life rather than unconditional admirers of human professional achievements. Although the division of labor and specialized work are inevitable in the order of things and human professional achievements deserve respect, for Straub/Huillet it’s the holistic human creativity that can transform life into something more morally fit and dignity oriented – what deserves the ultimate praising.

Straub and Huillet are artists combining in their films their aesthetic and existential aspirations united in their unique and organic image-aggregates, like not so many film-directors are capable to do. Of course, they’re doing it in their own manner, not like Godard who crystallizes the semantic structure of his narratives in an “abstract” architecture-like constructions following a logic compatible or almost compatible with visual images, and not like Resnais, who dissolves the political aspect of reality in waves of human emotional reactions. Straub/Huillet intentionally “flatten” the aesthetic side of their representation so as not to cover the presence of political motivations and determinations in human life. In this sense they’re something of ascetic aesthetes.

For Straub/Huillet Johann Sebastian Bach’s life is very important inspiration and challenge because they detect Bach’s latent proto-political passions inside the composer’s very genius, but who couldn’t sympathize with many specialists’ reduction of his existentially rebellious motivations in his unconscious to his professional achievements as a composer and musician. Of course, Bach was a religious person living in a religious epoch, but it’s the unconscious mutinous segments of his sub-personality – what attracted Straub-Huillet’s curiosity and attention for his existential limitations (of a person who is so exceptionally gifted in his musical self-expression).

At this point Edward Said’s review of Christoph Wolff’s book “Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician” can help us to trace the roots of Bach’s social life. “Steeped as he was in Protestant belief, drilled in its practices, immersed in its music and lore, Bach remains a pious-seeming Christian… Yet, there is something unmistakably demonic and frightening about his fervor. Of course, he worked on his study of technique and on his scores, but in always all of them he achieved feats of creativity that must have left him deeply impressed by his own gifts. One cannot help wondering whether all the piety and expressions of humility before God weren’t also Bach’s way of keeping something considerably darker – more exuberant, more hubristic, verging on the blasphemous – at bay, something within himself, which his music with its contrapuntal wizardry also communicates… “. (Edward Said, “Cosmic Ambition”).

The existential conformism and non-conformism came together in Bach’s musical genius. The first is the under-skin of his “deep-rooted devoutness” (Edward Said) and his “lifelong striving for musical perfection” (E.S.), but his existential non-conformism found way to express itself through his “unappeased, unappeasable creative energy” (E.S.).

John Eliot Gardiner’s phrases “J.S. Bach was a hooligan in his youth” and “Bach was a reformed teenage thug” reflect the fact that as a kid Bach was able to express his resistance to rigid and often repressive nature of society he was born into – only through childish strategies of “hooliganism” and “thuggery”. Children don’t have yet “sublimated” and rational ways to react on oppression and child abuse. As an adult Bach was already capable of resisting through his creativity. Victims of despotism of adults (anti-pedagogical zealots in the role of teachers) are doomed to express their protest through childish stubbornness, self-defensive capriciousness and petty criminal behavior. But Bach-the adult was able not to repress his past but to connect it with his creativity – with the glory of his achievements.

In their film Straub and Huillet were concentrating on the anti-existential “coloration” of Bach’s everyday life dominated by monotonously systematic efforts to perfect his musical craft and train his creative exuberance. We see Johann Sebastian and Anna Magdalena working with scores and rehearsing alone or with other musicians, but we never see them… living. If we consider, how much time our contemporaries spend looking for and changing jobs, fighting for their positions, trying to upgrade their careers and perfect their work performance to achieve higher salaries, even if we minus the time they spend on consumption and entertainment (Bach to our joy didn’t have this trashy luxury), their time swallowed by the demands of their survival is comparable with what was during the Bach’s time. We, today don’t have much time for living. And with all of this we don’t have many people who in their professions could be compared with what Bach could achieve in his. Instead today we have myriad of jazz-rock-pop and -mop creators and performers, each of whom possess much more luxury than Johann Sebastian (occupied with much more essential values), ever could think about.

Posted on Mar, 6 2018 –   “The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” by Jean Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet (1968) by Acting-Out Politics