J.S. Bach wasn’t always a towering giant of music. During his lifetime he was a journeyman musician – as all musicians were until the 19th century. He held important posts in second- or third-tier noble households and second- or third-tier cities. And his prodigious output was mostly a result of the requirements of his positions and his long career. The vast majority of his work is religious in nature, giving rise to later perceptions that he was a profoundly religious man. Which is likely true. But while the religious emotion of his work still carries, it’s as much his dazzling mastery of counterpoint that impresses today – a style that was going out of fashion already in his day: When he was alive, he wasn’t known for his compositions, which were no doubt considered a bit dusty, but for his organ playing.
At one point during mid-career in 1737, he likely answered one of his critics – a certain Johann Adolf Scheibe, who had called his music “bombastic and muddled” – with the performance of an earlier secular cantata that pits Apollo against Pan and a serious musical style against lightweight entertainment. Bach scholars are particularly keen on the cantata since it is a rather blatant apology by Bach for his music. But what is most interesting is the central aria, sung by Apollo (Phoebus) to his lover Hyacinthus:
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.
No one knows whether anyone reacted to such an aria during Bach’s day, although the multiple performances of the work seem to imply that it caused no controversy whatsoever. But the Victorians, who revered Bach, were a little more squeamish about it. As for Bach himself, he gave the aria the same exquisite care that he gave all his music – a supple melody that weaves in and out of strings, flute and oboe d’amore. It aptly portrays in music the love of Apollo for Hyacinthus that the words describe. Bach and gay love.
You can read about the aria at gay_art_history.org, here. A performance of the cantata by Akademie für Alte Musik conducted by René Jacobs is available at Amazon, here. There is also a discussion of the cantata at classical.net, here.