Seated on an elegant balcony, Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian Bach make an attractive, decorous couple. But they are a threesome. Below their table is the goat-like Greek god, Pan. A randy rogue, he is the god of forests and flocks, ribald songs and sex.
And, we might ask, just why is Pan included with the Bachs, the couple so famously associated with liturgical music?
The answer might lie in the wedding music created by the Bachs to celebrate the joys of earthly love. The most famous example of wedding music composed by Johann Sebastian is his Wedding Cantata, Weichet nur, betrubte Schatten (Be gone, mournful Shadows). Anna Magdalena may well have sung the cantata at her wedding and soon afterwards at the wedding of Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen, the employer of both Bachs.
The text of
Weichet nur betrübte Schatten
centers on the Roman goddess Flora, whose entrance brightens the muted atmosphere of the cantata's opening. Flora is the symbol of spring, natural fertility and human procreation. The music consists of five arias interleaved with recitatives. A small chamber ensemble supports the radiantly expressive and often flamboyantly virtuosic of the single soprano line. Anna Magdalena's "clear soprano" would have shone in this piece.
The Wedding Cantata hints at the sexual desires that accompany marriage, both in the text and the rhythms of the music. Much clearer language peppers Bach's Quodlibet. Latin for "What Pleases," a quodlibet is a light-hearted collage of melodies and texts, and Bach's extended clan loved to gather and extemporize such pieces. Bach's surviving Quodlibet was concocted when he was twenty-two, presumably in celebration of his first wedding to Maria Barbara Bach in 1707. A piece of musical nonsense, it combines folksong, and student song fragments, street cries, imitations of liturgy and fugues, word games, sexual allusions, punning, and word painting.
We don't know Maria Barbara's reaction to the Bach family's taste for off-color puns and ill-concealed innuendo. But we do know Anna Magdalena's. In her musical notebook of 1725, she inscribed her own racy verses to celebrate her marriage. And she placed these verses right after her transcription of Johann Sebastian's liturgical chorale, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (O Eternity, Thunderous Word).
What emerges is a humane portrait of Anna Magdalena. She was pious and playful, devout and ribald. She was a musician who embraced the soaring uplift and the physical sensuality of song and sound. She was a mother who endured bereavement and experienced joy. She was a wife who shared a radiant partnership in music with her spouse. She was, above all, her own accomplished, resilient and fully present person.