Saturday, September 13, 2008

Featured Pipe Smoker: J.S. Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

I know what you're thinking: Hey, he doesn't have a pipe! What's up with that? We got rooked! I have something extra in place of such a picture for this installment, but I'll get to that later.

Johann Sebastian Bach is such a prominent historical figure that there's not much I can say about him that you can't easily find elsewhere. His body of compositions--more than 1,000--represent the pinnacle of the Baroque era. Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin admired him greatly and were influenced by his work. Some musical scholars have professed the opinion that the Baroque period ended the day that Bach died.

But there is one small thing that sets him apart from them all. He once wrote a song about pipe smoking.

Found in the Noten-Bchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bach ("Little Notebook for A.M.Bach") of 1725 (Anna Magdalena was his second wife), this brief song was called So oft ich meine Tobackspfeife. I think the general meaning of this in English would be "thus is my tobacco pipe" or perhaps "and so is my tobacco pipe."

Based on the time during which Bach lived, I must say that he undoubtedly smoked clay pipes, because it was long before briar was discovered to be a wood made for pipes. Even more certain is the information held within this aria, which refers to a clay pipe.

Here follows an English translation of the original. Since this is more or less a literal translation, the meter and structure of the original poetry is no longer intact, but for my purposes here it will suffice. It was sent to me by someone on some pipe forum several years ago.
Whenever I pick up my tobacco-pipe,
Stuffed with good tobacco
For pleasure and pastime,
It gives me a sad impression -
And leads to the conclusion
That I resemble it in many ways.

The pipe was made from clay and earth
And so was I.
One day I will be earth again -
It often falls from the hand
And breaks before you know,
My destiny is the same.

The pipe is usually not colored;
It remains white. So therefore,
One day when I am dying
My body will turn pale.
Once buried it becomes black, just like
A pipe that has been used for a long time.

When the pipe is lit,
One sees the smoke disappear instantly
In the free air,
Leaving nothing but ashes behind.
The glory of all mankind is consumed
And the body turns to dust.

So often it happens while smoking,
That the stuffer is not handy,
And instead the finger is used,
Then I wonder when I burn myself,
If the ashes make such pain
How hot will it be in Hades?

Since such is the case,
From my tobacco I can always
Erect enlightening thoughts.
Therefore, in comfort I smoke
On Land, at sea and at home
My little pipe, with devotion.
Here is another translation thanks to Olivier at My Pipes Community.
Whene'er I take my pipe and stuff it
And smoke to pass the time away
My thoughts, as I sit there and puff it,
Dwell on a picture sad and grey:
It teaches me that very like
Am I myself unto my pipe.
Like me this pipe, so fragrant burning,
Is made of naught but earthen clay;
To earth I too shall be returning,
And cannot halt my slow decay.
My well used pipe, now cracked and broken,
Of mortal life is but a token.
No stain, the pipe's hue yet doth darken;
It remains white. Thus do I know
That when to death's call I must harken
My body, too, all pale will grow.
To black beneath the sod 'twill turn,
Likewise the pipe, if oft it burn.
Or when the pipe is fairly glowing,
Behold then instantaneously,
The smoke off into thin air going,
'Til naught but ash is left to see.
Man's fame likewise away will burn
And unto dust his body turn.
How oft it happens when one's smoking,
The tamper's missing from it's shelf,
And one goes with one's finger poking
Into the bowl and burns oneself.
If in the pipe such pain doth dwell
How hot must be the pains of Hell!
Thus oer my pipe in contemplation
Of such things - I can constantly
Indulge in fruitful meditation,
And so, puffing contentedly,
On land, at sea, at home, abroad,
I smoke my pipe and worship God.
And so, for Bach, his pipe was an example for his faith and a tool for his devotion.

To hear a simple midi version of this song, click the following link.

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  1. Excellent post... simply excellent.

  2. This was splendid - there's something wonderfully humble in Bach's appreciation of his pipe.