Basil Lam

Basil Lam was for many years in charge of early music on the BBC Third Programme. He is the author of a guide to Beethoven’s quartets, and is writing a study of Bach’s B Minor Mass.

Primeval Bach

Basil Lam, 18 June 1981

It is exactly a century since Philipp Spitta completed the publication of his J.S. Bach and although modern research has damaged his chronology beyond restoration, the work remains the basis of Bach scholarship. It is an odd feature of Professor Mellers’s very odd book that he nowhere mentions Spitta, recourse to whom could have spared him and us many of the numerous errors that litter his pages. (More of this later.) Bach and the Dance of God, we are told, ‘makes explicit as never before the connections between Bach’s works, whether sacred or secular, and the myths, dogma and liturgy of his Church’. The method is to select a number of compositions which are analysed technically and ‘interpreted’ in the belief that Bach (and Beethoven) ‘never doubted that their music had “meanings” discussable in terms simultaneously musical, theological and philosophical.’ It is characteristic of the author that he gives no hint of any recorded utterances supporting this remarkable claim. Perhaps there is a trace of uneasiness in the remark, ‘such subjective elements as enter into one’s commentary on music are neither more nor less damaging than those that occur in reference to any human activity,’ but as Bach left no comment about his beliefs or his personal feelings on music, a book devoted to these matters can consist of little beyond subjective fantasy. It is hazardous enough to read one’s own preoccupations into the work of a poet, but at least a poem is evidence that the concepts in it were present in the poet’s mind, whether or not they were part of his private experience when he was not writing poetry. If music is combined with words it may be possible to venture on an exegesis not totally fatuous, but even here Bach is ready to transfer a setting of one text to something quite different: there are some remarkable instances in the four Short Masses about which Professor Mellers maintains a diplomatic silence. Even his resourcefulness might be strained to account for the use of an aria about the resemblance of hypocrites to ‘Sodom’s apples’ as a vehicle for the words Quoniam tu solus sanctus.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences