Primeval Bach

Basil Lam

  • Bach and the Dance of God by Wilfrid Mellers
    Faber, 324 pp, £15.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 571 11562 4

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.

The first part of the book, ‘Prelude’, introduces us to the Eskimo, the Indian (Red) who ‘may perform dance songs that affirm his and the horse’s phallic dominance’ and Tibetan priests whose holy trumpets ‘are gigantic versions of amorously phallic flutes’ (we shall meet the flute-sized ones in the St John Passion). Via the Greeks our multi-cultural author arrives at what he calls ‘an event presumed to exist in historical time – the Crucifixion of Christ’. Why presumed? Did it happen or not? Perhaps the query is irrelevant in a historical context containing the phrase: ‘When in the 14th century the European Renaissance ...’ Reaching Bach, we discover that ‘his appeal is almost primeval’ and that ‘it is not fortuitous that Bach’s music may be jazzed, swung or rocked more readily than that of any other classically-trained European composer.’

By this point the thesis begins to clarify. Music begins in magic; religious music exists to induce ecstatic, trance-like states: Bach combines horizontal and vertical elements (like the Cross) in a synthesis of metaphysical and physical elements. So he is the greatest of religious composers. The two principal works examined are the St John Passion, ‘The Second Adam’, and the B minor Mass, ‘The Resurrection and the Life’. However, ‘for Bach, it seems, music and theology are inseparable’ and the same method – if such it can be called – of quasi-religious exegesis is applied to some of the 48 Preludes and Fugues, to the Cello Suites, the Goldberg Variations and so on. For him, all music was a ‘harmonious euphony for the glory of God and the instruction of my neighbour’. This is a conflation from two sources. On the title-page of the Orgelbüchlein Bach defined its practical purpose, then added the doggerel couplet: Dem Höch-sten Gott allein zu Ehren/Dem Nechsten, draus sich zu belehren (‘For almighty God’s sole glory/For my neighbour to instruct himself’). Elsewhere, Bach describes thorough bass as having, ‘like all music, no other end than the Glory of God and the recreation of the spirit’. When he published Clavierübung Part 3 – the collection of Chorale Preludes sometimes wrongly called the ‘German Organ Mass’ – there was no mention of God, simply the stock phrase used for the harpsichord works in Clavierübung 1 and 2: ‘for the pleasure – entertainment (Ergötzung) – of connoisseurs’. The same formula appears on the title-page of the Goldberg Variations, a work of which Mellers writes: ‘Johann Goldberg played them to his count; Bach played, or at any rate composed, them to his God; and their mathematically preordained features encourage us to hear them within an eternal silence.’ What is this supposed to mean, besides ‘Don’t talk during the performance’? The process by which such a view of Bach’s glorious Divertimento is reached is so typical of this book that it deserves examination.

It is rightly described as ‘an immense passacaglia’. Next we learn that the form – ‘to which Bach had long been partial’ – is ‘the most radical example of the Baroque obsession with unity’. ‘In this late work, however, the metaphysical and mystical implications of unity take over from the social and autocratic.’ The passacaglia form stood for social (almost feudal) unity, but in the Goldberg it is made ‘religious’: not, our author hastens to add, ‘in affirming dogma or creed, but ... in the philosophical sense’.

In fact, Bach wrote little in this style. Is social autocratic unity present in the Passacaglia, the violin Chaconne, the first chorus of Cantata 78, or, for that matter, in Purcell’s great Trio-Sonata Chaconne? First, make an unsupported statement, then say that in the present case its implications are different. Continue thus: ‘For all its metaphysical implications the work finds its source in a piece of near-modern music: a sarabande which Bach had included, 15 years earlier, in his notebook for Anna Magdalena.’ The reader may not notice that no scrap of evidence has been given to show that the work has any ‘implications’, whether metaphysical (what precisely are these?) or religious (in the best modern way, without distinction of race, creed or sex). Furthermore, the piece in the Anna Magdalena book is not called Sarabande, it is in her hand not Bach’s, and it was added to the album about the time the Variations were composed.

In its mixture of factual error and free-range speculation this passage is, regrettably, typical of the whole book. In the first canon, at the unison (as with all the canons except the last), Bach, it is explained, puts the canonic voices on one, not two manuals, ‘sacrificing audibility to make a philosophical point, since it’s precisely the oneness that embraces the many with which the music is concerned.’ ‘Precisely’ is almost as good as ‘mobled queen’. The canons are on one keyboard because Bach, and presumably Goldberg, had only two hands and these pieces are in three parts. The last canon is in two parts and so can be played with one hand on each keyboard, like other two-part variations.

It would be tedious to list all the errors of fact, but a selection must be given. Schütz went to Italy, Mellers writes, ‘to study with the illustrious Monteverdi whose sunbaked brilliance illuminated his early works’. But Schütz’s teacher was, of course, Giovanni Gabrieli. Schütz did not meet Monteverdi until 1628, nearly ten years after the appearance of his own first major work.

‘Schütz’s teacher Monteverdi ... said that recitative was the language of passion and that there were three heroic passions, love, hate and prayer.’ Did he? As usual, no source is given. In the preface to his eighth book of madrigals, Monteverdi wrote: ‘I consider the main passions of the soul to be three, anger, moderation (serenity) and humility.’ In Schütz’s Passions ‘Jesus himself is not usually characterised; his divine attributes are emphasised by setting his words for two or three voices, symbolising the relationship of the Son to the Father and the Holy Ghost.’ Not so: the part of Jesus in all three Passions is set for a single voice.

Of Bach’s Passions we are told that Jesus habitually sings in arioso, well-defined as ‘speech heightened to lyricism and usually accompanied by instruments additional to the continuo’. Yes, indeed, but not in the St John, where Jesus has recitative, accompanied – like the other participants – by the continuo only. The commentary on the work is a mixture of descriptive analysis and pseudo-philosophical or metaphysical exegesis. The opening chorus is a normal da capo design, a simple fact which becomes the pretext for the following: ‘The form, in turning back on itself, denies temporal progression; the events referred to exist simultaneously in past, present and future – in both historical and mythological time.’

The inaccurate description of the scoring of this chorus is explained thus: ‘Expressive detail would be inappropriate and would, in this particular context, weaken the effect of the recitative that follows, in which we turn from cosmic events to one specific manifestation of them.’ For Bach, and for all Christians, one supposes, the Incarnation was the central, unique event of history. In any case, the chorus simply says: ‘Lord, our master, whose fame is glorious through all the world! Show us by your Passion that you are exalted even in the deepest lowliness.’ ‘It is typical of the St John Passion that Bach begins the tale in medias res, with the fact of betrayal. The opening chorus had been concerned with mankind’s ultimate destiny ...’ Bach begins with John 18, i because this is where the Gospel of the day begins: it is the opening of Sehütz’s and indeed of all settings of the St John Passion intended for liturgical use, whether Catholic or Lutheran.

In a liturgical Passion the named persons can have only their Gospel words. So Ach mein Sinn (No 19) cannot be ‘Peter’s Aria’ (‘Part 1, centred on Peter, climaxes in his great aria’), quite apart from the fact that it is for tenor and Peter is a bass. ‘Its agony, being formalised in a da capo aria, is sublimated.’ Not so. What Mellers takes for the main section closes on the dominant, in bar 47. When the ritornello melody returns at bar 74 its bass is different and the voice, set against this much-altered quasi-reprise, has the words of the latter part of the aria; there is no recapitulation of the singer’s opening words or theme. Proper analysis reveals thé continuous variation and thematic development unique to Bach in the period. Similarly Betrachte meine Seel (No 31) becomes ‘Christ’s arioso’, because ‘the contours of the melody, as well as the key, encourage us to identify the soloist with Christ.’ For the reason I have just given, this would be unthinkable for Bach. Nor do the words make sense in such a context. The motive for the identification is this: ‘It cannot be fortuitous that Bach introduced, for this one movement, an obbligato lute, seeming to equate Christ as Man-God-Son with lyre or lute-playing Orpheus.’

The aria Es ist vollbracht (No 58) changes from elegy to triumph for its middle section: ‘It is concerned with the possibility of a world regenerated ... The text refers to Christ as a Lion who wins a battle over sin and death.’ To be precise, the text is Der Held aus Juda siegt mil Macht/und schliesst den Kampf – es ist vollbracht! (‘The hero from Juda triumphs with power/and ends the fight – it is finished!’) Whence the lion? Bach knew of the Lion of the tribe of Juda (Rev. 5, v), but what he, or it, does is to ‘open the book’, not fight battles. (Leo fortis is the risen Christ.) Our author has found the heraldic beast in his English vocal score. However, the image of ‘the lion-like middle’ recurs in the next aria. ‘Its murky sonority – bass voice and a bass line that also serves as obbligato part – reminds us that we’re still at the dark time of the year, celebrating a Dying God; but the D major theme itself is gently lion-like ... the continuo has the lion-prancing theme ... expresses a triumph ... in its invocation of Christ as Lion.’ In the penultimate recitative there is confusion even about the Gospel words. ‘All this eventfulness is then distanced ... as a “true record” of Scripture. Bach brings in two quotations from the Old Testament as confirmation.’ The references to Exodus and Zachariah were not ‘brought in’ by Bach. They are in the text, as the author could have discovered for himself by borrowing a New Testament. The ‘true record’ relates, not to the prophecies, but to the evangelist’s claim to have been an eye-witness – the precise opposite of ‘distancing the events’.

The B minor Mass offers less scope for the Swinburnian associating of pain with ecstasy that makes the account of the Passion as distasteful as it is implausible, but eroticism does not escape undetected. In the first Kyrie the tempo must allow ‘the sensuality and the anguish of the harmony to tell’. The orchestral opening of the Gloria is ‘lion-music’ (only Christ has the capital L), but as the chorus develops the Mellers bestiary extends to this remarkable picture, worthy of Ken Russell: ‘Sopranos leap to the high B and explode in further displaced accents; we’re reminded of those biblical goats and rams, symbols of virility as well as sacrificial victims, that cavort on the hills of Zion.’ The Chorus is also ‘Bacchic in its sensual energy’, with ‘tipsily displaced accents’, ‘lurching sevenths’ in the bass etc. The Et in terra fugue is helped on its way by ‘lion-like arabesques’ – at its end the word pax ‘becomes a yell of power’. It is quite a relief to learn that in Laudamus te the spirit seeks only ‘the voice and wings of a bird’. (A later reference to Christ the Dove suggests that iconography is not this author’s pigeon.) Of Qui sedes and Quoniam we read: ‘Both pieces are stylised arias da capo such as were sung to worldly lords and masters in heroic opera.’ (Examples, please.) Qui sedes is nothing like a da capo aria; Bach’s wonderfully subtle modification of ritornello form preserves the continuity of the Gloria. That it is in B minor ‘may suggest that Christ, even in heaven, still bears the weight of our sin, supported by the fact that ... the oboe d’amore is an instrument of love, as its name suggests.’ Is the oboe da caccia (used by Bach in both Passions) an instrument of the hunt, ‘as its name suggests’? ‘Love-oboes, like love-viols, are as much spiritual as sensual.’ Not a bad joke, but a better one follows: ‘The Qui tollis had ended ... with the major F sharp triad ... This chord followed by the B minor of the Qui sedes is translated back into a dominant, so that Christ in heaven, as compared with Christ incarnate in the flesh, is a deflation – lower in the cycle of fifths.’

Unlike the Wife of Bath, Professor Mellers does not praise the Quoniam (also not a da capo aria): he cannot even attend to its words and persuades himself that it is about Deus altissimus, and thus to be associated with the Old Testament God of Wrath, perhaps being sent up by the ‘chugging bassoons’ and ‘nervous and querulous horn’. It is, of course, addressed to Jesu Christe, who is solus altissimus.

Cum sancto spiritu, on the other hand, inspires several pages of defiling praise that have to be read to be disbelieved. ‘It’s not surprising that Bach’s superabundant creativity should make of the corporeal affirmations of these amens an ecstasis not dissimilar to the orgies of the so-called primitive peoples, or of the Eleusinian mysteries.’ So ‘trumpets blast in militant modulations,’ ‘amens shoot up ... and pounce down,’ ‘the first sopranos sound crazed by their arabesques,’ ‘the pounce on the second beat is stressed by the trumpets’ tipsy triplets.’ ‘To perform the Cum sancto we must learn to swing’ like ‘black and brown North and South Americans as they worship God in the corybantic revel of gospel song and dance.’

What makes the book a disaster is both the absurdity of its thesis and the fact that it is never argued, merely asserted with the aid of bogus history, freewheeling musicology, name-dropping philosophising and homebrewed theology. Even if the argument were sustainable, what is to be said of a study of Bach as ‘the greatest of religious composers’ which avoids comparison with his contemporaries and ignores the 200 church cantatas, the motets, the Magnificat, the St Matthew Passion, the Orgelbüchlein, the Clavierübung Part 3 and many other chorale preludes? Mellers is a natural musician and patient reading will discover vivid and imaginative insights and perceptive analyses amid the tumult and the shouting, but to reread the blurb of this ‘major work’, having reached its conclusion, is to be inclined to invoke the Trade Descriptions Act. A second volume will be entitled Beethoven and the Voice of God.