Thursday, March 31, 2016

Guest Post: Fugues and Fish Heads: Arthur Machen and Johann Sebastian Bach by Dale Nelson

Today, March 31 (New Style), is the 331st birthday of J. S. Bach.

When Machen wrote of “a highly elaborate and elaborated piece of work, full of the strangest and rarest things,” he was referring to a great romance that he never managed to compose.  But he could have been referring to compositions by Bach.

In “The Great Return,” the senses of the inhabitants of Llantrisant are transfigured by the Graal.  To evoke the sublime wonder that opened upon them, Machen’s narrator tells us that sailors heard “the creak and whine of their ship on its slow way” as being “as exquisite as the rhythm and song of a Bach fugue” as heard by a lover of music. 

Conversely, to express his scorn of Gradgrindian education, the recluse of Hieroglyphics imagines hapless pupils being asked to write as follows: “What do you mean by ‘music’?  Give the rational explanation of Bach’s fugues, showing them to be as (1) true as Biology and (2) useful as Applied Mechanics.” 

That contemptuous reductio ad absurdum follows the recluse’s exposition of the difference between artifice and art.  “Artifice is explicable.”  It may amuse and delight us, “but we have no sense of miracle, of transcendent vision and achievement” such as is imparted by art.

James Gaines's Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (2005) gets at something similar to Machen's distinction between artifice and art.

An Enlightenment composer wrote to please his audience.  As a Dresden Kapellmeister of the day said, music is supposed to be "popular and pleasing to the reasonable world" (cited on p. 220).  Hence the agreeable galant style, still good for background music on a Saturday morning with coffee and croissant. 

But for those steeped, like Bach, in the "elaborated codes and principles" of counterpoint, in canon and fugue, the Pythagorean and Boethian quest of music was a far more searching endeavor.  Gaines relates it to alchemy (p. 46).  The "learned composer's job was to attempt to replicate in earthly music the celestial harmony with which God had joined and imbued the universe, and so in a way to take part in the act of Creation itself" (p. 47).

Gaines says that, by its contrast with perhaps charming but superficial Enlightenment music, "Bach's Musical Offering leaves us... a compelling case for the following proposition: that a world without a sense of the transcendent and mysterious, a universe ultimately discoverable through reason alone, can only be a barren place; and that the music sounding forth from such a world might be very pretty, but it can never be beautiful" (p. 12).  Conversely, what "is greatest about Bach's work is literally impossible to talk about, a characteristic that perhaps more than any other distinguishes his music from the galant" (p. 240). 

It’s ineffable, as Machen would say.

Those curious about Bach should by all means read Gaines's book, which includes a selective discography.  To it may be added an EMI release, Morimur, which with a compact disc includes an interesting essay on Bach’s use of gematria.

In “How the Rich Live” (collected in Dreads and Drolls), Machen passes on a story that Bach told of himself.  As a very poor lad, Bach walked a long journey to hear a Hamburg organist.  On the way back, almost penniless, weary and hungry, Bach rested on a bench by an inn.  “Suddenly, a window was opened, and two herring heads fell at Bach’s feet.  He picked them up,” since there might be a little flesh left to eat.  “And behold!  he found on examination that in each head was a piece of gold.  He never found out how it had happened, but, refreshed, he went back and heard the great [organist] again, and [thereafter] was able to go on his way home at ease and rejoicing.” 

And that tale could stand as a parable of Machen’s own conviction, whereby the sometimes drab forms of the visible world conceal something of great worth.

© 2016 Dale Nelson

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