A Bachward Glance

Bach and the Dance of God

by Wilfrid Mellers
Oxford University Press, 324 pp., $39.95

Wilfrid Mellers is known in England as a composer, an educator of some importance, and a copious writer on music. He has written books on Music in Society, François Couperin and his milieu, American music, and the Beatles, among other topics. Now in his mid-sixties, he is producing as a sort of summa a two-volume study of Bach and Beethoven as religious composers. From Bach and the Dance of God it is clear that this composite study is not to be confined to musical works of an overtly sacred genre. The lingering medieval mind of Bach’s Lutheran heritage, Mellers believes, equated or all but equated the sacred and the secular spheres, so that the entire body of Bach’s music is, in the deepest sense, religious. If and how Mellers adapts this equation to Beethoven, in the second volume which has not yet appeared, it will be interesting to see.

Mellers began as a critic writing for Scrutiny in the 1930s. Later he was influenced by Marx, then even more influenced by Jung. In consequence he comes to Bach’s music, and to various aspects of his music, in a resolutely transcendental frame of mind. The cry of the newborn child and the drumming of primitive man are what he hears echoing ecstatically behind the earlier instrumental compositions, of which he discusses the Brandenburg Concertos, the cello suites, and The Well-Tempered Clavier.

As for Bach’s latest instrumental music, of which he discusses the Goldberg and Vom Himmel hoch Variations, that reflects number as the essence of the universe. In the former work, the canonic variations at the unison, second, third, fourth, etc., are interpreted one by one according to Jung’s characterization of the magical-philosophical implications of the various numbers in Psychology and Alchemy. This view of the centrality of canon in Bach’s late music, presented also in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s musically illiterate Gödel, Escher, Bach, is particularly silly, inasmuch as Bach did not write canons in circa 73 percent of the Goldberg Variations, the Musical Offering, and the Art of Fugue, and in each work the noncanonic parts include manifestly the most powerful and beautiful music.

Music is dance, dance is rite, and rite is religion. Mellers’s argument grows more resonant as he gets to Bach’s church music, in central chapters devoted to the Passion according to St. John and the Mass in B Minor. Story and dogma are one, and every aspect of the music makes its contribution to the overriding Christian truth. Bach sets individual musical numbers and sections of those numbers in specific keys associated with feelings and religious states. He constantly employs musical tropes with analogous symbolic associations, such as the “sacral” sarabande rhythm, the “lamenting” chromatic bass descent, “Trinitarian” triple-time meters, four-note patterns which trace the shape of the cross on the page, and so on.

All of this is discussed in great detail, and the discussion itself embedded in a running commentary of the tautological kind …

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