Fugues and Fish Heads
Arthur Machen and Johann Sebastian Bach
Dale Nelson

     Arthur_Machen_circa_1905                                    Johann_Sebastian_Bach

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.

This essay: copyright 2023 by Dale Nelson

2 thoughts on “Fugues and Fish Heads

  1. Very nice – thank you! Fascinating to see Machen’s various appreciative references. A Happy Bach’s Birthday to anyone where it is still 31 March!

    We have sung a fair bit of Bach in the village oratorio choir, and had a couple excellent lectures about his musical symbolism when we were preparing the Weihnachtsoratorium and the St. John Passion: it’s exciting to learn what to look and listen for, since all these (so to say) ‘cerebral aesthetics’ are unobtrusive where ‘straightforward “joy of listening'” is concerned. (We also enjoyably sang Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Magnificat, which one Wikipedia article – sadly without footnote – says “J. S. Bach was alive to hear […] in 1749”.)

    Nonetheless, my very musical Welsh-descended late Victorian grandmother tended to prefer Handel to Bach, finding Bach a bit too ‘cerebral’ – for one thing, stirring my interest in possible ‘period tastes’ where sacred music is concerned.

    I think it was while the choir was preparing one or another work of Bach that I encountered Esther Meynall’s delightful novel, The Little Chronicle Of Magdalena Bach (1925), in Dutch translation – it was apparently published anonymously in German translation and so unintentionally sparked a controversy there over whether it was Anna Magdalena’s authentic work or a forgery! I wonder if Machen knew (of ) it – or her work, more generally. Looking her up in Wikipedia to check the details, I learn that her later novel, “Time’s Door (1935) belongs to the genre of fantastic fiction; it features a violinist who ‘timeslips’ to the 18th century where he becomes involved with Bach” – ! Also published during Machen’s lifetime… And, I see fadedpage happily has transcriptions of both these novels!


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