Johann Sebastian: A Tercentenary Celebration

By Seymour L. Benstock | Go to book overview

3
An Odd Couple: J. S. Bach and A. S. Huxley

Sister Ann Edward Bennis

What could possibly connect the seventeenth century master of sacred song, J. S. Bach, with Aldous Huxley, the twentieth century master of social satire? One connection is evident in a Huxley novel. Huxley ( 1894-1963), a prolific writer and brilliant wit, had an encyclopedic mind with a rich knowledge of musical compositions. He delights in discussing music, as seen in his book of essays, Music At Night, 1931, and in several of his novels.

Of the novel, Point Counter Point ( 1928), Huxley writes that he based his thinking and his forms on Bach's contrapuntal techniques. This claim is obvious in the general structure of Point Counter Point and very specifically, in its first four chapters. They center on Bach Suite in B-Minor.

The opening chapters of the novel are set in the music room of a large estate named Tantamount Hall. We are listening to a concert. The captive audience sits, enduring the orchestra; some guests are squirming, some gesturing, others whispering. One man stage-whispers, "This is like being in a deaf-and-dumb asylum." p. 27. Lady Edward Tantamount hears the comment and flaps her ostrich-fan at the whisperer. Meanwhile, the musicians keep playing Bach Suite.

This B-Minor Suite becomes the focus of the novel's next chapters, where Huxley creates a verbal parallel of Bach's text.

In a succinct, witty, yet always reverent commentary, the words let us experience the Suite. We hear it, we feel it, we know it. We then read a satiric description of the conductor. He is "bending in swan-like undulation and tracing luscious arabesques on the air with his waving arms . . . fiddlers and cellists scrape at his bidding, while Bach's meditation fills the air". p. 27. Huxley then introduces the first movement of a suite, the Largo, with its slow, majestic rhythms: "In the opening Largo, John Sebastian made a statement: 'there are grand things in the world, noble things; there are men born kingly; there are conquerors and heroes'". p. 27.

(I digress to mention that if, while we are reading Huxley's words on the Suite, we listen to a recording of the work, we can feel the stateliness and grandeur of the Largo and the changing moods of the movements that follow. The listening can be a spiritual experience, a religious one, as Huxley confirms in a letter he wrote forty years after Point Counter Point. A segment of the letter concludes this essay.)

After the Largo, Huxley reflects on the next section, the Fugue, or "fugal Allegro." Here, says the author, "You seem to have found the truth. Clear, definite, unmistakable, it is announced by the violins."p. 27. The it here, or the truth, indicates what in a fugue is called the subject--in ordinary parlance, the theme or the motif. In Bach Suite,

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Johann Sebastian: A Tercentenary Celebration
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Recent Titles in Contributions to the Study of Music and Dance ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • 1: The Contemporizing of Scripture in the Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach 5
  • 2: J. S. Bach: The Flauto and the Traverso 11
  • 3: An Odd Couple: J. S. Bach and A. S. Huxley 19
  • 4: Hemiola in the Eighteenth Century 23
  • Notes 32
  • Notes 122
  • Index 157
  • About the Editor and Contributors 161
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