Anagram tales 9: Johann Sebastian Bach
guest post by Nicolas Robertson
For a general introduction to the series, see here.
The grand finale of this third trio of anagram tales, this wonderful fantasy is much informed by Nick’s own research on Bach, with plentiful allusions to the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage among his typically diverse cast.
* * *
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Series of concerts and recordings December 1999 –January 2001, 250th anniversary celebration of Bach through his church cantatas, performed each on the liturgical calendar day for which they were written, in places as closely as feasible linked with the original performances; or with the composer himself; or with places dear to or chosen by the director of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, John Eliot Gardiner. English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, multiple vocal and instrumental soloists.
J.S. Bach Denkmal, Arnstadt.
Impossible to encapsulate JSB in an anagram, and I didn’t think of doing so, I reckon, until some time into 2000. The letters were not inviting, as well as too many to control; but on one long bus journey Stephen Varcoe came up with the gem included below, and I understood I had to have a reciprocal try.
Compiling the anagrams took the whole of that year, on and off; the parallel story has taken a bit longer. A substantial part was in place by 2003, John Eliot Gardiner’s 60th birthday, when I submitted an early version of the finale. But the ‘story’ hadn’t been committed to any imperishable medium, and was lost in our 2009 fire. (The anagrams, such as they were, haphazardly survived in a disc I made when leaving the computer on which I’d typed them in London, in 2007, and miraculously had the nous to send to myself by e-mail before the fatal day).
The commentary, though substantially already imagined, has necessarily had to be re-derived, sometimes from scratch, over the subsequent two decades. It follows what I can remember of the original apprehensions, from the anagram matrix, and carrying on…
146 anagrams, in strict rotation. Here goes my 19-letter Passacaglia, followed by a Fantasia on the same ground:
“Ta. Hosanna basic, jah.”
Bent: “Bach Jain hosanna best.”
“Jain Shoah ebbs. Can’t an Osanna —”
“H !” (aitch)
JSB bane. Banish abject hosanna.
JSB: “Ché ? No shit, Anna !”
“Baa”—Anna hatch babies on J.S.
JSB: “Ach, isn’t Anna boa!” (he is absent.)
Johann, a Bach: “An Eis’nach Abba!”
St John = SANCTI JOHANNES
Bach: “St John as Bean, in a thin assonance.”
J: “Ach, ja, hab Noten in Baß.”  Josh Abba, ancient ash’n Eis’nach nabob.
Jan: “Hast BA?”
“Has insane chant job”—Anna Bach. “Has-be’n? JS? Toi??”
Bach (in jeans—bathos): “An anabasis, JC ohne NT. Bah, bah, an incessant job.”
“Ah, JSB canonist? Bane…”
“Ha ha,” J.S. Bach hones Anna bait, “chess, Anna B.?”
“Jah, bon, ta, I…”
J.S. Bach, Anna—Tao.
“Hans O. Jahn St., cabbie!”
“Na. Hans? – ja, a bench bastion, cannabis hash-bean, jot NASA cash. Joint, B. Behan?” Behan: “Ban scat jois? Nah! ‘Cats’ jois ebb, Hahn ‘Nana’ hath a nonsensic jabba, an incessant Noh jabba. The job’s ‘Banish Canaan Banana’! – Shona jest…” (hic) “B-banana jibes,” chants. “ ‘Oh, I eat bananas’ – John B’ch’s banjo shanties.”
“Na – Bach? J. Bach an’ sons bathe in a Bosnian casbah.”
“I shan’t casbah job, shabbiest Canaan john.”
Can job astonish Behan? “Joint, Abbess Hannah?”
Can Hannah? Abbot: “Jessica? O henna nacht, Jass babi!”
Abbess Hanna chant “Joi!” Abbess’ hijo chant “Na-na!”
Abbot: “Jinn Cessna, ha ha! Jess, Hannah, botanic BA – ”
Johann: “Athens BA basic.”
* * *
BAs? Joanna Hitchens, BA.
* * *
John B.: “The CIA’s bananas!”
Bananas—a Hitchens job (John as a cabinet has-b’n).
Jessica O’Bannan hath Bishan B., Shane, Jan Cabot—bah, Jan Cabot, ‘sanshine’…
“Jinnah nab seacoast, H.B.”
“Eton, BA –”
“– cash BAs. NB neo-Janata bacshish.”
“Non-Janata shish-cebab Jahan’s sahib NT beacon – ‘bacon bhaji, nan’ – the ass!”
“Netaji Bose, ANC ban, hah!”
“Sai Baba, natch, Jens, hon (hasten bhaji, son – an’ cab) – he Johnian (Cantab) bass!”
A.Besant: “Bach’s Johnian?”
A BATH ABC
Nash, In. Jones (Ian ‘Sabbath’ Jones, nach.) Jones? a Bath cabin. Nash? Bath ascension, jah. Nab cabin Jonathan bashes. A casino? nah, Jebb hasn’t.
J. (sob): “The china bananas!” Icon: Saab; Shah; Taj. Benn, Hanoi bachante, S.J., bans Jinnah, Botha (“an abcess”—abcess, Johanna? in Bath??).
Basic ash’n be Jonathan: “I scan ‘H’ sonnet – ABBA, jah? ‘Ban’e’snatch, Jab’ !”
“Beat B.S. Johns’n! Aa… chain Satan, can banish Hob.”
J.E.: “Ancient bash: Jason. Bah! Johanna’s B’nai B’ith case, Canaan Josh’a, ten shibb–”
“Jah. Sheba, BC—an onanist!”
“Ba’ath ’n Hossein ABC, Jan?”
“Jes. Ch. ahanatos ibn ban Jocanan Bathsheba sin. Bashan benison, jah. Act chasten Jonah.”
“Ten-inca hash, baas…”
“Bon, J. –
Habas [beans], join, catch,
Jain ass, a bohnen batch”
“Chthonian Jaen’s Abbas enchants Habana (obs.). Anna (ij.), bin Jacob’s sheath. Bacon a Jansenist? Ahab?”
* * *
Joanna: “Stein ABC: A B Shh…”
* * *
Johnnie bans a cat-bash: “Nab Jonti, ha!” Bash a scena: Jonti, Hanse scab-ban.
“Ah, Hansi C’onje bats—nab! Ha!!”
Bet on Hansi C.: Sha’ja’ ban. Abbas – Sha’jah – innocent. Hans—a jab, both canines.” 
J.S. Bach has inane baton, J.S. Bach nabs henna iota!
NB JSB’s ‘Ninth’ echo: 
* * *
J.S. Bach, Anna, anise both: ‘Ache, Sob, Jab, Sin.’
Nathan: “JS,” (Bach) “no absinthe?” Ann? Abba cash, honest injan…”
“Hinab!” Chaos et…
JSB: “Anna! Anna—snobbish Taj ache.” (Ban insane J.S. Bach oath.)
* * *
“Abbot – Jenni – a Hans Sachs, an Aachen hobbit’s…”
Jan: “Noh ! Banshei! a JSB cantata beano!”
Nin has J.S. Bach in sash, Ecbatana john. B-Beth, John: “Anabasis? Can John B., a Sachsen Ta’iban, ban Nash Hanseatic job?”
“Bach Iona’s best, Jan.”
“Nah” – Jan. “Bach? Iona? SHAN’T!”
EBS nab Bach, astonish Jane, bin John’s Sabata ache.
N.J.: “I, the Hon. N., ban ACAS, as ban a snobbish Janet, ach.”
Ban cane? John abstains: can’t bash a shinbone, ja. “Josh has a BBC antenna—I ban he in sonata.”
* * *
J.S. Bach: “Bassinet, banjo, ha ha, c’n-can sahib…”
“The banjo’s an – a ! – Johann Schein sabbat…”
Johann Sebastian: “Ah!…”
– “Johann? Hansi? aa…”
C B B
* * *
HOSANNA—J. S. BACH
Praise be for JSB!
“Bless you!” – Johann has sneezed, perhaps.
“Thanks. Makes me think that ‘praise’ is the root of it, yes.”
A musicologist writes: “I like Bach’s praise music best when it lines up with a non-violent pre-Christian ethical world-view.”
“Practitioners of which used to be harried, a bit less now, I hope. But couldn’t we extend ‘Osanna’ –”
“Excuse me, there’s an H in Hebrew: it’s Hosanna.”
There’s no agreement, curse it; discussion of praise music founders.
* * *
“What? is that really so, Anna?” Sebastian exclaims.
Anna, a bit sheepishly, has told Johann she’s pregnant.
“Wow, what a girl!” Sebastian cries – and exits to take evensong.
His cousin, another Johann, who’s with them today (the Bachs come and go between each other familiarly), reassures Anna, “He’s like the boss in the old Eisenach days!”
Sebastian nips back in, looking for a rebus he’s made for the St John. “I like this small shift in harmony, could provide a laugh.”
“But where do you get that B natural from?” Johann pleads.
“Oh, it’s ok, just listen to the bass line”—Sebastian likes to tease the older Eisenach generation.
Jan, whose connection is unclear but who’s obviously entitled to be there and equally obviously allies with the conservative faction, asks “Do you really have the qualifications to risk this?”
Anna cuts this off with a cheery “A mad Cantor job, that’s what he has. But Sebastian’s not finished yet, ARE YOU?”
Bach, who’s taken off his top to put on his cassock—looking touchingly informal, in his jute trousers—responds seriously, “Look, I’ve been making my way up, as if I were Christ without yet the New Testament. But, oh god, there does seem to be no end to the work that has to be done…”
“Right, but you spend your time making fugues! Sod that…”
Sebastian laughs, he’s above this, and turns to Anna, with an offer he knows she finds it hard to resist, “How about a game of chess before the service?”
Anna’s all confused, thinking she’d been left out of the conversation, “Well, if you think there’s time – yes – thanks – ok –”
Johann’s happy to know the two are on the same wavelength.
* * *
“I knew Herr Jahn,” the taxi driver confided, “he was a stalwart of the judiciary, but wasn’t averse to a joint or two, or a subsidy from the space programme. Speaking of which, can I tempt you, Herr Behan?”
“As long as you don’t go on about free jazz. I’ve had enough of Lloyd Webber, fin-de-siècle musicals don’t make sense to me, any more than japonaiserie. Scare off African potentates, that’s what I’m here for.” Noting a coolish reception from the driver, Behan temporises, “that’s a joke I heard in South Africa…” but he couldn’t resist breaking into song, ‘Yes, we have no bananas’…
He’s delivered safely to the British Council, where the staff ask if he’ll be referring to Bach, whose year it is.
“You what? As far as I’m concerned, let the whole Bach family go and enjoy themselves in a Yugoslav thermal brothel.”
Janet, an intern, asks “Oh, do you think Mrs Bach would go along with that? I wouldn’t accept it, sounds like dodgy Middle Eastern sanitation.” But Behan is imperturbable, and he spots a nun he recognises:
“Join me in a joint, Hannah? Abbess and all?”
An abbot across the room has heard this, and calls over with words echoing Lorenzo’s in The Merchant of Venice, “Go for it, lass!” (no one had ever heard the Abbess’s real first name before, Jessica) – “How sweetly sleeps…”
Hannah/Jessica, liberated, cries “Bliss!”, and her ‘son’ (presumably an acolyte monk) echoes.
The abbot, after veering inexplicably into Indian subcontinental politics (or can that be where he met Jessica, now Hannah, abbess?), launches “Do you remember that devilish monoplane, oh, how we laughed! Jess, ok Hannah, you’re the one who knew about plants, even got a degree for them!”
– across a few centuries, Johann in Leipzig wonders if Sebastian shouldn’t have got a qualification from the Greek academy, for a start
– but for the value of a university degree, I ask you to consider Joanna Hitchens (and I ask her indulgence).
* * *
Meanwhile, in Chichester, the cathedral organist, coolly sceptical, opines over sherry after Sunday Matins, “The US secret services have gone pear-shaped.” That’s what we would expect from the Hitchens brothers, vying with each other for conspiracies.
“Wouldn’t you have liked to be a politician?”, JB is asked. Well, yes, he’d had his chance. There are some quite outspoken guests, among them associates of the Dean who’d served in the army in SE Asia. I already overhead Jessica mentioning an Indian spin bowler, plus Alan Ladd, and the Boston founding fathers (oh the bright new dawn long promised, those slave traders who spoke only with god) –
“I remember when I told Helena Blavatsky that Jinnah wasn’t going to be content without a sea port.”
“But Jinnah was one of us!”
“Yes, British education, qualifications…”
“One could buy them. And look how that’s turned into nationalist Hindu free-loading.”
“Thinking of the Hinduists, I just ordered a beef skewer takeaway, image of the Taj Mahal, that National Trust signpost, in mind. But do you know what the man said? ‘You want a pork fry-up, with onions and chapati?’—what a twit!”
“This is like infighting between freedom fighters,” interposed Jens, an old Indochina hand. “Netaji Bose thought it more important to oppose British colonialism than worry about alliances with the Third Reich or Japan—hero to Indian nationalists, ‘a common traitor’ to your father. Not sure how South African Gandhi supporters saw him, though.”
“And what about another charismatic guru, Jens, my dear” – I hadn’t met this couple before, but they’re clearly keen to get out of the Vicars’ Close and enjoy their takeaway on the coast, they’ve booked a taxi—though they can’t bear to leave an argument, only had to because the taxi arrived.
But as they go, a tantalising throwaway: “You know JSB sang at St John’s Cambridge, as a bass?”
Annie Besant hears this, and to her credit can hardly believe it is so.
* * *
What you need to know about Bath
Talk of Bath, and you talk first of John Nash, and Inigo Jones. But did Jones build more than a garden shed? While Nash, he saw Bath going up in the world, oh yes. (Still, I wouldn’t mind that shed, Jonathan, since you seem not to think much of it.) Neither of them planned a gambling resort, nor did the Oxford philosopher.
How fragile the past is! I remember a reception in the British Council home on the Île St Louis in Paris, where I and a colleague, our gestures becoming expansive with hospitality, knocked a crystal ashtray off a mantelpiece, which shattered distressingly around our feet. Our hostess was impeccable, she had it cleared up in no time, and told us, “Please don’t worry, the person who gave it to us is dead now anyway.”
This makes me think of memorable images, and how they can fade. Saab – who remembers those stylish cars? The Shah of Iran? The Indian restaurant in York where I saw Victor Lewis- Smith once successfully pay with a library card? Tony Benn’s memoirs tell (or would if they hadn’t been redacted) of a Jesuit having a high old time in Saigon, ignoring both Indian and South African politicians, of whom one was a boil on the body politic—
I must have been muttering aloud to myself, for “A boil? did you hear that, Johanna? – and in Bath!”
Jonathan went pale, at least to the level of his foundation make-up: “Let’s talk about Shakespeare. I’ve digitalised one of the love poems, it’s got that Keatsian rhyme-scheme, nicht war? like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Snark’ – ”
“That’s a pretty fundamentalist interpretation.”
“But avant-garde at the same time! Or eerie, like Quatermass, dig up and pin down the old evil!”
John Eliot says this is an old set-to: “It’s all in the Golden Fleece.”
“OK, but this is actual: Johanna’s tied up with the Israeli nationalists, a historic second-generation fighter, ten commandments set in st—”
“—yes, but it didn’t start there. Long before, an exogamous queen, after her own pleasure…”
“Jan, can you give us an up-to-date secular run-down on this?”
“Ok, if you can keep up, it’s a bit convoluted. Jesus Christ, who is deathless, is the metaphorical son of John the Baptist and Solomon’s mother. This transgression is compensated for by the fecundity of the fat bulls each brought to the union, right? It’s fair to say though that the prophet Jonah felt personally humbled by this deal.”
“Till he was spoon-fed by the Pentagon.”
“Not to speak of limitless supplies of peyotl, big boss.”
“Fine, Jen, but I’d like you to know there are other virtues in plants:
Fava, runner, haricot bean,
Makes a donkey an Indian Queen”
“Yevtushenko? A witch’s spell?”
“A song for active meditation?”
“Look at it this way. A Pakistani bowler once thrilled Cuban observers in the earthy olive groves of Andalusia (in those days when Cubans played cricket, not baseball). Anna, now living under another name, deliberately neglected to insist Jacob put on the condom. These are accidents, perhaps determinant, of history. Does that make Bacon, who predicated binary computing machines, a predeterminist? Did it have to be this way? Did you have to carry to the end your existential antagonism with the white whale? Was the story only ever you/it/he/she?”
Joanna, looking on aghast, sympathises with Gertrude Stein’s abdication, after much struggle and play, in the face of so many letters.
* * *
The final set of borrowed (burrowed?) images includes a small, rather sad, cricket vignette—as is apparently inevitable, my medium seems to have a predictable set of stand-bys. This one can be quite precisely situated: it’s the time of the infamous match-fixing scandals involving the South African cricket set-up and specifically the captain, Hanse Cronje, a fine upstanding batsman who went dismally wrong. I think there was a tournament in Arabia at about this time where for once the authorities showed their teeth—who knows if they bit all those responsible?
But JSB himself was not immune to unruly behaviour (though I don’t have reason to think corruption as such was ever attributed—hot temper and intolerance perhaps, and a tendency to collar the Thomas-Kirche’s calligraphy ink allowance). Perhaps he didn’t take it so well, when a colleague heard a theme he was working on—curiously redolent of the ‘Dies Irae’—and wondered whether there was enough substance in it. (Another sketch adumbrates a clearly Beethovenian motif, which just shows one can never know what may give fruit later, and furthermore that minimalism goes hand-in-hand with polyphony).
* * *
Sebastian and Anna are playing games with making up cantata titles—they’re both a bit fired up by absinthe. [We too used to do this: I recall, from Stephen Varcoe and/or Richard Savage, Mein Stimme ist mit Scheiss bedeckt, and Ach Gott, du stehts auf meinen Fuß.]
“How about Weinen, klagen, sorgen, sagen?”
“Brilliant! A bit over the top, but go for it!”
There’s an apprentice with them, who can’t quite follow this, and wonders if they should keep off the anis.
“Anna,” says Johann, “don’t you think that’ll put us on the best-seller lists, truly?” Nathan’s insulted by any suggestion of selling-out, and threatens who knows what sort of mayhem. Sebastian, calm, just says to Anna, “Don’t worry—he has this old idea of Indo-European hierarchy.” Though he then swore softly; but I won’t transcribe what he said, it sounded a bit crazy to me.
* * *
Somewhere, a little while before the Bach Pilgrimage, the office are discussing progress with the idea. They’ve got a highly placed cleric, a beloved singer, a small wizz-kid from Aix-la-Chapelle…
Jan, who’s everywhere, says “Think of Japanese theatre! We’ll go down singing in glory! It’ll be a great Bach-fest!”
Nin immediately imagines scenes with Sebastian dressed in exotic robes, in some sort of Persian latrine. Beth (I stammer as I address her, I’m so nervous, especially as John’s with her) questions the concept of ‘anabasis’, return to the source – “Do we think that Sebastian, who is by way of being a Thuringian fundamentalist, would accept a British makeover of a Baltic town?”
We’re called back to the matter in hand. “I’m sure we should concentrate on Iona as a high point, Jan.”
“Sorry, I personally won’t be doing Iona.”
And so the English Baroque Soloists get the Iona gig, surprising Jane, and assuaging JEG’s problems with the recording.
The Honourable representative intervenes to outlaw temporising views, ‘no industrial negotiation, and no smart-alecs either, phew’.
Would she even rule out corporal punishment? JE keeps out of it, no knee-capping here. Most importantly, don’t let Radio 3 pirate this—I’ve spotted one of their mikes in the mix—watch out in the ‘Sancta Maria’!
* * *
“Do you know,” Sebastian murmured to Anna, “I can hear low clarinets, I can hear a strumming continuo instrument, wow, I can see the old masters dancing to our tune….”
“That—guitar, is it?—can launch you and all your predecessors into a jamboree…”
But JSB’s already hearing something else, is it birdsong, sounds from the future, from another country? “Ach, listen…”
“Johann? Sebastian? Hansi? Are you there? Oh…”
Ernest Thompson Seton, Lives of the Hunted (1902).
Nicolas Robertson, 2000 –2021.
 Anagram by Stephen Varcoe.
 Anagram by Charles Pott.
 The penultimate bar, violins: AAAA.
 Amongst the stranded letters in the final anagram, I’d already realised that ETS could mean Ernest Thompson Seton, a Canadian nature writer I’d loved when young; but I had no idea what the still unattributed letters (CB CBB) could do until I looked him up in the British Library.