Mendelssohn and the Bach Revival
It happens to me more than I’d care to admit. I’ll be walking down the street — usually down to the bike path I run on — I have a Bach violin concerto pumping in the headphones and sure as shit, I start to shed tears. I’ve learned my lesson. I usually wear sunglasses when I’ve got Bach on. This stuff really does it to me. There is no piece of music that can make me feel the way the Double Violin Concerto makes me feel, especially that Allegro. There’s nothing like that. It makes being alive and just being able to walk down the street and breathe in the air feel utterly exquisite. And it makes me feel so lucky. Not just to be alive, but lucky that I live in an era where Bach’s music is so widely known and accessible. It wasn’t always this way. For about a hundred years after his death, JS Bach’s music was largely forgotten, having fallen out of fashion for being too labyrinthine, one of the very reasons I adore this stuff so much.
It’s become a bit of a legend now — 19th century composer, Felix Mendelssohn brings Bach’s music back from the brink and into the public psyche via a knockout performance of the St. Mathew Passion, an extremely dense, complex choral tour de force. It’s often thought ironic that Mendelssohn, a Jewish composer, would be the one to be such a key figure in the resurrection of one of the greatest pieces of Christian music ever composed. It wasn’t that Bach’s works were completely lost, they were known among connoisseurs and students. But none of his music was anywhere near as widely known or appreciated as it would become.
Bach’s music was considered old-fashioned pretty much even when he was still actively composing in the mid-eighteenth century towards the end of his life. Bach wrote how Bach wanted to write — complicated. Lots tightly woven contrapuntal invention, stuff that would soon fall out of favor with the rise of a simpler, more gallant Classical style that would come to prominence in the second half of the eighteenth century. It got to the point where his music was considered too complicated and difficult, too brainy. So it fell out of favor, save for being fodder for students to learn on.
Lots of important composers knew of Bach though. Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn all knew of Bach. Beethoven had definitely studied Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, a collection of Preludes and Fugues for keyboard, now a very well-known work. JS Bach came from a musical family and passed the tradition down to his sons who were all also very talented composers in their own right, though their music is very different from their father’s. We have JS Bach’s sons and students to thank for finally landing Bach’s music in a very young Felix Mendelssohn’s hands.
Bringing back Bach
Mendelssohn’s great aunt Sarah Itzig Levy held a music salon — events where musical ideas and the works of various composers were shared — at her home in Berlin. Sarah loved Bach’s music and it was often played and discussed in the salon. On top of owning a large collection of manuscripts by JS Bach himself, she acquired manuscripts and commissioned pieces from Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. She had also studied the harpsichord with Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.
Felix’s father, Abraham Mendelssohn was a great philanthropist and had purchased numerous compositions from C.P.E. Bach in 1805 at an auction in Hamburg. He would later donate these works to the esteemed Berlin Singakademie, which had been founded to preserve and promote German choral music.
The director of the Singakademie, Carl Friedrich Zelter, was hired by Abraham Mendelssohn as Felix’s music tutor. Zelter had unearthed and studied the old works of Bach and other early German composers, bringing them back into the repertoire. Felix went on to join the Singakademie, actively participating in the initial rediscovery of Bach, which he enthusiastically embraced.
Zelter became Felix Mendelssohn’s primary influence at this point. Zelter provided him a solid musical training based on the old traditions of the eighteenth century. He also urged Abraham Mendelssohn to find and purchase any and all of Bach’s work he could find. You have to understand how dire these times were and how precious these manuscripts were to these people. We take Bach’s music for granted now but at this time, he was virtually ignored, known really only to those really in the know. I won’t use the word “hipster” seriously, but I think you get the point here.
A Christmas present from Grandma
One of the reasons why I love this story so much is because it basically kicks off with a Christmas gift from Grandma. I mean, how sweet is this? In 1823, Felix’s grandmother, Bella Solomon gives him the best gift ever — a copyist’s manuscript of Bach’s St. Mathew Passion. I really have to admire Bella’s musical savvy for being able to recognize the greatness in a piece that was relatively obscure at the time — and for being able to wrest a copy from Zelter in order to have it duplicated, which must have been no easy task. Felix had already been acquainted with a few experts from the Passion, but this was something else. The Mathew Passion is just such an immense, profound work, it must have blown his mind a bit. He was only fourteen years old and he immediately started dreaming of performing it someday. He would hold onto that dream for years.
It wasn’t that the Mathew Passion was completely unknown, but it was obscure. It hadn’t been performed in its entirety since its last known performance in 1736 at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach himself was music director. Mendelssohn considered the score to be his most valuable possession. He kept working on it for years. In the winter of 1828-29, after years of study and practice, the first of the Passion’s three parts was performed at a Sunday musicale. Mendelssohn later went to Zelter with his plan to have it performed in its entirety.
Zelter insisted that the choir — any contemporary choir, or the orchestra for that matter — just simply didn’t have the skills to handle it when it came to the more complex parts, especially the horns. Zelter had tried to mount of a performance of it himself with no success for this very reason. Mendelssohn wasn’t about to be shot down. Zelter owed so much to Felix’s father for his philanthropy. With a little arm-twisting, Zelter caved and agreed to cooperate.
They organized a choir and orchestra made up of amateur and professional singers and players from the Academy in Berlin. Zelter had tried it before, but Mendelssohn was a genius — not to be too over the top, but it’s true. This is where we first see that shine through. It really would take the work of an individual genius to make something like this happen at this time in history. There would be parts that would be cut and it would be tailored for Romantic-era sensibilities, but it was there. There are critics today who claim Mendelssohn butchered the Mathew Passion for the sake of accessibility. That may or may not be true, but that’s not the point here. This is about bringing Bach back from the dead. If parts had to be cut and things needed to be shifted around, so be it.
On March 11, 1829, for the first time in a century, the St. Mathew Passion was displayed for the public at the Singakademie. Oh, the beauty of the thing. Sure, it was cut, it was altered, there were compromises made — but it was there. Most importantly, it was an utter success. Mendelssohn was only twenty years old.
This performance sets off the beginnings of a worldwide revival of Bach’s work. I like to think of it as something akin to what the popularity of the band Nirvana in the early ’90s did for punk and post-punk — where that particular type of music had largely been to the taste of college students and rock music aficionados, all of a sudden became a worldwide phenomenon with its popularization spearheaded by Nirvana’s breakout success. We see this kind of thing happen with some frequency in the arts.
Mendelssohn worked on Bach up through the last years of his life, preparing an edition of his organ works in 1846, which along with his own Six Sonatas for organ, helped to renew interest in organ music. The revival of Bach’s works that Mendelssohn had initiated continued grow. The St. John Passion was revived in 1833, the Mass in B minor in 1844. Through the 1830s and 40s, more and more of Bach’s work was published. Famous, influential composers like Chopin took note and influence, as did Schumann and Franz Liszt. Bruckner, Wagner and Brahms all went on to heavily promote Bach.
The Bach Society was founded in 1850 to promote Bach’s music, publishing the first comprehensive edition of his work. Germany took Bach really seriously, associating him with religious revival and staunch nationalism, especially with the unification of Germany in 1871. This would all culminate in Bach being recognized as one of the world’s greatest composers to have ever lived, very rightly so.
These days, Bach is so utterly synonymous with classical music, it’s easy to forget that it was through the diligence and hard work of a few who really loved and cared very much about his music that the world has this gift now, and that’s what I feel Bach’s music is. If there is or ever was a God or a spirit or whatever — it spoke through Bach and it gave the world this gift, his music. It will live as long as human civilization does, this work of such symmetry and beauty. This shit that makes me cry like a little kid. So when I listen to it, I find myself utterly thankful to Mendelssohn, almost as much as to Bach himself, for the hard work and determination it took to give the world this stuff that makes life so much more livable.
I enjoy this particular performance of the St. Mathew Passion
Thank you for your research! There is pure magic about Bach. He stands alone atop of a wide musical landscape, unique in his perceived simplicity and never ending modernity. His music resonates with me on the almost physiological level, it fits my soul like a glove, whether to comfort me in sadness or to brighten my happy days. I don’t know of a music more divine than Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites and violin sonatas and partitas. Forever grateful to Felix Mendelssohn for bringing Bach back to live – now to never disappear into oblivion.
Thank you for reading! I’m so glad that a fellow Bach lover came across this. I don’t know of a music more divine than Bach’s either. The LSO put out a recording of the complete cello suites with Tim Hugh on cello a year or so ago. It’s an excellent recording of them.