The St. Matthew Passion remained in a state of nearly suspended animation between Bach’s death in 1750 and an amazing revival of the work by a terribly young Felix Mendelssohn in 1829. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
Bach’s music was essentially out of public fashion when he died. In the decades following his death, the careers of Bach’s successors at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig would certainly have been furthered very little by frequent performance of the late cantor’s church music which was complex, difficult and believed to be old fashioned.
But the belief that Bach’s music was utterly ignored after his death is incorrect. No German or Austrian musician of the mid to late eighteenth century grew up without studying whatever of Bach’s music was available locally, particularly the Well-Tempered Clavier. Any well trained professional musician of the time could write a canon or a fugue.
Three of Haydn’s six early string quartets conclude with brilliant fugal movements. Mozart, always on the lookout for fresh ideas, found himself repeatedly shaken to the core by his encounters with Bach’s music. By the early 1780s, Mozart’s mastery of the baroque style, including fugues, was absolute. Finally, according to one astonishing legend, Beethoven could transpose at the keyboard every prelude and fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier into any other key on request.
But it was Felix Mendelssohn, contemporary and friend of both Chopin and Schumann and grandson of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, a remarkably gifted and energetic musician who was raised as a Lutheran by his parents, who would rank as the most important figure for his revival of the Passion. The story of that revival, one of the most significant events in musical history, is remarkably interesting.
For Christmas 1823, Mendelssohn’s grandmother gave the fourteen-year-old genius a manuscript score of the St. Matthew Passion. Mendelssohn began to pick through the score and study it, presumably with mounting interest and excitement. By late 1827, he began to rehearse the work with others, still purely for the sake of discovery and wonder, without expecting to perform the music.
Mendelssohn became a member of the Singakademie in Berlin, a prestigious choral group, first in 1820 as a boy alto, moving to the tenor section as his voice dropped in 1824. He also studied composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter, Director of the choir and an admirer of Bach’s music. Zelter had rehearsed with the group, but not performed in public, the B Minor Mass in 1811 and the St. Matthew Passion in 1815.
Thus, when Mendelssohn and his friend Edward Devrient (who was to eventually sing the role of Jesus) approached Zelter in 1829 to propose a live performance of the work, they found an enthusiastic ear. But … this was a remarkable request. Mendelssohn was only 20 and he was proposing that he direct this massive work that few knew and none had heard played in public. Whether youthfully confident or simply crazy, Mendelssohn relied primarily on himself for this colossal project.
When he started preparing the forces to present the work, the excitement of the many participants grew exponentially as rehearsals progressed. According to extent writing, all were amazed not only at the architectonic grandeur of structure, but at the abundance of melody, its wealth of expression and passion, and mostly at its dramatic power. No one had ever suspected old Bach of this.
The performance, which took place on March 11, 1829, itself stands as a landmark in musical, indeed, in cultural history. The first performance was so great a success that the work had to be repeated ten days later (again under Mendelssohn’s direction) and once more on April 17 (Good Friday) under Zelter, since Mendelssohn had left Berlin. Other choral groups began to look into Bach’s other works, and interest in his instrumental music swelled; the Bach revival was underway.
Would J.S. Bach have become what he is today without Felix Mendelssohn? Who knows? Maybe some other person would have resurrected his genius. But – bottom line – it was Mendelssohn. We are all indebted to him.
"There is simply nothing like that special moment when everyone in a performance hall … the choir, instrumentalists, soloists & audience … everyone comes together emotionally to experience live music. One can feel that union when I drop my baton after the last note … but before the applause. I live for that moment. It is humankind at its best, surrendering self-interest for a greater good."
- David M. Spitko, Artistic Director