The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.
The story of Bach’s posthumous reception is often told as a narrative of fame emerging from obscurity. While it is true that J.S. Bach’s music enjoyed a dramatic reappraisal and rediscovery with Felix Mendelssohn’s legendary performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 with the Berlin Singakademie, his music had not vanished completely. Whereas the musical careers of Bach’s illustrious sons, especially C.P.E., Johann Christian, and Willhelm Friedemann, eclipsed that of their father in the late 1700s, the elder was never forgotten.
By 1800, Johann Sebastian and his works had become a specialist’s pursuit, known primarily to music students and composers. In 1789, Mozart made a point of reviewing Bach’s manuscripts when his travels brought him to Leipzig. Before being shown the collection of organ works he sought, the youthful genius heard the choir singing a Bach motet. An observer and Bach devotee, Friedrich Rochlitz, recorded what happened next:
The choir surprised Mozart with the performance of the double-chorus motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied,” by Sebastian Bach. Mozart knew this master more by hearsay than by his works, which had become quite rare; at least his motets, which had never been printed, were completely unknown to him. Hardly had the choir sung a few measures when Mozart sat up, startled; a few measures more and he called out “What is this?” And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears. When the singing was finished he cried out, full of joy “Now, there is something one can learn from!”
Bach’s keyboard music was the currency of virtuosity and a necessity for artistic development, but the brilliance of his works was not fully appreciated until later. Some young devotees like Samuel Wesley (1766-1837) and Carl Friedrich Horn (1762-1830) went beyond practicing the keyboard works and chorales; their enthusiasm encouraged a worshipful attitude toward the man as well as the music. Wesley wrote to a friend that he “rejoined to find that you are likely to regard his [J.S. Bach’s] Works with me as a musical Bible unrivaled and inimitable.” Wesley was also friends with Horn, a man he described as “longing to find some spirited enthusiasts like himself to co-operate in bringing the Musical World to Reason and Common Sense, and to extort a Confession of the true State of the Case against the Prepossession, Prejudice, Envy, and Ignorance of all Anti-Bachists.”
After the 20-year-old Mendelssohn’s performance of St. Matthew Passion, the groundswell enthusiasm for Bach’s music became a wave of popular and critical interest. A prolific writer and musician, Robert Schumann inquired, “would it not be a timely and useful undertaking, if the German Nation decided to publish a complete collection and edition of all of the works of Bach?” No less than Beethoven essayed a similar sentiment: “That you want to publish Sebastian Bach’s works delights my heart, which beats wholly for the great and lofty art of this father of harmony, and I wish to see the enterprise in full swing.” A group of prominent musicians, professors, and museum directors formed the Bach-Gesellschaft, a society whose mission was the publication of a complete edition of Bach’s works come scrito, without editorial additions or corrections. The volumes began issuing forth for popular consumption in 1851 and concluded 49 years later with the 46th and final volume.
With increasing access to this imposing body of work, it should come as no surprise that many 19th century musicians were captivated by J.S. Bach’s music:
“Study Bach. There you will find everything.” – Johannes Brahms
- “O you happy sons of the North who have been reared at the bosom of Bach, how I envy you.” – Giuseppe Verdi
- “…the most stupendous miracle in all music!” – Richard Wagner
- “Bach is a Colossus of Rhodes, beneath whom all musicians pass and will continue to pass. Mozart is the most beautiful, Rossini the most brilliant, but Bach is the most comprehensive: he has said all there is to say. If all the music written since Bach’s time should be lost, it could be reconstructed on the foundation which Bach laid.” – Charles Gounod
- “Any musician, even the most gifted, takes a place second to Bach’s at the very start.” – Paul Hindemith
- “In Bach, the vital cells of music are united as the world is in God.” – Gustav Mahler
- “And if we look a the works of JS Bach—a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity—on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday, from delightful arabesques to an overflowing of religious feeling greater than anything we have since discovered. And in his works we will search in vain for anything the least lacking in good taste.” – Claude Debussy
Bach’s music has been a source of inspiration for composers, music students, audiences, and creative individuals of all persuasions throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Don’t miss the opportunity to hear Jeffrey Thomas direct the American Bach Soloists and American Bach Choir in “Bach’s Legacy” (April 25-26), a program that traces the Bach tradition from moving works by the master and compositions by artists who were directly influenced by those works and Bach’s genius. Then, on the subject of inspiration, don’t forget about the ABS Festival & Academy (July 11-20), when ABS will explore the artists who influenced Bach and initiated the grand tradition. See you at the concerts this weekend and at the Festival!