Bach’s Legacy Series: Bach in the 19th Century – Mendelssohn & Brahms

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.

At their next concert, Jeffrey Thomas, ABS, and the American Bach Choir will celebrate the profound impact of the music of J.S. Bach on later generations in “Bach’s Legacy” (April 25-28). In previous posts, we explored the program in terms of the cantatas and motets that will be heard as well as the resonances of those works in the compositions by living composers Sven-David Sandström and Knut Nystedt. Between Bach’s time and our own, however, a bridge had to be built, a tradition established, so that those manuscripts in the safe keeping of Bach’s descendants and friends might see the light of day and exert their influence. Perhaps the most influential architects of that bridge are two of the greatest musicians to come after Bach: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

Mendelssohn_BartholdyLike other musical talents of the era, Felix Mendelssohn was a devotee of J.S. Bach’s music, learning his keyboard works and singing the known chorales. But Mendelssohn was an outlier of the most extraordinary sort. Along with Mozart, who preceded him, and Paganini and Chopin who came later, he was one of the greatest musical prodigies to ever live; his talent and celebrity as a boy-genius knew no bounds. Friends of the Mendelssohn family and his teacher Carl Friederich Zelter believed Bach was a formidable example, perhaps the example, by which to temper and inspire the prodigy’s singular talent and he was permitted access to Bach manuscripts. The exposure yielded a profound impact both in Mendelssohn’s career as a professional musician and in his enduring legacy as a composer.

For “Bach’s Legacy,” Jeffrey Thomas will conduct the American Bach Choir in Mendelssohn’s motet cycle Sechs Sprüche zum Kirchenjahr and his setting of the chorale “Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich” which Bach set in the cantata Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (BWV 126). Sechs Sprüche (literally “Six Sentences”) is a fascinating work with six different liturgically defined episodes—Christmas, New Year’s Day, Passion Week, Good Friday, Advent, and Ascension—presented in Biblical paraphrases sung by an eight-part choir. Bach is surely a model for this posthumously published composition that occupied Mendelssohn in his final years, as it is a cycle of formidable complexity and gorgeous musical expression. Mendelssohn’s setting of Luther’s chorale “Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich” is another fine example of Bach’s music reconceived by a Romantic mind for a different age. Thomas and the American Bach Choir will perform both Bach’s setting and Mendelssohn’s version.

BrahmsMendelssohn died young and the duty of carrying the Bach tradition fell to the able shoulders of one of classical music’s “Big B Three”: Johannes Brahms (the others being Bach and Beethoven, naturally). In his voluminous output of chamber, symphonic, sacred and secular vocal works, it is Brahms’s motets that provide the clearest example of esteem and veneration he had for Bach’s music. At “Bach’s Legacy,” his Fest- und Gedenksprüche (Festival and Commemoration Sentences), Op. 109, will open the second half of the program and set the tone for cross-generational inquiry that informed Thomas’s curatorial choices for the concert. The polyphony of the three-movement work presents complex textures, but the composer of such timeless examples of Romanticism as the “German Requiem” and Symphony No. 2 imbues the vocal lines with strong feeling and warmth. One might say the work is in the spirit of Bach, with the sensibility of the 1880s.

“Brahms, as much as any other composer, idolized Bach and his compositional techniques, and in many if not all of Brahms’ choral works he placed specific references to Bach’s style. As a contrapuntalist, Brahms was unrivaled among all the late-nineteenth century composers, and his choral works— specifically his motets—exhibit extraordinary technical and structural mastery and maturity.”

– Jeffrey Thomas


Johannes Brahms: Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Op. 109:1

Over 260 years have elapsed since the death of J.S. Bach, yet his music endures both in performances of his surviving works and in those he inspired. Join us for “Bach’s Legacy.” You might find that kernel of truth within this illustrious continuum to fire your own spirit and creativity. Tickets and more information are available here.

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014