1900: The First American Performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor

One of the musical highlights of a summer in San Francisco is the opportunity to hear Jeffrey Thomas conduct the ABS Festival Orchestra and the American Bach Choir in Bach’s magnificent Mass in B Minor. In fact, as part of its annual San Francisco Summer Bach Festival, ABS offers two chances to hear the timeless work each summer and both performances sell out year after year. The Mass’s richness, expressivity, complexity, and the awe-inspiring genius of its composer are all attributes that pay dividends of insight and satisfaction when revisited regularly. At present, tickets are still available for the two performances on July 13 at 7:00 pm and July 20 at 2:00 pm.

The idea of performing Bach’s Mass in B Minor annually has been a mainstay in European musical communities since the mid-nineteenth century. In the United States, the tradition of yearly performances began with the very first American performance of the entire work on March 27, 1900, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Before the tradition could take root, however, the difficulty of mounting the work and introducing it to domestic audiences proved a significant challenge.

An Ambitious Bach Conductor

Fred Wolle

Fred Wolle

During the last months of 1898, the organist of the Moravian Church in Bethlehem, Dr. J. Fred Wolle, began recruiting singers for what would eventually become known as the Bethlehem Bach Choir, a musical entity that continues performing, among other works, the Mass in B Minor in Eastern Pennsylvania to this day. Ten years before the genesis of the Bach Choir, Dr. Wolle had led Bethlehem’s Choral Union, an ensemble that performed the great oratorios of Handel, Mendelssohn, and others, and also introduced Pennsylvanians to the large-scale works of Bach. In the latter area, the Union, supplemented by instrumentalists from nearby Philadelphia, distinguished itself with the U.S. premiere of the St. John Passion (1888) and an acclaimed performance of the St. Matthew Passion (1892). Following their successes, Wolle aspired to present the Mass in B Minor, but his singers did not share his zeal. In fact, the work terrified them! When shown the score, the group’s enthusiasm wilted at the challenging music and the Union quietly disbanded in 1892.

Dr. Wolle did not give up on his ambition to present the Mass in B Minor, but he had to wait eight years for a better opportunity and better musicians. Starting with his congregational choir at the Moravian Church as the core, he began recruiting singers in late 1898 for his project. On December 5, he had amassed 80 singers and the Bethlehem Bach Choir was born. Nearly a year later, Wolle and his ensemble were still preparing the Mass for performance and the leader released a statement to the local paper:

Bethlehem Bach Choir 1917

Bethlehem Bach Choir 1917

The ‘Mass,’ owing to its huge proportions, its well nigh insuperable difficulties, and the almost inaccessible height of artistic plan, makes unusual demands and will yield to nothing short of complete surrender of the singers’ time, industry and patience. The question whether in any sense of the word it pays to devote one’s self so thoroughly to the performance of a work beset with obstacles can best be answered by those members of the chorus who, since last December, have braved the difficulties, and who, with keen artistic insight, doubtless ere this have had revealed to them unsuspected beauties in unlooked for places in this veritable masterpiece of unspeakable power and imperishable glory.

After fourteen months of preparation, Dr. Wolle and the Bethlehem Bach Choir gave the premiere of Bach’s towering masterpiece on March 27, 1900. Though the event failed to draw many of the leading critics, the performance was a great success and took on an almost mythical status throughout the year, overshadowing the New York Oratorio Society’s performance of the work at Carnegie Hall in early April. With a reputation that extended far beyond Pennsylvania, Wolle and his Bach Choir returned in 1901 for Bethlehem’s Second Bach Festival from May 23-25. This time the Festival featured three works by Bach: “Christmas Oratorio,” St. Matthew Passion, and the Mass in B Minor, all in just three days!

The Bach Festival tradition, which began in this country 114 years ago in Pennsylvania, has proliferated in musical communities around Europe, the United States, and the entire world. Here in San Francisco, we have one of the younger Bach Festivals–2014 will be ABS’s 5th annual event–but it is a great one that, like that 1900 festival in Bethlehem, has been making waves and drawing music lovers from all around. Tickets are available for the Festival performances from July 11-20, but they won’t last long. Get your tickets to the Mass in B Minor now, while they are still available.