On March 11, 1829 – 190 years ago today – the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn conducted a heavily edited version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred oratorio St. Matthew’s Passion at the Singakademie in Berlin.
Composed in 1727, 102 years before that sold-out performance in Berlin, Mendelssohn’s performance of the passion was the first to take place outside of Leipzig, and it caused a sensation. It single-handedly initiated what is now known as the “Bach Revival”, which brought the music of Johann Sebastian Bach – in particular his large-scale works – to the attention of a broad-based listening public for the very first time. At the time of Mendelssohn’s performance, the great man himself had been dead for nearly 79 years.
Sebastian Bach (as his contemporaries knew him) was built like a bull and had the constitution of one as well. At no point in his life had he suffered a serious illness until the late spring of 1749, when at 64 his body began to give out: among other things, he suffered from neuropathy (numbness and pain in his hands and feet, the result of damage to the peripheral nerves of same) and eye pain and vision problems (likely a result of inflammation of the optic nerves, and/or glaucoma, and/or cataracts). The most likely culprit for Bach’s poor health was type-2 diabetes, a disease that was not separately diagnosed until 1936, 186 after Bach died.
Such was the pain in Bach’s eyes that in March of 1750, he allowed them to be operated on by the famous English quack, the “oculist” Chevalier John Taylor, who had come to Leipzig to lecture at the University. The operation took place sometime between March 28 and April 1; rather predictably, it failed. A second operation took place sometime between April 5 and 8; rather predictably, it failed as well. We are told that:
“matters were made worse by ‘harmful mendicaments and other things’, possibly including rubbing the eye with a brush and draining the eye and its surrounding area of blood, up to half a teacup full – treatments known to have been applied by Taylor.”
We squirm together.
(For our information: this same, self-styled “Chevalier” John Taylor performed the same operation on George Frederick Handel – blinding him as well – some months before Handel’s death in 1759!)
After the second surgery Bach’s body fell apart. He went completely blind; inflammation and infection set in. On July 18 he suffered a stroke followed by what was called “a raging fever”. On Tuesday, July 28, at roughly 8:15 in the evening, the 65-year-old Bach gave up the ghost and, we can only hope, joined his beloved maker. His funeral took place three days later, on July 31.
What followed remains a cultural tragedy of the first order, like the loss of the library of Alexandria; the dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban; the cancellation in 1967 of “F Troop” after but two seasons (a cancellation that brought a great darkness upon my household).
At the time of his death, Bach left behind him his wife Anna Magdalena Bach (48 years old at the time) and nine children, four of whom were minors. His sons Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philip Emanuel, and Johann Christoph Friedrich were, like their father, professional musicians. (Johann Christian, who would grow up to be the greatest composer among Bach’s sons, was 14 years old when his father died.) The value of Bach’s estate – cash, musical instruments, and silverware; objects of pewter, copper, and brass; furniture, clothing and Bach’s theological library – was determined by a probate court and then distributed among Bach’s widow and his children. But amazingly – incredibly – nowhere in the inventory of his possessions or in the probate hearing record is there any mention of Bach’s hugemusic library, consisting of not just his own music in manuscript, parts, and print, but the manuscript music of generations of his ancestors, which he had carefully collected and preserved. The overwhelming bulk of this music – including Bach’s cantatas and oratorios – had never been copied and thus existed only as a single, hand-written manuscript.
Bach seems to have assumed that his wife and children would treat his music with the same reverence with which he treated the music of his ancestors. Sadly, in this, the man was only partially correct. His music was split up between his widow Anna Magdalena and his four musician sons, with the two eldest – Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philip Emanuel – receiving the lion’s share. Pretty much all of the music put into Carl Philip Emanuel’s hands has survived; thank heavens. But Anna Magdalena, reduced to penury, sold the bulk of her holdings, not infrequently for its paper value. (Which is how an unknown number of Bach’s handwritten manuscripts ended up as wrapping paper in Leipzig’s cheese and fish shops.) But the worst steward of Bach’s musical legacy was his eldest son, the composer, keyboard player and wastrel extraordinaire Wilhelm Friedemann, who sold off and lost a significant portion of his musical patrimony. (Wilhelm Friedemann’s only surviving child, a daughter named Friederica Sophia who was born in 1757, didn’t help things either. She took with her a pile of her grandfather’s handwritten manuscripts when she emigrated to America, the bulk of which were lost and/or destroyed by her descendants, who, for our information, eventually settled in Oklahoma.)
Posterity was no kinder to Bach’s music than were his heirs. His music – which had already been considered by most of his contemporary listeners to be overly complex, elitist and academic – was roundly rejected after his death by a musical community ever more prone to value the more melodically accessible music that we now identify as representing the “Classical style.”
There were a few bright spots. Bach’s solo keyboard music, a good bit of which had been published in his lifetime, continued to circulate and was prized by connoisseurs and music teachers. Both Mozart and Beethoven were profoundly influenced by Bach’s music, however limited was their access to it. Slowly, Bach’s reputation began to grow. His first biography, by Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749-1818), was published in 1802.
The developing nineteenth century cult of the past was felt with particular strength in Germany, where the humiliations suffered at the hands of Napoleon’s France prompted a desire to recapture older and distinctly German values and traditions. Expressing just this, Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote of Bach:
“This great man was a German. Be proud of him, German fatherland, but be worthy of him too. His works are an invaluable national patrimony with which no other nation has anything to be compared.”
Among the many (and growing) number of
Zelter owned one of the very few copies of the score of the St. Matthew Passion. (According to the German composer and music critic Adolf Bernhard Marx [1795-1866] who was an intimate of the Mendelssohn family:
“Zelter obtained the score of that immortal work from a cheese shop, where it was being used as wrapping paper.”
It’s a great story, though it’s almost certainly false. For our information, Bach’s handwritten manuscript of the St. Matthew Passion survived because it was among the works inherited by his son Carl Philip Emanuel Bach.)
In 1823, Bella Salomon – Felix Mendelsohn’s maternal grandmother – managed to pry Zelter’s score of the St. Matthew Passion out of his hands long enough to have a copy made, which she presented to Felix on his 15th birthday, on February 3, 1824.
According to the Mendelssohn biographer R. Larry Todd:
“Bella’s gift was revelatory: Felix was now free to fathom the manifold beauties of Bach’s most profound work. The St. Matthew Passion became a cornerstone of his musical faith.”
After some two years of rehearsals(!) Mendelsohn presented the passion to the public 190 years ago today, on March 11, 1829. The star-studded audience – which included the Prussian king and his court – was stunned by what they heard. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was there, and afterwards he referred to:
“Bach’s grand, truly Protestant, robust and erudite genius which we have only recently learned again to appreciate at its full value.”
Thus was born the “Bach Revival”, and never again would the great man’s music not be at the forefront of the repertoire!
For lots more on Bach’s life and times and music, I would humbly direct your attention to my Great Courses survey Bach and the High Baroque.