On this date in 1829, Felix Mendelssohn directed the first performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion since the composer’s death. This performance was intended as the centenary of the premiere performance given at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig on Good Friday, March 11, 1727.
This event provides our Bach Bagatelle for today: The Bach Revival.
After Sebastian’s death, tastes in music changed drastically, and his sons C.P.E. and Johann Christian Bach were more famous than their father. The story of Sebastian’s return to favor in the music world is the story of two intertwining families—Bach and Mendelssohn.
It begins with Moses Mendelssohn, the great German-Jewish philosopher who created his name from “Mendel’s son,” believing that this, rather than “Moses Ben Mendel” would allow him to go further in the educated German society of the 18th century.
The prevailing views of the time were strongly anti-Semitic, even though a great number of Jews were deeply assimilated into German society and many had converted to Christianity. European culture was, however, changing.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in his play The Jews offered the possibility that a Jew could possess nobility of character. He found the realization of his ideal when he met Moses Mendelssohn. The two became friends for life.
Mendelssohn, though an orthodox Jew, became a leading light of the Jewish Enlightenment, and is referred to as the “father of Reform Judaism.” Perhaps his most important work is Jerusalem, an examination of the position of Judaism in a Gentile world and a plea for freedom of conscience. This idea is reflected in Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, whose hero was modeled on Mendelssohn.
Moses had six children. His son Abraham married Lea Salomon, the daughter of Bella Itzig and Levin Jacob Salomon. Bella’s sister Sarah married Solomon Levy. Abraham and Lea were the parents of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn. Sarah Itzig Levy was their great aunt.
“Felix” he was given at birth, but his parents refused to have him circumcised and gave their children no religious education until they were baptized into the Reformed Church in 1816, at which time the future composer became Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartoldy, the last name added at the instigation of his uncle Jacob Salomon, who had taken it as his own after inheriting property with that name. Felix used Bartoldy to please his father, but remained mute about his specific religious beliefs throughout his life.
Toward the end of the 18th century one of the ways wealthy Jewish families in Berlin attempted to enter German cultured society was by giving their children music lessons. Such a one was Sarah Levy, who studied the harpsichord with Sebastian’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and she conducted a musical salon in her Berlin home that cultivated a love of Sebastian’s music. She also commissioned works by other of Sebastian’s sons, particularly C.P.E. It may be that Felix’s compositions from the 1820s were influenced by the latter composer.
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach
Her love of Bach led Sarah to join the Berlin Singakademie, founded in 1791 by C.F.C. Fasch to promote German sacred choral music. Fasch, a lover of Sebastian’s motets, was succeeded in 1800 by Carl Friedrich Zelter, who, on Sarah’s recommendation, became tutor to young Felix and his sister Fanny. Felix studied music with Zelter for seven years. In the Singakademie, Sebastian’s works were unearthed and studied, particularly his B Minor Mass. When of an age, both Felix and Fanny joined this group.
The Mendelssohns were collectors, Abraham having purchased a number of Sebastian’s manuscripts at auction in Hamburg in 1805, and Sarah having amassed an important collection of Bach family manuscripts. These they placed with the Singakademie for safe-keeping.
In 1823 or 1824 Felix’s grandmother Bella presented him with a gift she had somehow inveigled Zelter to release—Sebastian’s St. Matthew Passion, a work hardly known at the time but one that Zelter had long hoped to conduct.
Mendelssohn was 15. Five years later, with the backing of Zelter and the actor Eduard Devrient, Felix was able to conduct the a significant portion of the Passion at the Berlin Singakademie. Up to then Sebastian had been considered merely a “musical mathematician.” This performance began a full-scale revival of his work throughout Germany and beyond. It also brought Mendelssohn widespread acclaim. He said, “To think that it took an actor and a Jew’s son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world.”