Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mendelssohn & Bach


The musical life in Berlin centered around a school that had originally been founded to train young musicians through choral singing. It was begun in 1791 by a keyboard player named Fasch who had been a court musician for King Frederick the Great. In 1800, his assistant took over as director, Carl Zelter, best known today for having been Mendelssohn's teacher. In 1808, he added an orchestral school, teaching instruments and composition. The school's new building was built in 1827 and was Berlin's first real concert hall. The school and the hall are still in operation today.

(Photo, right, of a modern day choir before a recent performance of a Bach cantata posing on the steps of the Singing-Academy.)

Most of the students came from the upper- and middle-class families of Berlin and was supported by a number of patrons including several prominent Jewish families like the Mendelssohns and the Itzigs. Abraham Mendelssohn joined in 1793 and Lea Salomon, a granddaughter of the Itzig family, joined in 1796. Whether they met there or not, I don't know: coincidentally, both had moved to Paris in 1797 where they did meet, fell in love and were married in 1804, leaving Paris first for Hamburg, then (in 1811) going back to Berlin. All four of their children were musical and took lessons from teachers from the Sing-Academy. Both Fanny and Felix studied composition with the school's director, Carl Zelter.


The Academy's choral concerts frequently involved music by J.S. Bach – mostly the chorales and motets. Bach's cantatas, concertos and large-scale choral works were unknown even to many educated musicians.

The school owned many manuscripts of Johann Sebastian Bach, partly because his second son, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, had been a court composer for Frederick the Great. Much of this was kept in the school's library and had not been published or performed. Zelter felt the modern-day (that is, 1800-era) performance skills would not do proper justice to Bach's style of writing.

(See illustration, a portrait of Bach and three of his sons - C.P.E. in a red jacket; Wilhelm Friedemann on the right.)

At this time, Bach was primarily known for his keyboard works like the Well-Tempered Clavier, two volumes of 48 preludes & fugues which were primarily used as advanced teaching pieces. These pieces were admired by musicians who knew them (like Mozart and Beethoven) but they were considered too academic and boring by others, so they were not usually performed in concert as they are, today.

The Academy was located in what became the Soviet-occupied East Berlin. At the end of World War II, the school's collection of Bach manuscripts was looted by the Soviet Army and taken back to the Soviet Union where it was hidden in a Kiev music school. This was rediscovered only in 2000 and returned to Berlin. Today, it is housed at the Berlin State Library. The Academy's building and concert hall was renamed “Maxim Gorky Hall” after the Soviet author.

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Bach's oldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, sold many of his father's manuscripts (some to pay off debts). Others were inherited by his daughter who took them with her when she went to America. Rather than becoming the foundation of any music school or performances there, they were distributed to friends and family. Many of the manuscripts were lost or inadvertently destroyed.

One of W.F. Bach's students, Sarah Itzig Levy (see right), lived in Berlin and was an aunt of Mendelssohn's mother, Lea Salomon.

That's four degrees of separation: Old J.S. Bach --> Bach's son, W.F. Bach --> Sarah Itzig Levy (aunt of Mendelssohn's Mother) --> Felix Mendelssohn.

Aunt Sarah performed concertos by C.P.E. Bach at Academy concerts and owned a large collection of manuscripts by J.S. Bach. It's very likely she played the Well-Tempered Clavier for her niece. When Lea's first child was born, she remarked her daughter had “fugue fingers” – meaning long, thin fingers good for a pianist to play Bach's fugues. And she was right: Fanny grew up to be an excellent pianist who often played Bach's music. So did her little brother, Felix.

Since Aunt Sarah also performed concertos and keyboard works by C.P.E. Bach, it's no coincidence one of the major musical influences on Mendelssohn's early works was the music of C.P.E. Bach.

Another collector of Bach manuscripts was Abraham Mendelssohn who purchased a number of works from the widow of C.P.E. Bach, J.S. Bach's 2nd son who left Berlin to become the “resident composer” for the city of Hamburg. Abraham purchased these works at an auction in Hamburg in 1805, then gave this collection to the Academy when he returned to Berlin.

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It was Felix's grandmother, Bella Salomon (also known as Babette), who gave him a copy of Bach's largest work, “The St. Matthew Passion,” as a Christmas present when he was 14 or 15.

The story is that she had to talk a reluctant Zelter into loaning her his original manuscript so she could have it hand-copied (presumably by Mendelssohn's violin teacher, Eduard Rietz) since the work was never printed. But Zelter guarded his treasures so closely, keeping them locked up in a cabinet where few ever got to look at them. So it's unlikely he would have parted with the prize of his collection even for a short time. If it wasn't a copy already owned by her sister, Sarah, Grandmother Salomon may have borrowed a copy owned by another musician she knew.

It's not that this huge work was unknown. The Mendelssohn children sang in the Academy's choir when some choruses from it were performed, just as they had sung some of the smaller cantatas that Bach had written for regular church services. But the complete work had never been performed in public since it's last known performance in 1736 at the St. Thomas Church where Bach was the music director. (See picture, a sketch of Leipzig skyline with St. Thomas Church, drawn by Felix Mendelssohn.)

Mendelssohn studied the score and considered it one of his most valuable possessions. He dreamed some day of performing it so he kept working on it. During the winter of 1827-28, several singers were invited to the Mendelssohn home to read through parts of the work. His sisters helped copy out the parts and Mendelssohn (then 18 or 19) led them from the piano. The following winter, they performed the first of the Passion's three parts at a Sunday musicale. With an actor-friend who'd been one of the singers urging him on – it was Mendelssohn's duty to perform this work, he insisted – they went to Zelter with their plan.

Their old teacher advised them it wouldn't work: the skills the choir would need for some of the more involved choruses was more than any choir in the 1820s could handle it. And as for the orchestra, it was a style of playing that had been lost over the decades, especially for the trumpet players.

But they agreed to try and so Mendelssohn, his actor friend and his violin teacher organized a choir and orchestra made up of singers and players from the Academy and other orchestras, both professional and amateur, in Berlin.


They performed the St. Matthew Passion at the Academy on March 11, 1829.

It was a huge success and had to be repeated ten days later, which happened to be Bach's birthday. Again it was sold out, with additional chairs set up in the lobby for the overflow crowd.

The work was published the following year and other performances soon followed. Not all were as ecstatic as the Berlin audience. At one performance in a provincial Prussian city, part of the audience fled before the first part had ended; others called it “outdated rubbish.”

Today, Bach is one of the most frequently performed classical composers and one of the most highly regarded. The St. Matthew Passion is generally considered one of the greatest works of Western Art.

Here is the final chorus from Bach's St. Matthew Passion: after over two hours of music, the chorus sings the final lines after Christ's body has been taken down from the cross. "We sit down in tears and call to You in the tomb. Rest softly - softly rest."
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This performance is with the Munich Bach Choir & Orchestra conducted by Karl Richter.

Basically, Mendelssohn, who had just turned 20, was given credit for beginning The Bach Revival. It might have happened eventually – other people had talked about it but didn't have the courage to try (perhaps a 40-year old would have felt more afraid of it than a 20-year-old). It may have taken longer till this music became heard again: it's possible Mendelssohn's passion for the music (no pun intended) was contagious and helped convince an audience that might have been skeptical in a more scholarly performance.

The important thing is, as a result of this one performance, Bach's music was being heard again and Mendelssohn had “his big break.” After the success of this performance, people around Germany began taking more of an interest in him. As they say about movie stars today, “he had arrived.”

- Dr. Dick