Johann Sebastian Bach’s stature as a composer of such extraordinary genius and widespread influence is so firmly established in Western culture that it is difficult to imagine that only a little over a century-and-a-half ago, his music and reputation languished in obscurity, virtually unknown to all but a few specialists. It was through Mendelssohn’s recognition of Bach’s genius and his efforts in making Bach’s works accessible to a wider public that these works are today recognized as summits of musical expression.
Due to the curious number of coincidences involving the crossed paths of members of both the Bach and Mendelssohn families, it was perhaps inevitable in retrospect that Felix Mendelssohn would “rescue” Bach’s music from near oblivion. Mendelssohn’s great aunt Sarah Itzig Levy (1761-1854) — a sister of Bella Salomon, Mendelssohn’s maternal grandmother — had supported an active music salon in her Berlin home where she cultivated a devotion to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Sarah was an accomplished musician, having studied the harpsichord with Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach; she also commissioned works from and acquired manuscripts of another of Bach’s sons, the second eldest, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd points out that the “highly mannered style” of several of young Felix’s string symphonies, dating from the 1820s, may have been influenced by the works of C.P.E. Bach.
Sarah Levy’s admiration for the music of J.S. Bach also prompted her membership in the chorus of the esteemed Berlin Singakademie, which had been founded in 1791 by C.F.C. Fasch in order to promote the sacred German choral repertoire. Fasch, himself a scholar of J.S. Bach’s motets, led the organization until his death in 1800; his successor, Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832), was later (in 1819) engaged by Abraham Mendelssohn, perhaps on Sarah’s recommendation, as music tutor to the young Felix and Fanny. Under Zelter’s direction, many works from the German repertoire (both choral and instrumental works) that had fallen out of fashion — including those of J.S. Bach (i.e., his the B-minor Mass) — were unearthed and studied. Both Felix and Fanny joined the Singakademie chorus, and thus actively participated in the rediscovery of this repertoire.
While Zelter was primarily known during his lifetime as a composer, conductor and teacher, his greatest legacy was in creating comprehensive music education programs and training institutions throughout Germany. For young Felix, however, and during the seven years that he studied with Zelter, the older composer remained a dominant musical influence on the younger, providing his pupil with a solid musical training rooted in eighteenth century traditions.
It is also coincidental that at the time of Felix’s birth, his father Abraham had actually possessed a collection of manuscripts of J.S. Bach’s works, acquired at auction in Hamburg in 1805; forty-three of these manuscripts were subsequently (in 1811) sent to the Berlin Singakademie for safe-keeping. According to Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd, Zelter urged Abraham to pursue his efforts in “saving” other Bach works, for, excepting connoisseurs, “who [else] during our times would understand these things?”
In 1823 (or possibly 1824), Felix’s maternal grandmother, Bella Salomon, presented him with a gift that was to alter the course of his life: a copyist’s manuscript score of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. While Felix had become acquainted with only a few excerpts from the work during his own membership in the Singakademie’s chorus, his first encounter with the full score of one of Bach’s most profound and immensely conceived works, must have been nothing less than a revelation. (It is to Bella’s credit and musical sensibility that she recognized in the Passion, a work that was essentially unknown at that time, one of the most deeply spiritual works ever written; she apparently also endured some difficulty in wresting Zelter’s copy of the work from him in order to have it copied by Eduard Rietz for her grandson.)
The score seized Felix’s imagination. Despite Bach’s generally unfavorable reputation at this time (he was regarded as little more than a musical “mathematician,” a reference to what would eventually be recognized as his extraordinary use of counterpoint and musical symmetry) and the numerous difficulties presented by the score (i.e., its complexity and the unfamiliarity of its language), Felix nevertheless conceived the idea of preparing the entire St. Matthew Passion for performance.
While Zelter himself had previously attempted to mount a performance of the Passion without success, this monumental task would require the efforts of an individual with the vision and genius to complete it — a task for which Mendelssohn was ideally suited. Five years later, Mendelssohn’s dream was realized: an abridged version of the work (including cuts and alterations of some material, compromises deemed necessary in the hope of making the work more accessible to audiences of the time), prepared by Mendelssohn, was also rehearsed and conducted by him in a performance at the Singakademie on March 11, 1829. For the first time in a century, the beauty of the St. Matthew Passion was revealed to the German public, eliciting a response not unlike that experienced by young Felix on seeing the work’s score for the first time. This historic performance, due in large part to Mendelssohn’s vision (he was only fifteen when he first saw the score of the Passion, and twenty when his efforts to perform the work were realized), resulted in a full-scale revival and reevaluation of Bach’s works throughout Germany and beyond, and a universal recognition of their genius and significance.
In his preparations for performing other works of Bach, Mendelssohn occasionally copied out instrumental parts himself. Among the few such parts to have survived are Mendelssohn’s manuscript parts for clarinet and bassoon for Bach’s Cantata, BWV 106, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit,” which are held in the collections of the Library of Congress, and a representative image of which accompanies this essay.
During the last years of his life, Mendelssohn paid further homage to J.S. Bach by preparing an edition of the latter’s organ works (published in London by Coventry and Hollier, 1845-46). Mendelssohn’s own Six Sonatas for organ, op. 65 (1845) not only renewed interest in the organ repertoire, and especially that of Bach, but also prompted the composition of new works for organ by other major composers. The revival of Bach’s works that Mendelssohn had initiated nearly twenty years beforehand therefore continued to be cultivated throughout the younger composer’s lifetime; the results of these selfless efforts are no less diminished in our day.