Hard as it is to imagine, there was a time when JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion was virtually unknown outside Leipzig, where it was first performed in 1727. Sporadic performances continued at the city’s Thomaskirche, where Bach had been music director, after his death in 1750. But the broader world knew nothing of what we nowadays view as one of the supreme choral pieces.
Until, that is, a precocious youth named Felix Mendelssohn was given a copy of the St Matthew Passion by his grandmother nearly 100 years later. Mendelssohn was 15 at the time (1824), and already the composer of 12 dashing String Symphonies. But his encounter with the Matthew Passion, one biographer wrote, was ‘revelatory’, and became ‘a cornerstone of his musical faith’. Could he get a performance of this long-unheard masterwork organised?
Mendelssohn’s initial thought was that he couldn’t. Bach’s Passion was too long – three hours – and unfamiliar to most audience members and musicians. These were formidable barriers to putting a concert performance together, and Mendelssohn ‘utterly disbelieved it could be done’. Instead, he jestingly offered to ‘give a public performance on a rattle and penny-trumpet’, which fortunately never happened.
Mendelssohn did, though, participate in sing-throughs of the Passion at home with friends, and this stoked his enthusiasm further. ‘No living man but you can conduct its performance,’ the baritone Eduard Devrient told him, and Mendelssohn was gradually won over. With Devrient, he approached his teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter, conductor of a Berlin choir both Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny sang in.
Zelter had wanted to mount the Matthew Passion himself, but never managed it. Would he support a project hatched by a teenager with limited conducting experience and a singer in his twenties? To begin with, he was unimpressed with their plans for a performance. ‘Do you think that a couple of young donkeys like you will be able to accomplish it?’, he fulminated. But he eventually relented, agreeing to lend them his Singakademie choir and its concert hall.
The version of the St Matthew Passion heard by a capacity audience on 11 March 1829 was, however, very different to the one we know today. No doubt worried about over-taxing the audience’s attention span, Mendelssohn cut ten arias and six chorales, halving the work’s duration. The 158-strong choir was far bigger than Bach would have used, and Mendelssohn conducted from a piano, not the harpsichord of Bach’s era.
None of this mattered to an enthralled capacity audience, which included luminaries such as the Prussian King, the poet Heine and the philosopher Hegel. The choir, Fanny Mendelssohn recorded, sang ‘with a fire, a striking power and also with a touching delicacy and softness the like of which I have never heard’. Her brother Felix, now aged 20, had achieved ‘a perfect success’, she added.
His success resounded. The 1,000-plus applicants who missed out on tickets for the 11 March concert clamoured for a repeat performance. This happened ten days later, on Bach’s birthday (21 March), and on Good Friday (17 April) Zelter’s long-time ambition to conduct the St Matthew Passion was finally realised, when he led a third performance.
Mendelssohn’s devotion to Bach continued for the remaining 18 years of his life, and he conducted the St Matthew Passion again in 1841 at Bach’s Thomaskirche in Leipzig, restoring some of the cuts he’d made 12 years previously. By then, though, the die was well and truly cast: the revival of interest in Bach’s major choral works, catalysed by the 1829 revival of the St Matthew Passion, had become irreversible.