Mendelssohn and Bach
January 12, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
Felix Mendelssohn was a child prodigy, writing music and studying the works of the old masters at an age when most kids are playing and trying to avoid homework. The music, specifically the counterpoint, of Mozart and Bach was particularly special to him, and his very first compositions reflected these influences. His works were mostly performed at parties and soirees thrown by the Mendelssohn family. Young Felix’s well-rounded upbringing included travel, education in general subjects and the classics, and introductions to some of the most important poets, musicians, and composers of the day.
Mendelssohn had a particular affinity for the music of J.S. Bach, and this was a very fortunate thing, indeed. When J.S. Bach was alive, he was not a major player in the music world. He worked extremely hard at the positions he held, and he produced an enormous amount of music. But he didn’t travel or put on public concerts or even write opera, which was the popular genre. To those who knew him outside of Leipzig, he was well respected and considered a master of both organ performance and counterpoint, but his compositions nearly disappeared from history. They did not, however, and we have Mendelssohn and a few others to thank for it.
When J.S. Bach died in 1750, he was “Old Bach,” the father of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, whom Mozart called “The Father of Classicism.” Some of the surviving music of “Old Bach”—which had fallen out of fashion and was largely forgotten—was entrusted to his children. Some of his works were passed around in manuscript form among his devotees in Berlin. Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a notable patron and musician, brought Bach’s works to Vienna in the 1780s, where musicians would gather at van Swieten’s home to play them. Mozart attended these gatherings.
A similar situation occurred in England, where manuscript copies were also passed around among musicians. Composer and publisher Muzio Clementi who lived in England for nearly his entire life, had come into contact with a few of these manuscripts. When he was a student in the 1760s and 1770s, Clementi often practiced harpsichord works by Bach for hours at a time.
It was in the 1800s that the Bach revival started in earnest. J.N. Forkel penned a biography about “Old Bach” that was published in 1802 and dedicated it to van Swieten. C.F. Zelter, who founded the Berlin Singakademie in 1791, was a fan of Bach’s work as well. With help from the Berlin contingent of Bach fans, Zelter amassed a decent-sized collection of Bach’s work. As early as 1811, he considered programming the B Minor Mass on a public concert, but decided against it. A similar thing happened with the St. Matthew Passion, that is, until Mendelssohn entered the picture. Before Mendelssohn was even twenty years old, he took on the Herculean task of mounting a revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He made an arrangement of the piece from Zelter’s copy, and began rehearsals. Almost two years later, on March 11, 1829, the St. Matthew Passion was performed at the Berlin Singakademie. It was a grand popular success. After this, more concerts of Bach’s music were performed at the Singakademie and more of Bach’s works were published by multiple firms. In 1850—one hundred years after Bach’s death—the monumental Bachgesellschaft was undertaken, and in the decades following, all of Bach’s known works were collected and published in this edition.
Mendelssohn, for all his gifts, has never been one of my top five composers. His style is often too conservative for my tastes, but his gift for melody and lightness is truly unparalleled. I will always be a fan of his, though, for two reasons: his revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and his oratorio, Elijah.
At the time of the 1829 concert, Mendelssohn was still at the beginning of his career, and he spent a lot of time preparing the score for St. Matthew Passion and rehearsing it. I wonder if he worried that he was sacrificing too much of his own time, time that he would have spent composing new pieces. But clearly, Mendelssohn considered it an important thing to honor the past, and our culture is so much the richer for his contributions and for those of Zelter, van Swieten, and Forkel as well.
In 1846, years after the 1829 revival concert, Mendelssohn composed an oratorio in the model of large-scale works like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The style and structure is similar, but the harmony is all Mendelssohn. The subject is the prophet Elijah, and the two large sections of the piece cover episodes in Elijah’s life that are featured in the Bible. The music displays, in my opinion, some of Mendelssohn’s finest work, and it’s no surprise it was influenced in spirit and concept by one of Bach’s masterpieces. The earlier work is massive, with two choirs and two orchestras. In movements where all people are playing and singing, Bach achieves a lushness of orchestration that is nearly overwhelming. But Bach was also able to give us heartbreaking drama in small, intimate moments. Mendelssohn’s Elijah, in its best moments, achieves something similar.
When I was a student, I just assumed that Bach had always been popular. Why wouldn’t he have been? I learned his music in my piano lessons, and it seemed perfectly delightful, if challenging for my little fingers. And when I heard the Brandenburg Concertos, the Cello Suites, and yes, the St. Matthew Passion, it seemed impossible to imagine a world where this man could have been forgotten! But styles change and tastes change, and sometimes things just fade away. It may not be deserved, but that’s just the way the wind blows. How grateful we must be, then, for people like Mendelssohn, who had every advantage in the world to promote himself, but took some time to honor the figures of the past. He did this in his music, which was full of evidence of the lessons of counterpoint and harmony he’d had as a child. He did this with his actions, bringing Bach back to the world in fantastic performances that must have dazzled and astounded. To me, the names Bach and Mendelssohn are intertwined. When I teach about Bach in my Music Appreciation classes, I always make it a point to explain Mendelssohn’s part in Bach’s legacy.
Music doesn’t come down to us magically (although the Internet all but assures things will be available if people are interested). People have to keep music alive, buying it, playing it, programming it on concerts, listening to it, and in this day and age you can add, sharing YouTube videos of it, downloading it from iTunes, and talking about it on social media. Mendelssohn didn’t have Facebook or a huge Twitter following, but he reached a lot of people, and I, for one, am grateful.