Old Bach

9781108068857fc3dI had an appointment this week at which – my prophetic soul warned me as I shot out of the office – I would not be seen on time. So I grabbed the nearest single-volume CLC book to hand, and in the 90-odd minutes during which I sat on an uncomfortable chair in a very hot room, I read quite a large chunk of Eduard Devrient’s My Recollections of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, and His Letters to Me.

Eduard Devrient

Eduard Devrient

The book was first published in German in 1869, and in our reissued English translation by Natalia Macfarren, German singer (and wife of Sir George Macfarren, whose Six Lectures on Harmony we have also reissued), in the same year. I have written about the Mendelssohn family before, but the specific thing that struck me in reading Devrient’s account was that the early nineteenth century was a world without Bach.

Devrient (1801–77) first met Felix Mendelssohn when he was just over twenty and a baritone at the Royal Opera in Berlin, and the child prodigy was thirteen. At the time, he was more impressed by the musical talents of Fanny Mendelssohn, who sang along with Devrient’s fiancée (and later wife) Theresa in the Singakademie conducted by Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758–1832), composer and teacher of Meyerbeer and Nicolai as well as the two Mendelssohn children. The son of a brickmaker, Zelter became a master craftsman; as a musician he was an autodidact who was passionate about the choral music of Johann Sebastian Bach, unfashionable and almost forgotten: ‘[he] was at that time generally considered as an unintelligible music arithmetician’, and known somewhat casually as ‘Old Bach’.

'Old Bach', from Naumann's 'History of Music', 1888

‘Old Bach’, from Naumann’s ‘History of Music‘, 1888

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, from the family biography by his nephew Sebastian Hensel

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, from the family biography by his nephew Sebastian Hensel










Zelter, however, and a chosen few from the Singakademie, used to meet on Friday evenings to learn ‘the difficult works of the old masters’. Felix and Fanny both attended, and Felix was usually called upon to act as accompanist. ‘Here, too, Felix heard a few pieces from Bach’s “Passions-Musik” for the first time, and it became his ardent longing to possess a copy of the great Passion according to the Gospel of St Matthew.’

His grandmother arranged (not without difficulty) for Felix’s violin teacher to transcribe the work from Zelter’s own copy, and it became Felix’s Christmas present in 1823 (N.B. he was thirteen at the time!): he showed off to the Devrients ‘the admirably written copy of the sacred masterpiece, which was now to form his favourite study’. In the winter of 1827, he formed his own choir ‘for the practice of rarely-heard works’, and began to rehearse the St Matthew Passion. ‘He so identified himself with the work, had mastered its difficulties so completely, and knew with such exquisite skill and considerateness to impart … his clear perception of its purport, that what had hitherto been deemed mysterious complications, only for the initiated, became to us natural and familiar.’

Enthusiasm among the choir grew, and Devrient himself ‘longed more and more ardently to sing the part of “Christ” in public’. But there were ‘insurmountable difficulties’, not only of choral and orchestral resources, but also of ‘the discouraging attitude of Zelter’, who seems to have taken a rather ‘dog-in-the-manger’ stance about the work. And for that matter, ‘how will the public receive a work so utterly strange to them … how would it be to have for an entire evening nothing but Sebastian Bach, whom the public conceived as unmelodious, dry, and unintelligible?’

Mendelssohn's mother, Lea

Mendelssohn’s mother, Lea

… and his father, Abraham

… and his father, Abraham










Mendelssohn’s usually supportive family had their doubts; the musicologist A.B. Marx, who was part of their circle and whom Devrient clearly did not like, was hesitant, and ‘Felix so utterly disbelieved that it could be done’ that he suggested he could give a one-off performance on ‘a rattle and a penny-trumpet’. However (the way he tells it), Devrient persevered. He dragged Felix (who was notorious for sleeping very soundly) out of bed one morning , and persuaded him (a) that he (Felix) would conduct the work and that (b) the two of them should go straight round to Zelter’s rooms in the Singakademie and somehow coerce him into supporting the plan.

To cut a long and amusingly told story short, Zelter was brought round from flat refusal to ‘Well, I will say a good word for you when the time comes…’, and after that the whole project went smoothly. Rehearsal spaces, chorus members, orchestral players and soloists were all acquired, and on 11 March 1829, the performance – the first, as far as they knew, for about a hundred years – took place. ‘Never have I known any performance so consecrated by one united sympathy.’ A second took place by popular demand on 21 March, and a third, conducted by Zelter (as by then Felix had left for his first visit to Britain), on Good Friday, 17 April.

The concerts were a sensation: other towns sought to emulate them and not only Bach’s choral works but also his ‘instrumental productions’ were republished, performed at concerts and studied by professional and amateur musicians alike. ‘ … it was Felix Mendelssohn who gave new vitality to the most profound of composers. It is one of the dearest treasures of my life, the remembrance that I helped to spur on this great event.’ Mendelssohn, aged just over twenty, was more than halfway though his short life; though older, Devrient outlived his friend by thirty years.

I suppose we tend to forget, with our ready access to live and recorded music, how rarely most people in Europe before the twentieth century regularly heard contemporary music, let alone the repertoire of a century or more before their own time. One thinks of the various rediscoveries of early music since the 1940s: Michael Tippett famously noted on hearing Alfred Deller at Canterbury Cathedral in 1943, that ‘the centuries rolled back. For I recognised absolutely that this [i.e. a counter-tenor] was the voice for which Purcell had written’. Effectively, Tippett’s championing of Deller put Purcell’s vocal music back into the modern repertoire. Or there is David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London: how many people had actually heard, as opposed to studied the score of, any works by Dufay, Mouton, Landini, Binchois, Josquin, etc., etc. before their sequence of recordings in the 1960s and 1970s? So many thanks to Mendelssohn for using his own undoubted genius to bring the works of one of the greatest ever undoubted geniuses back into our day-to-day lives.


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