Tuesday, 9 August 2016


Today's quote:

“Bach and his works have met a strange fate at the hands of posterity. They were fairly well recognized in their day; practically forgotten by the generations following his; rediscovered and revived; and finally accorded an eminence far beyond the recognition they had originally achieved.”[2]

- excerpt from "The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents,"
ed. Hans T. David & Arthur Mendel

...is almost correct – yet not quite. Certainly neither Bach, nor had his sons, had to endure extended periods of obscurity within the classical music sphere – they simply held fleeting levels of fame behind the closed doors of the fiscally elite: the nobility, musicians and bankers, who surprisingly feared little in terms of reprobation by bringing together members of the Christian faith to partake in the amusements of the Jewish - this in a time when Prussia (present day Germany) discouraged the mingling of the two faiths.

Why then, given the heightened state of antisemitism sweeping across Europe, was the music of Johann Sebastian Bach - and that of his descendants - welcome at the Prussian court, as performed by a Jewish musician? 

Anatomical Bust of Bach's head.
Believed to be a close likeness
of the late composer.
In fact, it was a very Jewish family that would shine a beacon of light so brightly onto that of Bach (who was German) and onto his descendants - one that continues to illuminate up to the stars, concert halls and open air arenas to this day. Quite ironically, the efforts of those men and women responsible for re-introducing the works of the Bach family - thereby exposing them to pop culture status - was made possible by the proclamations and the fanfare sprouted off by a single family of Jewish musicians – some of whom were famous in their own right, others, who worked for the nobility and, as such, had friends in very high places – friends, who could make and break trends at the drop of the hat.

The family of which I speak is of course the famous Mendelssohn clan and that of its immediate predecessors. Yes, the same Mendelssohn family that had produced amongst its offspring young Felix - the very same early romantic composer Richard Wagner later wrote of (with much distest) as an antagonizing member of (then) modern music in his infamous and very scandalous diatribe (Das Judenthum in Der Muzik,  found here).

It is certainly conceivable that a young Felix Mendelssohn grew up listening to performances of Bach within his private home. In 1813, Johan Friedrich Reichardt, the last Kapellmeister in the service of Prussia’s Frederick the Great (the latter himself a notorious anti-Semite and composer) had penned in his memoirs of a “Sebastian and Emmanuel [2] cult" at the residence of Daniel Itzig of Berlin (Itzig was Mendelssohn’s great-grand father), who not to mention, held a respectable position himself as a banker of the king and was considered the "most highly prized Jew in all of Prussia." Due to his close standing with the reigning elite, Itzig's words were to be taken with much gravitas.

Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn

So beloved was the music of Bach at the homes of Itzig and later his descendants the Mendelssohn’s, that it would be in the year 1829, nearly 80 years to the passing of maestro Bach, that young Mendelssohn re-introduced to musical circles Bach’s sublime 1727 Matthäus-Passion (St. Matthews Passion).

The "rediscovery"/introduction of Baroque maestro Johann Sebastian Bach nearly a century after the composers death was to be a grand event: in attendance would be Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the reigning ruler of Prussia[1] (who doubled as a musicologist) and his royal family in addition to the Prussian nobility, and notably the intellectual elite of the capital, headed by the theologian Schleiermacher, the philosopher Hegel, and the historian Droysen.
Sarah-Itzig Levy, great-aunt to Felix, would be
instrumental to young Mendelssohn in his
quest to honor the works of Bach.
The "re-birth" of Bach within the Mendelssohn family home is not an accomplishment to be understated, particularly when it comes to ushering the previously unknown piece (the Matthäus-Passion) toward infamy in both contemporary times and in the present era.

Modern listeners of Classical music often take for granted a seemingly instinctive ability recognize a tune by Bach - however were it not for the early support of the Itzig-Mendelssohn family and their strong ties to the Prussian ruling classes that had persisted for centuries, we, in the present era, may never have come to know of the Baroque masters' works.

For generations within the Mendelssohn abode, grandparents taught their grandchildren of the late composer, who in turn taught their children as if the musical kin had made some sort of an eternal pact within the family unit to keep the memory and works of maestro Bach alive. It would be through one Mdme. Sara Levy (sister to Felix Mendelssohn's maternal grandmother and therefore his great aunt) that Felix would be introduced to the music of Bach from a very early age. In fact, so frequent were their appointments of tutelage, the young composer had set out to dazzle audiences with a performance of Bach’s keyboard concerto in D minor: it was a triumph, and had even earned praise from Contemporary composer Robert Schumann who had been in attendance to hear the concerto performed.

As it turned out Mdme. Levy had already performed the solo 30 years earlier!

This oversight, however, would not be considered to be anything out of the ordinary. Performance was a man’s arena, by and large. It is unlikely many would have remembered Mdme. Levy's performance some three decades previous.

Although the works of Bach had undoubtedly been kept preserved and made alive by the Mendelssohn family for so many generations, the lions share of the credit must go to Felix, whose ingenious staging for the audience included men of significant influence (in world leaders), top musicians and the nobility in attendance. Often, just wooing a King or an Emperor would be enough to instill in an artist the belief in success and a level of infamy. 

Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV was
famously in attendance at Mendelssohn's 1829
production of Bach's Matthäus-Passion
Adding to the most deviceful plan was the strategic placement of fellow composers in attendance who would be seated in close proximity to the rulers and nobility, and who would, by ego's design then be forced to emulate the style performed that had so moved their King. This was perhaps the most shrewd idea of them all - offering the most profitable outcome - for in creating similar pieces by a multitude of artists, one is almost employed by design to reflect back upon it's originator: Bach. By composing in his vein to satiate the current trend, it seemed all parties concerned would profit: the lower classes could claim to share the tastes of the elite, the up and coming composers and musicians could presently work on a mold they knew would yield results to those who mattered, and the privileged few could ensure for themselves both wealth and fame by renting out concert halls and organizing events to stage works in the style and manner of Bach. The very essence of notoriety surrounding this once-forgotten composer was just the tonic required to woo enterprising musicians over to emulating the sound of Bach. 

Perhaps the most notable - and certainly meaningful - reward to emerge from the tireless campaign of the Itzig/Mendelssohn's concerning the preservation and revitalization of Bach lay in the socio-religious evolution of the Prussian court itself - for it would be through the endavors of one enterprising Jewish family that the warring races of Jews and Christians could bond over a shared love of fine music. The indefatigable work of the Mendelssohn's, along with their praised echoes of Bach would catapult the once neglected composer far beyond the four walls in which the maestro and his oeuvre existed only a product of hushed whispers of adoration - sung and performed from within a private estate - thrusting the Baroque masters' work into the very public concert halls where they justly belonged - and wherein even Prussian audiences set aside prejudice to listen to the music enjoyed by this most enlightened Jew - this Felix Mendelssohn.

Erbarme dic, Mein Gott (Have Mercy on Me, my God) from JS Bach's Matthäus Passion as sung by
Hungarian mezzo-soprano (and sometime (alto) Julia Hamari


[1] Wilhelm reigned as King of Prussia from 1840-1861, making Bach, who died in 1750 a full 90 years in his grave at the time of coronation. Throughout this period, the legacy of Bach (and to some extent that of his children) was kept alive in the private homes of the Itzig and Mendelssohn families by means of preserving the music and legacy of the master musician postmortem through exclusively-attended in-house 'concert' performances.

[2] To reflect the quote offered at the beginning of this article, the works of Bach, whilst living, did manage to achieve some sense of notoriety, yet stood far behind in comparison to his works re-performed postmortem by the Mendelssohns. In contemporary times, Bach did have at least one meeting to then reigning King of Prussia Frederick the Great (1740-1786) who took not Johann Sebastian - but rather one of his sons, Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (CPE) under his esteemed wing where he would employ the young musician as a much coveted court musician. As for the father Bach? He was provided a theme on which to build a collection of keyboard canons and fugues (and other works), the source of the theme being the King himself. Bach would publish the set under the title the "Musical Offering".


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