Bach’s St. Matthew Passion Revisited

by Erin Hanke

This writer was thrilled to find that Harmonia Mundi had rereleased her favorite recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Philippe Herreweghe’s now historic 1984 recording, 32 years ago, marked a milestone in the so-called “historically informed performance” movement. It achieved the perfect balance of scholarship and musicianship. Scholarship itself was no longer the objective of the performance. Instead, it provided a weighty structure to support the musicianship. The liner notes, written by Herreweghe himself, said it best: “Debate on the performance…has degenerated into paltry squabbles about so-called ‘authenticity’ and their inevitable stereotyped parameters…[rather than] what really matters: the content of a musical work, its expression and its meaning.” The notes that supplement the recording provide insight not only into the composition itself, but also into the musical rhetoric of Bach. “Bach’s vocal music does not work except in terms of a very close relationship between the music and the words.”

The revival of Herreweghe’s recording calls to mind what is perhaps the most famous revival of Bach’s music, and the theme of this article: Felix Mendelssohn’s 1819 performance of the St. Matthew Passion. It was the first public performance of this work since Bach’s death in 1750. It was intended to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the work’s premiere.[1] While it is widely believed that Bach’s music was forgotten until Mendelssohn’s revival, this was not actually the case. Bach’s music continued to be cultivated in the most dedicated circles. When the time for the sold-out public performance arrived, hundreds had to be turned away.

Mendelssohn’s family was wealthy, well connected, and highly musical. His great-aunt Sara was a virtuoso harpsichord player who studied with Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and premiered works by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. His great-aunt Fanny, his grandmother Bella, and his mother Lea all studied with Johann Philipp Kirnberger, who had been Johann Sebastian Bach’s most distinguished student. The Mendelssohn family championed the work of J. S. Bach and often showcased it in their prestigious salons. Felix’s grandmother Bella owned a copy of the St. Matthew Passion and had a copy made for a grateful Felix on his fifteenth birthday. When Felix was just eight, he began composition and theory lessons with Carl Friedrich Zelter, who was both a highly respected teacher and the director of the Singakademie zu Berlin. It was this Singakademie that then performed the St. Matthew Passion under Mendelssohn’s baton only a decade later.

The Singakademie was composed of wealthy amateur singers who met to rehearse music but not necessarily to perform it. They were dedicated to the music of the past and of Bach in particular. Zelter had in fact taught the group a number of choruses from Bach’s St. John Passion, B-Minor Mass, and St. Matthew Passion. Zelter encouraged the study of Bach’s works but he believed the music unsuitable for performance. He thought that the public would not understand its nuances.

Because of Zelter’s attitude, Mendelssohn had to be cautious in preparing his proposal for a public performance of the St. Matthew Passion. During the years leading up to the performance, Felix Mendelssohn and his good friend, the famed baritone Eduard Devrient, rehearsed with a small number of singers and instrumentalists in their home salons. During this process, Mendelssohn adapted the score to what he considered a manageable scale.  When the group was ready, Mendelssohn brought his proposal to Zelter. A trepidatious Zelter finally accepted the proposal and Mendelssohn began rehearsing the chorus. Devrient recruited soloists from among his colleagues at the opera, and Eduard Rietz, Mendelssohn’s violin teacher, assembled an orchestra.

Mendelssohn had neither the means nor the intent to present a “historically accurate” recreation of Bach’s original performances. To make the performance possible, he had to use the entire 150-member Singakademie (four or five times the size of what Bach probably used). Oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia players were no longer available, so Mendelssohn substituted clarinets. Mendelssohn himself played the continuo on the keyboard rather than using the organ and strings that Bach had specified. He added dynamics markings reflecting the style of the time and, most significantly, he omitted ten arias and six chorales (roughly one third of the score). His adaptation contained no figured bass for the recitatives, so he provided his own harmonizations, some quite different from what Bach had specified.  The most extreme example of this was the final chorale, where Mendelssohn changed the orchestration to cappella and marked the dynamic as pianissimo to heighten the dramatic effect. Furthermore, he changed Bach’s harmonization from major to a darker and less reassuring minor. Such revision is unthinkable now, but Mendelssohn was committed to capturing the essence of Bach’s monumental Passion in a way that would resonate with the audience he had.

Some conclusions can be drawn regarding Mendelssohn’s revival. While the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was not widely performed in the years leading up to this historic performance, dedicated circles of musicians had continued to cultivate Bach’s music until this appointed time. These circles appreciated what they had.  Mendelssohn did not insist on performing the work exactly as Bach had composed it. Instead, he cut pieces and re-orchestrated—changing even some significant harmonies—in order to best serve the audience he had with the resources that were available. And though this performance may not have been “authentic,” his efforts led directly to a public cultivation of Bach’s music that continues to this day.

[1] Recent scholarship presents evidence that the actual date was 11 April 1727. Mendelssohn presented the St. Matthew Passion again in 1841 at the historic Thomaskirche in Leipzig.


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