So it’s JS Bach’s birthday again. LACO will be celebrating with the composer’s music, of course. This time it’s the exquisite Concerto in D minor for Two Violins. In addition to being a fine example of the Baroque concerto, the work will also showcase the talents of Jaime Laredo and Jennifer Koh.
It might seem a little funny to continue celebrating a birthday so long after someone has died (Bach’s final year was 1750), but I think it’s truly worth noting the day when a particular talent entered the world (March 31st). Bach would be 329 years old this year, and it’s an amazing wonder that we celebrate him at all. He died mostly unknown, a dinosaur whose ornate musical style was quickly falling out of favor and giving way to the clarity and symmetry of the Classical period. It is largely through the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn—whose overture “The Fair Melusina” also appears on LACO’s next program—and a few others, that Bach’s music became known to a wider public.
In 1829 Mendelssohn gave a concert in which Bach’s masterpiece the St. Matthew Passion was performed. Mendelssohn was just 20 years old at the time, and this concert not only bolstered his own reputation, but brought Bach’s music to a new audience. It’s a wonderful story of a lost masterpiece coming to life, and of a forgotten artist making a posthumous comeback. For most people in the audience, Bach must have seemed like a miraculous talent who came from nowhere. But that isn’t the whole story.
Manuscripts of some of Bach’s works were entrusted to his children after his death. Bach had fathered twenty children in total, ten of whom reached adulthood. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, was a successful composer in the first generation of the Classical period. Mozart even called him “The Father of Classicism.” With CPE Bach traveling around, memories and manuscripts of “Old Bach” (as he was known by some) must have traveled with him. Composers in the know circulated JS Bach’s manuscripts among them, valuing those works as pedagogical tools. Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a patron and musician, came into possession of some of Bach’s manuscripts, which he brought to Vienna in the 1780s. He would invite musicians to his home and they’d play through Old Bach’s works. Mozart was known to have attended some of these gatherings. In England, composer and publisher Muzio Clementi dedicated himself to practicing Bach’s harpsichord pieces. So Bach was never entirely gone, he was just that amazing composer that only the chosen few had ever heard of. These connoisseurs knew Bach “before he was cool,” as they say.
And although it would be wonderful to give all the credit for the Bach revival to Mendelssohn, he couldn’t have done it alone. Right at the turn of the nineteenth century, German musicologist Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote a biography about the then mostly-unknown JS Bach. Forkel dedicated the book to van Swieten. Meanwhile, German composer and conductor Carl Friedrich Zelter was quietly amassing a sizeable collection of Bach’s works. More than a dozen years earlier than Mendelssohn’s triumphant concert, Zelter was thinking about putting Bach’s massive B Minor Mass on a public concert. He decided against it for some reason. Zelter was one of Mendelssohn’s teachers, and it was at his behest that the young composer and prodigy learn the music of Old Bach.
When Mendelssohn undertook the task of reviving the St. Matthew Passion, it was Zelter’s copy he used as reference. Mendelssohn arranged the piece and rehearsed it with quite large forces over two years. The Berlin Singakademie premiere took place on March 11, 1829. Following its grand success, more works of Bach were performed. Publishers began to put out Bach’s works, and his reputation as a genius—and the quintessential composer of late Baroque instrumental works—was set. In 1850, 100 years after Bach’s death, musicologists began collecting works for the Bachgesellschaft, a monumental, multi-volume edition of all of Bach’s surviving works.
The idea of using Bach’s works as pedagogical tools is one that survives until today. Every school year, every semester or quarter, students in music theory classes analyze Bach’s keyboard works to discover their harmonic language. Teachers assign counterpoint lessons based on the rules that are evident in Bach’s compositional style. Now, these lessons are often quite difficult, and prove to be a challenge for even the most enthusiastic students. I often field questions from my own students who ask, “Why do we have to learn this antiquated style?” Or “How does knowing Bach’s music help me write my own music?”
To these students I explain that Bach’s music achieves a very particular kind of perfection. Sure, our modern ears don’t hear music the same way Bach did, and there’s no reason that a young songwriter has to write fugues into his or her tunes. But that isn’t the point of studying Bach, or studying counterpoint, for that matter. The point is to give students a model to work within, to impose strict limits on composition, because, let’s face it, composers are faced with a wealth of choices whose stunning variety might seem paralyzing. Bach not only worked within these limits, but created art in a set of rules that today seem arcane and even mathematical. I think educators are still thinking about how beneficial it was for Mozart and Mendelssohn to learn from Bach. Why should our students get anything less? To be honest, I don’t think we’ve come up with anything better.
I was once one of those students laboring to figure out how to write a fugue that sounded like actual music rather than some school assignment. I didn’t want to be a composer, but I learned from Bach, just as Mendelssohn and Mozart did, just as students have been doing for the last century and a half. Although I’m sure there’s a theory student right now lamenting the rediscovery of Bach, I for one feel grateful for Mendelssohn, Zelter, van Swieten, and of course Bach’s children, for keeping the legacy alive and giving us something amazing to celebrate every March. Happy birthday to the master.