What Did Bach Sound Like In The Time of Mendelssohn?

WRTI podcast by David Patrick Stearns, February 4, 2015

“For decades, musicians have struggled to determine what J.S. Bach sounded like in his own time. As The Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Patrick Stearns reports, The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia is turning the clock in a different direction on February 8th at Girard College, determining what Bach sounded like in the time of…Mendelssohn.

DPS: Though J.S. Bach had been dead for eight decades, the year 1829 was a milestone. Much of his music had died with him, including what is now considered one of the great works of Western civilization, the St. Matthew Passion.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)



Determined to bring it out of obscurity, the hot-headed, 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn did so with a performance that changed the course of Bach history, but at a cost. Nearly half the piece was cut.

This is not what Alan Harler is up to in his final season running the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. He’s doing Mendelssohn’s later 1841 edition with far fewer cuts, but with numerous other adjustments that show how some musical masterpieces must change, at least temporarily, or die.

Alan Harler: We have to ask why did he make the cuts. He probably knew he couldn’t sell tickets for a three-hour, 45-minute passion. There wasn’t the same kind of Lutheran connection that there was in Bach’s time. We’re in the Age of Enlightenment. It wasn’t the same thing.

DPS: Mendelssohn was warned heatedly by his teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, says Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd, as interviewed in Richard Tolsma’s documentary about the project…

R. Larry Todd: …Zelter saying you’re just brats, get out of here, this will never work. Everybody thought he was crazy, it would be a failure and people wouldn’t sit through all of this complicated Bach.

DPS: The St. Matthew Passion had to be like some sort of musical dinosaur, due to its severely devotional text, the intricate vocal demands, wind instruments that were all but extinct, harpsichord accompaniment and sheer hugeness. Even when Mendelssohn returned to the piece in 1841, he replaced the ethereal boy choir with adults.

Alan Harler: He had big voices, soloists from the opera company, so right away, you know something is different. Hopefully audiences can make the leap. One might say Bach never heard this. I hate this. But there are four fabulous soloists. This is a marvelous sound, and one that Bach never heard.

DPS: Only in recent years have performance materials for the Mendelssohn version been published and available. Still, Harler needed to see Mendelssohn’s original score in Oxford, England.

Alan Harler: It tells me a lot. Like a child, he draws an arrow pointing through a cut, an arrow to show the sort of shorthand that any musician might do.

DPS: The value of this performance is showing a meeting of two great musical minds. However easy it is to think of artistic masterpieces like the Mona Lisa or the Parthenon as objects that stand apart from the passage of time, great music speaks to subsequent generations by adapting to their time – and thereby transforming it.”

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