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February 08, 2005

The Gospel according to Mendelssohn - Bach's St. Matthew Passion (1829 version by Felix Mendelssohn)

Posted by David Conway

Bach: St. Matthew Passion (1829 version by Felix Mendelssohn)
the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
the Choir of the Enlightenment and
the London Symphony Chorus
conducted by Sir Roger Norrington
at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
5th February 2005

"I once said to him [Mendelssohn] that I found it difficult to conceive Bach's music as aught but a dry arithmetical sum. To convince me that it was something more, he went and fetched the Matthäus –Passion. We sang a good deal of it with his sisters, and, when he perceived that the music deeply entranced me, he took courage, and we arranged that the performance should be repeated with better resources. We soon enlisted the services of Edward Devrient and his wife, and got together a small chorus of sixteen voices. The delight of everyone encouraged and impelled him to get up the public performance which restored to the world this masterpiece."

This description, by his friend Julius Schubring, of the twenty-year old Mendelssohn's resurrection of the Bach St. Matthew Passion in 1829, an event with far-reaching musical consequences, highlights many of its most important characteristics. It was a family affair in more ways than one. The Bachs had been a Mendelssohn family cause since the days when Felix's great-aunt, Sarah Levy, had taken keyboard lessons from Johann Sebastian's son Wilhelm Friedemann, and had later become the patroness of his brother, Carl Phillip Emmanuel. It was probably through her that the Berlin Singakademie acquired much of its library of (J.S.) Bach manuscripts, and also through her that the director of the Singakademie, Zelter, was engaged as Felix's first music tutor. Felix had requested (and obtained) from his grandmother a handwritten copy of Bach's Matthew Passion for his fifteenth birthday – the work had still not been published at this time. We read in Schubring that Felix's sisters sang in this first, domestic, outing of the Passion; Felix's beloved Fanny also sang alto in the public performances he was to give. The actor Devrient, who was in effect the co-producer of the public performances, was also one of Felix's most intimate friends. The whole account, and all the supporting evidence, makes it clear that this recreation was an act of love.

The difficulty for a modern audience in reacting to the Mendelssohn version is to comply with Roger Norrington's hope, expressed before the performance, that we could imagine this music as if, like the 1829 audience, we had never heard it before. In the lifetime of Johann Sebastian, it had been played twice at Leipzig (in 1727 and 1736), and apparently never after that. Concerned to make the 1829 performance as palatable as possible, and yet without 'dressing it up' in any way, Mendelssohn resolved to cut it, removing many of the arias and chorales (especially repetitions of the latter). He did not however change any of the harmony and left the orchestration largely untouched: only clarinets replaced the unavailable oboe d'amore, and similarly a piano (from which Mendelssohn conducted from memory) replaced the chamber organ. He could not refrain from touching up the orchestral accompaniment to the moment when "the veil of the temple was rent" to heighten the drama, but one can easily forgive this.

The effect of a Passion of around 2 hours, rather than the typical 2 ¾ or so, is inevitably for a contemporary audience a 'Passion-lite' – some awe is lost along with the immensity. (Some of Norrington's speeds also seemed a touch faster than customary, but he may well have been taking his lead from the markings Mendelssohn left in his own score). Nonetheless, the whole concert, by dint of using the unfamiliar version, 19th-century period instruments, and 19th-century concert layout – with the choir in front of the orchestra, facing each other on rows of benches at right-angles to the audience – did indeed succeed in enabling us to listen to this amazing music afresh, and to give us some idea of what a revelation its richness, energy, colour and beauty must have been to an audience to whom Bach was nothing but a forgotten musical mathematician.

The placing of the choir was particularly striking. It reminded us that the purpose of the Passion (and of choral works in general before the twentieth century) was the telling of the story, to which the music was a background. Given the softer tones of the period instruments the words were doubly enhanced. With the Evangelist and the various solo roles embedded amongst the choir – only Christ stood apart, between choir and orchestra – there was an engagingly enhanced sense of interplay. We got a full sense of the turba – the passages representing the furious crowd. Since early times, when the whole passion story was simply chanted by a deacon in the appropriate mode, he was instructed, according to the writer Durardus (d. 1296), that the "words of Christ should be sung with sweetness" but that those of "the most impious Jews" should be enunciated "clamose et cum asperitate" (in a loud and harsh manner). (Mendelssohn, despite his Jewish birth, clearly enjoyed, perhaps ironically, such passages - listening once to a performance of the Passion by the Spanish composer Victoria (1585), he commented "Very tame Jews, indeed").

It was a nice touch also – but not perhaps one which Mendelssohn introduced or would have approved of – for the sopranos and altos in the choral ending the first part - O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross – to turn in their seats so as to face the audience full on. Heart stoping as always was the aria Erbarme dich sung by Joanne Lunn, with violin obbligato played by Alison Bury. Christ (James Rutherford) indeed sang sweetly in the part taken in 1829 by Devrient, and the Evangelist was eloquently interpreted by James Gilchrist. Inevitably not as much a revelation to us as it was to Mendelssohn's audience, Norrington's performance still left us much to admire and to think about.

The legacy of the 1829 performance has still to be fully assessed. Certainly it was the start of the re-evaluation of J. S. Bach from a forgotten academic to a 'classic'. Performances, and knowledge, of Bach's music soon became de rigueur for the musical connoisseur. It also played some part in developing the notion of 'classical music' itself, a canon of referential works to be cherished and elevated, of which Mendelssohn and his friend Moscheles were persuasive advocates as performers and conductors – and hence to the split between 'contemporary' and 'classical' musique savante, which, together with the canon, persists to the present day. Bach, whose style had permeated Mendelssohn's compositions as an infant prodigy, continued to echo through his later works – the notable example being the oratorio Elijah (for which Schubring wrote the libretto). Not least the revival of the Matthew Passion was a powerful ingredient in forming the reputation of Mendelssohn and launching his European career – as well as fomenting an ambivalent attitude towards the young genius in his home country. As Mendelssohn remarked to Devrient:

"Who would have though it would be an actor and a Jewboy (Judenjunge) who restore the greatest of Christian works?"
He would not find the genial exuberance of this observation universally shared. The Gospel according to Mendelssohn opened fascinating chapters in both musical and social history.

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I greatly enjoyed this piece about the Norrington performance. Mendelssohn was in awe of Bach from the first moment he heard his music; and really Bach's music "killed" Mendelssohn as a composer. before he ever heard Bach, he wrote some fresh, clean romantic pieces - especially for strings. But he was so overawed by JSB that he became mired in imitation of the great man's genius for counterpoint, with the result that what he subsequently wrote - particularly the oratorios - sound like ersatz Bach.

In the great service that M. did by drawing the 19th century's attention to Bach's greatness, he sadly lost his own voice. Trying to compete with Bach is a non-starter of course!

Posted by: Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen at February 16, 2005 05:27 PM
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