The 19th Century Bach Renaissance

The legacy and significance of Johann Sebastian Bach underwent profound transformation in the 19th century, where from relative obscurity, his music became central to the evolving Romantic musical canon. This renaissance was spurred by a combination of scholarly work, influential performances, and the commitment of a generation of composers who saw in Bach a source of inspiration and poetic depth.

Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s Biography of Bach

The reevaluation of Bach’s legacy began with Johann Nikolaus Forkel, a music director at the University of Göttingen and a noted music historian. Having personally known two of Bach’s sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann, Forkel was privy to intimate details about the great composer’s life. His biography, released in 1802, was not only a testament to Bach’s musical prowess but also an appeal to German national pride. Forkel’s assertion that preserving Bach’s memory was a “national affair” positioned the composer as a symbol of German cultural heritage.

His final remark in the biography elevated Bach to unparalleled heights: he called Bach the “greatest musical poet and the greatest musical declaimer that has ever existed and likely ever will.”

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and the Performance of the Matthäus-Passion

Bach’s music began to reach a broader audience, notably due to the efforts of the young Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Nearly 80 years after Bach’s death, Mendelssohn brought Bach’s Matthäus-Passion back to public attention with a shortened version performed on March 11, 1829, at the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin. This concert not only elevated Bach’s public profile but marked the beginning of what is recognized as the Bach Renaissance.

Bach as an Inspiration to the Romantic Composers

The generation of composers born around 1810, including Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Robert Schumann, Frédéric Chopin, and even Franz Liszt, saw in Bach’s compositions a deep poetic richness. Bach’s influence became evident in their works, and they also began incorporating Bach’s pieces into their concert repertoires.

Source: Netherlands Bach Society

Works like Bach’s Concerto for Three Keyboards in D minor (BWV 1063) and his Solo Concerto in D minor (BWV 1052) were particularly popular and introduced Bach’s instrumental music to a broader audience. However, it’s worth noting that these interpretations were often far removed from any historical performance practices of Bach’s time.

Reflecting on the impact of these performances, The Musical Times wrote in January 1848: Never shall we forget the triumphant cadence with which [Mendelssohn] concluded Bach’s concerto for three harpsichords, following Moscheles and Thalberg. He alone knew the style…The beauty of the exhibition…was that he announced himself the disciple of a master long undervalued by ignorance and prejudice.

Audience Engagement and the Founding of the Bach-Gesellschaft

By the mid-19th century, Bach’s instrumental compositions were more familiar to audiences than his sacred works. The year 1850 saw the establishment of the Bach-Gesellschaft in Leipzig, with participation from luminaries such as Schumann, Liszt, Ignaz Moscheles, and others. This society aimed to publish a comprehensive edition of Bach’s works. Johannes Brahms, who deeply rooted his compositions in the works of J.S. Bach, played a significant role in this complete edition. The task culminated in 1900, and as per its mandate, the Bach-Gesellschaft subsequently dissolved. However, this wasn’t the end of Bach appreciation, as the Neue Bachgesellschaft was quickly established, driven by enthusiasts like Hermann Kretzschmar and supported by numerous prominent figures.

In Conclusion

The 19th century witnessed a significant shift in the perception and appreciation of Bach’s oeuvre. Thanks to biographers, composers, and music societies, Bach’s music was reintroduced, celebrated, and solidified as an integral part of the global classical repertoire. This period serves as a testament to the enduring power of Bach’s music, and its ability to inspire and resonate across generations.

Similar Posts

One Comment

Comments are closed.