February 8, 2016. Mendelssohn. Last week we missed Felix Mendelssohn’s birthday: he was born on February 3rd of 1809. Mendelssohn is of course famous as one of the foremost romantic composers of the 19th century, but he also brought back to life one of greatest masterpieces of Johann Sebastian Bach, The St. Matthew Passion. This episode is interesting as it also sheds light on the life of the emancipated German Jewry in the early 19th century. The St. Matthew Passion was first performed in April of 1727 in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig where Bach served as a Kapellmeister. It was then performed there several times during Bach’s life time. After Bach’s death in 1750, the Passion was played occasionally in the Thomaskirche but never outside of Leipzig. Then around 1800 all performances stopped. It doesn’t mean that the work was completely forgotten: the scores of the Passion were in circulation and musicians could study them. One of such enthusiasts was the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, Felix’s music teacher. Zelter was the head of Sing-Akademie, Berlin’s choral society; he was very fond of Bach but thought the Passion to be way too complex (and long) to be performed in public. Nonetheless, parts of the Passion were being rehearsed by members of Sing-Akademie, some of these rehearsals taking place in Zelter’s home; that’s where Felix heard them for the first time. Members of Sing-Akademie came mostly from Berlin’s haut bourgeoisie but prominent Jewish families were also part of it almost from the beginning. Several members of the Mendelssohn family belonged to Sing-Akademie and so did the Itzigs, descendants of Daniel Itzig, the banker to Frederick the Great of Prussia. Bella Solomon, Daniel Itzig’s daughter, and Felix’s grandmother, sung in the Akademie. When Felix was 14, Bella Solomon presented him with a copy of the Passion’s score. It’s interesting to note that Bella, who sung all those Lutheran hymns at the Sing-Akademie, was herself a religious Jew. The young Felix was not: his father renounced the religion and Felix and his siblings didn’t have a religious education. At the age of seven he was baptized. Bella didn’t know about it till much later and clearly not when she presented Felix with Bach’s score.
By 1829, the 20 year-old Felix was already an established composer. He had already written his first symphony, a highly successful Midsummer Night's Dream Overture Op.21, which was completed when Felix was 17 and a half years old; several piano and string quartets, a violin sonata and a large number of songs. He was also preoccupied with the idea of performing The St. Matthew Passion. He had started private rehearsals of the Passion sometime earlier, enlisting a small group of singers whom he accompanied on the piano. The difficulty of the piece seemed insurmountable but Eduard Devrient, his good friend, a singer and theater director, was enthusiastic and very encouraging. It was Devrient who suggested that they perform the Passion at the Sing-Akademie with Mendelssohn himself conducting (Mendelssohn had never before conducted anything even close to the complexity of Bach’s work). The performance took place in March of 1829 and was a tremendous success. The second performance was scheduled right away, to take place on March 21st, Bach’s birthday. Even that was not enough, the public was craving more and a follow-up performance was set for the Good Friday which fell on April 17th of that year. As but that time Mendelssohn was on his way to London for a series of concerts, Zelter took over the conducting. These performances established the Passion as central to all European classical music repertoire, a position occupied by this masterpiece to this day. Later in his life Mendelssohn started composing an oratorio Christus, clearly influenced by Bach. He never finished it having died at the age of 38 after suffering several strokes. Here’s the first part of Christus; Anne Ackley is the soprano, with the Westminster Choir (Rider University) and New Jersey Symphony conducted by Joseph Flummerfelt.
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