This Week in Music History: Mendelssohn revives Bach’s St Matthew Passion (1829)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

This week? The Matthew Passion was all but buried with Bach in 1750. But following its 1829 resurrection, courtesy of Felix Mendelssohn, it seems to have taken on a life of its own…

Johann Sebastian Bach’s family, closely involved in his work, referred to the St Matthew Passion as the “great Passion.” Perhaps the very grounded Bach household, despite being used to the constant stream of astonishing music that Johann Sebastian produced, recognized this composition as a particularly important one. It was first performed on Good Friday in 1727, and Bach revived it a few times over the next couple of decades.

But the St Matthew Passion was not important enough to be much remembered after Bach’s death in 1750. Musical life in the 18th century was very different from what it would become in the 19th, and indeed what it is today. In those days, there was a constant demand for newly or recently written music, and it was rare to revive works from previous times. Hence Bach’s legendary industriousness: his job at St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig required him to produce most of the music himself.

St Thomas's Church, Leipzig
St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig

As the musical tides turned in the later 18th century, then, it was unsurprising that the St Matthew Passion fell into obscurity. So, to some extent, did the rest of Bach’s music: as what we now call the “Classical” style became popular, ushered in by composers including Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, the ornate Baroque works of Bach Senior came to seem old-fashioned.

Yet by the next generation they weren’t old-fashioned so much as steeped in legend. In truth, Bach had never been completely forgotten: his keyboard works in particular were still known by some as brilliant technical studies in performance and composition. But his works were not well known to the public.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, James Warren Childe, 1830

That’s where a precociously gifted 20-year-old joins the story. In 1829, 79 years after Bach’s death, the young Felix Mendelssohn took it upon himself to perform Bach’s “great Passion.” This was a monumental project, as he had to edit and prepare the score himself: it was the product of some five years of preparation. But the performance, on March 11, 1829, was a great success—so much so that it was performed again ten days later to mark Bach’s birthday.

How had Mendelssohn come across this obscure, unpublished work? Two of classical music’s forgotten women are responsible. His grandmother, Bella Salomon, had given the 14-year-old prodigy a copy of the score in 1823. And her sister, Sarah Levy, was also a significant influence in introducing Felix to Bach’s music. A talented keyboard player, she had studied with two of Bach’s children, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann, and amassed a considerable collection of Bach manuscripts. Felix’s father Abraham was also something of a Bach collector. So, while Mendelssohn’s desire to perform Bach in public was unusual, in fact he was building on a substantial family tradition.

Fair copy of the revised version of the "St. Matthew Passion", BWV 244, that is generally dated to the year 1736.

Fair copy of the revised version of the “St. Matthew Passion”, BWV 244, that is generally dated to the year 1736.

Mendelssohn’s revival has gained legendary status in classical music history as the moment when the genius of Bach was truly recognized by the wider musical establishment. But the story of the Bach revival is a lot more complex than that, as his music had never disappeared completely.

It’s certainly true, though, that Mendelssohn sparked a fuse. Bach’s reputation only grew after that 1829 performance. And this rediscovery went hand in hand with a more general shift in musical culture: it became common, or even fashionable, to perform the “great” works of the past.

So, while that 1829 performance may have revived a work 102 years old, in a sense it was at the very beginning of a movement that is still going today. In the 21st century, the works of long-dead composers dominate the concert schedule, and Bach’s reputation has never been greater. The St Matthew Passion is now a mainstay of the repertoire, especially around the Easter period.

The Entombment of Christ, Caravaggio, 1603
The Entombment of Christ, Caravaggio, 1603-4

The performance you can hear above took place in Bach’s own church, St Thomas’s in Leipzig—with the very same choir that Bach used to conduct himself. The orchestra, meanwhile, is Leipzig’s Gewandhausorchester—of which Mendelssohn was music director from 1835 to 1847. In fact, Mendelssohn too performed the St Matthew Passion in St Thomas’s Church, in a revival of his first revival, in 1841. History revives itself…

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