Felix Mendelsohn studied with Carl Zelter, a composer who founded the Berlin Philharmonic and befriended the great Goethe. Goethe shared Zelter’s enthusiasm for Johann Sebastian Bach. The poet likened Bach’s contrapuntal melodies to the thoughts of the Creator on the verge of materializing our universe.
Zelter had studied with a student of Bach, and considered it his duty to keep the flame of the Master’s music alive during the period when his work was vastly underappreciated. For during that long time from the Master’s death in 1750, lasting nearly seventy-eight years, he was widely considered merely a provincial choirmaster who had been an organ virtuoso.
The young Mendelsohn asked Zelter if he could see the score of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. Zelter countered that his student was not ready to see the Master’s work. Finally, after a year of further study, Zelter told him, “You are ready now.”
With this, the old composer showed Mendelsohn the great score. His student eagerly read through the manuscript, and arranged to do a concert of it. Through Mendelsohn’s 1828 concert of the St. Matthew’s Passion, Bach emerged as one of the greatest composers, a position that subsequent time has only strengthened.
In my last years of high school, I studied piano with an old woman who had long been a professor at Syracuse University’s school of music. This woman, Alice McNaught, had never married, but rather devoted her life to music.
She was rich with stories. She had seen both Paderewski and the great Rachmaninoff in concert. Paderewski made mistakes, but this was, she said, only to show that he was human. Paderewski, who had served as Poland’s premier a short time after World War I, was far and above her favorite pianist.
As Zelter had studied with a student of Bach, Miss McNaught had studied with a student of Johannes Brahms. Over her upright she kept a sketch of a heavyset bearded Brahms playing the piano
But Bach was her favorite composer. This seemed strange to me at the time. I knew Bach principally through the cold logical exercises of the inventions. I much preferred the power and passion of Beethoven.
It has only been with the passage of years, even decades, that I have come to agree with my late teacher. Perhaps Mozart was as versatile, but Bach is the most profound of composers. He is the most rigorous in his exploration of counterpoint. It seems that the inventions and the Well Tempered Clavier were not enough for his intellectual curiosity. At the time of his death, he was working on the massive Art of the Fugue.
It is a testament to Mozart and Beethoven’s intellects that they both possessed a strong appreciation for Bach during the period of neglect. Mozart studied in London with one of Bach’s sons. Beethoven found solace after a period of drunkenness and depression by studying the works of Bach and Handel. From these studies he emerged with his final masterpieces: the Ninth Symphony, Missa Solemnis, Hammerklavier Sonatan and his extremely experimental string quartets.
Mozart and Beethoven both nodded to Bach by building the fugue into their sonatas. The intricate forms of counterpoint appear like an ancient cellar beneath a modern edifice.
Bach’s contributions to instrumental music were immense. As a virtuoso on the organ and harpsichord, he created a vigorous keyboard style that has taught and inspired all subsequent pianists. The only organist of his time to approach him in skill was George Frederick Handel.
Bach directly contributed to the piano’s development. He served as consultant to Silbermann, a German piano maker, from the 1720’s through the 1740’s. In 1746, Bach dazzled Frederick the Great by improvising impressively on the many pianos located throughout the Emperor’s palace.
Bach’s contributions to instrumental music have extended far beyond keyboards. A violinist friend of mine has marveled at the partitas composed for violin. Like the other great composers of the eighteenth century, Bach was a violinist as well as keyboardist. According to one of his sons, he played the violin with considerable clarity and power.
Bach’s musical greatness extended to vocal music. As strange as may seem from someone so obsessed with counterpoint, Bach paid particularly close attention to the texts he set. His object was to fully realize the implications of these texts through the added dimension of music. In this he is matched only by Monteverdi.
Only those who have studied Bach closely have realized how versatile the Master actually was. His interests extended far beyond music. He was as erudite in Lutheran theology as Wagner was in philosophy, which is to say something considerable.
Like many great composers, Bach also had a considerable interest in literature. He wrote poetry occasionally, and we have from him a poem about pipe smoking.
It has been said that the only musical field not touched by Bach was opera. But our inquiry need not stop there. It is true he never composed for an opera house, but may have played in the Hamburg Opera orchestra as a young musician in 1705. Regardless of how he learned, Bach shows considerable knowledge of this Italian form of theatre.
His passions and cantatas are dramatic works. As Bach showed considerable sensitivity to text, he also showed sensitivity to character and dramatic situation. His dramatic works possess a suppleness and flexibility that far outdistances the dramatic abilities of Handel, who actually wrote operas.
In recent years, a number of Bach’s passions and cantatas have been staged by the percipient director Peter Sellars. His St. Matthew’s Passion has been presented as a religious pageant and ritual, and has worked well as such. As a religious play, it has strong ties to the medieval mystery plays. And the Coffee Cantata, a tale of a burgher who is frustrated by his daughter’s coffee drinking, is a comic opera with ties to the plays of Moliere and Goldoni.
An added richness is these works is provided by Bach’s mastery of instrumental music. Unlike so many other dramatic composers, Bach creates string and woodwind parts as fully realized as the vocal. In this he anticipates both Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the operas of Wagner.
Some critics have argued that Bach is not an opera composer in that his passions contain narrative passages from the evangelists and choral reflections based on Lutheran chorales. Yet Greek tragedies and Brecht plays also have epic and lyric layers that do nothing to detract from the dramatic scenes or their overall theatrical impact. The combination of such elements make these compositions all the more compelling and profound.
My hope is that other directors will follow Sellars’ lead in staging Bach’s cantatas and passions. The old choirmaster has emerged as one of our greatest opera composers.