Master Mendelssohn Revived Master Bach

Dan Graves, MSL

Master Mendelssohn Revived Master Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach believed in the resurrection. The "crucifixus" of his Mass in B minor ended with low register voices to suggest Christ going down into the grave and the next chorus breaks forth in joy to express resurrection. Bach's music went through a resurrection of its own. Virtually forgotten at his death, the bulk of his work lay neglected for almost a century. Fish vendors in the market wrapped their ware in Bach manuscripts.

Bach's life was defined by poverty. But in music he poured out wealth. Every form he touched, he improved. He perfected the "well-tempered" scale which by dividing every octave into twelve equal distances allowed any key on the organ to start a scale. His keyboard technique used all five fingers where three had been the norm. The Well-Tempered Clavier and Art of the Fugue trained musicians such as Beethoven. Beethoven remarked: "He should not be called Bach (brook) but Meer (sea)."

Every note Bach wrote was dedicated to Christ. Throughout his manuscripts appear cryptic abbreviations such as "I. N. J." standing for In Nomine Jesu; that is, "In the Name of Jesus." According to him, music's aim and purpose is to glorify God and provide recreation for the mind. "Where this is not observed there will be no real music but only devilish hubbub." He poured emotion into his music which became the mother of Romanticism. His portrayals of Christ's passion made frequent use of dissonance. Combining expressive melodies with a rhythmic bass line, he conveyed, according to William H. Scheide, "the union of the divine and human in the person of Christ."

That such a man's work fell into neglect was regrettable. Those near him simply did not recognize his genius. Shortly after Bach died one Burgomaster remarked unfeelingly, "The school needed a cantor and not a Kapellmeister." For fifty years no Bach piece was published separately on its own merits.

Bach's revival was largely owing to another Christian composer. Felix Mendelssohn was in awe of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. He arranged to have Bach's St. Matthew Passion played on this day March 11, 1829, almost exactly a century from the date of its first, long-forgotten performance. Mendelssohn himself conducted. "Never," wrote one participant, "have I known any performance so consecrated by one united sympathy." More than 1,000 people were unable to get tickets. Two further concerts had to be scheduled at once. So great was the sensation that composer Hector Berlioz marveled, "There is but one god--Bach and Mendelssohn, his prophet." Today many consider Bach the greatest composer who ever lived. Mendelssohn's oratorios Elijah and Paul are his own monuments to faith. Mendelssohn died at thirty six, worn out with overwork.


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  7. Mason, Daniel Gregory. Masters in Music. Boston: Bates & Guild Co., 1903 - 1905.
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  14. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated May, 2007.

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