A Jew saved J.S. Bach’s church masterwork

Felix Mendelssohn’s great-aunt Sara Levy alerted the baptized grandson of Moses Mendelssohn to the beauty and majesty of Bach’s forgotten masterwork.

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June 9, 2018 22:03
4 minute read.
THE MUSETHICA trio performed works by Schubert, Bach and Beethoven at this year’s Voice of Music Fes

THE MUSETHICA trio performed works by Schubert, Bach and Beethoven at this year’s Voice of Music Festival.. (photo credit: GUY KROCCI)

 
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The grandson of one of the great Jewish philosophers played a pivotal role in saving from oblivion likely the most celebrated work of Christian liturgical music.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), the creative and prolific musical genius, composed his St. Matthew Passion for Holy Week in either 1727 or 1729. He was, in the words of historian and artist Paul Johnson, “composing a masterpiece on the grandest scale.” According to Johnson, the work taken from the account of Jesus’s last days in the Gospels was given its “unique power” by Bach’s innovative linking of chorales and systematic tonalities.

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The St. Matthew Passion is a sacred oratorio for solo voices, double choir, and a double orchestra.

A revised version was performed again in 1736. Yet after that, the masterpiece was not performed for almost a century. This was likely due to its complexity and the sad reality that Bach “was regarded as an out-of date musical pedant.” Despite a revival of the work in 1820, Bach’s masterpieces remained out of print. It seemed like the St. Matthew Passion was headed for oblivion.

Felix Mendelssohn’s great-aunt Sara Levy alerted the baptized grandson of Moses Mendelssohn to the beauty and majesty of Bach’s forgotten masterwork. The young Mendelssohn, only 20 years old at the time in 1827 and a musical prodigy, approached a music director and urged him to revive the St. Matthew Passion. The director, Carl Friedrich Zelter, believed Bach’s work was too complex to perform and only changed his mind after Mendelssohn arranged a private performance.

Mendelssohn-Bartholdy – the second family name was added by the composer’s father to distinguish his branch of the family from its Jewish origins – worked on Bach’s score with comic actor and musicologist Edward Derrient.

According to Paul Johnson in Creators (2006), “Mendelssohn engaged and trained the musicians and singers and conducted the first concert hall performance in Berlin on 11 March 1829. The word had got around that a great musical event was taking place, and the hall was packed, the reception enthusiastic, and the Bach rebirth a fact.”



DERRIENT SAID, only partially in jest: “To think that it took a comedian and a ‘Jew-boy’ to revive the greatest Christian music ever written.” A baptized Jew from a stock that epitomized the ideals of the Jewish enlightenment rescued from obscurity the German genius who epitomized the revival of German music, faith, and culture.

Modern German culture and scholarship would be unimaginable without the contribution of Jews. Whether Freud or Kafka – two Jews who did not choose baptism as “the entrance ticket to European Civilization” and were influenced by the world of Judaism of which they were a part – the attempt by the rise of Hitler to “Aryanize” German thought was an Orwellian exercise practiced, as well in its own way, in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Felix Mendelssohn’s revival of Bach was a triumphant moment in the history of modern German culture and modern German history. Yet by the mid-19th century, the Jewish contributions to German culture were being degraded by those who hated Jews and denied them the right to be genuine Germans.

This was especially so in the world of music.

Richard Wagner, the master-composer and forerunner of the racial antisemitism of Nazi Germany, penned a diatribe in 1850 condemning the Jewish contributions to German music.

In Jewry in Music Wagner stated: “The tragedy of Mendelssohn is that, despite his natural gifts, his racial origins make it impossible for him to achieve any profound, meaningful utterance.”

Felix Mendelssohn’s Bach Revival – a seminal rediscovery that forever transformed German music and culture – is wiped away by Wagner.

Mendelssohn’s achievement and the achievements of later Jews in German music – Mahler and Schoenberg come to mind – were erased from the society that afforded them the opportunity to produce works of genius, even though they often had to convert to Christianity to secure work and a salary.

While I write these words of these figures that Frederic Grunfeld studied in his Prophets Without Honour (1979), I do not only lament the failure of Enlightenment and Emancipation in Europe that is a reality to this day. I am also concerned about the rewriting of history in the United States and the attempt to erase events and cultural figures from a narrative with which they don’t comply. Prostituting scholarship and the arts to ideology is dangerous and is a harbinger of the steep decline of a society and its culture.

With the violence on our campuses and the suppression of free speech, I recall the words of the great German lyric poet and baptized Jew Heinrich Heine: “Where books are burned, men will soon burn.” America in the 21st century is not Nazi Germany of 80 years ago. Still, the haters who suppressed Felix Mendelssohn have spawned heirs who perpetuate hatred of Jews and Israel to a level we have not seen in almost a century. It is frightening.

The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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