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Sunday 20 October 2019

When it comes to Easter, it's Bach who leads the way

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Almost forgotten: Bach
Almost forgotten: Bach

George Hamilton

It's the Hallelujah Chorus that has tied Handel's Messiah to Christmas for ever more, even though its narrative spans the whole of the liturgical year.

Regarding Easter specifically, it's the music of Bach that leads the way, and there's a very good reason why. That said, it was chance circumstance which helped it happen.

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The world of music may finally be in agreement with Beethoven, who dubbed Bach the forefather of harmony, but it wasn't always like this.

In his late thirties, Johann Sebastian Bach was well established. His work, both secular and sacred, was highly regarded.

There was a vast volume of it - suites, the collection of preludes and fugues that together make up The Well-Tempered Clavier, the pieces that would become known as the Brandenburg Concertos.

And he had enough church music and expertise as an organist to land the job as cantor or musical director of the principal church school in Leipzig.

Not that he was the first choice. Georg Telemann, who'd been godfather to one of Bach's children, was actually appointed, but his employers in Hamburg refused to release him.

The call then went out to Christoph Graupner, a composer you've probably never heard of. The course of musical history could have been very different had he not been given a better offer to stay where he was.

If Bach hadn't got the job, we might never have heard the great ground-breaking oratorios it gave him the opportunity to write.

For as well as having responsibility for the training of the singers for all the main church choirs in Leipzig, Bach had to provide new music for the Sunday services.

Each week there would be a brand new sacred cantata, the manuscript signed SDG (Soli Deo Gloria - Glory to God Alone).

He was appointed just after Easter in 1723. A year later, he had something spectacular in place for Good Friday.

This was his St John Passion - the story of Christ's crucifixion as told in Chapters 18 and 19 of the 'Gospel According to St John'.

The following year, he presented his Easter Oratorio.

Two years after that, there was another musical setting of a Gospel account of the final days of Jesus Christ - the St Matthew Passion.

Contemporary records suggest a St Mark Passion followed in 1731, and possibly two further versions as well, but of them there is no trace.

The same fate might well have befallen the two surviving Passions had it not been for an unlikely turn of events in the early 19th century.

Bach died in 1750, and his music had fallen out of favour. His sons were still active, but there was little appetite for what their father had written.

But then a Berlin grandmother with a taste in music gave her teenage grandson a rather significant gift.

The boy was Felix Mendelssohn. The gift was a score, the music of an oratorio. It was Bach's St Matthew Passion.

Felix was fascinated. This was music that hadn't been heard for a hundred years.

As he delved into it, he realised how special it was. It had to be revived.

It would be some feat for a youngster like him to stage a performance, but eventually he managed it.

In March 1829, in Berlin, in front of an audience that included the King of Prussia, the by then 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn directed Bach's St Matthew Passion.

The impact was extraordinary. Leipzig's third choice, the forgotten man, was back.

It's difficult to imagine now that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was ever ignored, but for a century it had all but disappeared.

It was the foresight of a young Berliner, coupled with the extraordinary power of the great Easter set piece that brought Bach back.

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