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Timeline: The Bach Revival

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A page from the manuscript of J.S. Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion." The performance of this work in 1829, under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn, helped to jump-start the "Bach Revival" in the 19th century.

For the first 50 years after his death, the majority of J.S. Bach’s music remained unpublished and unperformed.  The 19th century saw an unprecedented return to his music in what we call “The Bach Revival."

Today, the vast majority of our concert repertoire is comprised of music from the past; composers and pieces from generations and even centuries long gone. But, it wasn’t always this way. Until the early 19th century, music was much more immediate. Works were composed and performed for the moment in which they were written. Sure, there were some historical composers who remained in the musical consciousness of Europe.  The works of Palestrina, Purcell, Lully and Handel were never forgotten. However, other composers’ works were not so fortunate.

The early romantics became enamored with the past (past thought and past art) in a movement of historicism. This was especially prevalent in Germany. After the embarrassment of the Napoleonic Wars, there was a desire to reach back to what made that country great. This renewed patriotism also led to a religious revival, a resurgence of the Protestant, Lutheran Church. Naturally, J.S. Bach became the icon of this movement. A group of intellectuals began to collect manuscripts and organize historical concerts of Bach’s music. This underground movement began to gain momentum.

It all culminated in 1829 when a 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn conducted the Singakademie in Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion." This performance moved the audience in a way the original never did a century before.  All of the sudden Europe couldn’t get enough of Bach’s music. Publishing houses began to churn out new editions and never before seen works.  In 1850, the Bach-Gesellschaft was formed.  This society was entrusted with the task of putting together a definitive edition of all of Bach’s works; a job that took them 50 years to complete.

“The Bach Revival” was the first example of an explosion of research that opened up the entire depth of the Western Musical Tradition to modern audiences. The fact that today you attend performances of music from the Baroque to the Renaissance to the Middle Ages and beyond is all thanks to the scholarship that was pioneered in the early years of the 19th century.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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