The J.S. Bach Connection

Leipzig, home to Bach and visited by Mozart and Mendelssohn, was Germany’s intellectual center.  The city was ideally located for trade in a fertile plain at the confluence of three rivers.  With a leading university, Leipzig, called “Little Paris,” was dynamic, literate, prosperous, and irresistible to young people.  Elegant coffeehouses and cultural life drew intelligentsia and artists.

As a child, Johann Sebastian Bach studied scores of existing liturgical plainsong and polyphonic music to develop his compositional method.  From his scrutiny of the masters, especially Vivaldi, he created the incomparable works that fate would later put into the eager hands of Mozart and Mendelssohn.

In late-18th-century Berlin, Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, introduced Baron Gottfried van Swieten to the music of J.S. Bach.  Van Swieten made contact with Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel (C.P.E.) and bought manuscripts of J.S. compositions from him, including fugues, years before they were printed.  Mozart met the baron on a trip to Vienna.  A long, fruitful friendship followed.

The baron encouraged Mozart to transcribe J.S. Bach’s fugues, which gave invaluable insights in composition to the 26-year-old.  Mozart was said to have a copy of the Well-Tempered Clavier open on his pianoforte forever after.  When soprano and future wife Constanze Weber heard Mozart play the Bach fugues, she fell in love with them and urged him to write his own.  In 1789, two years before his death, Mozart visited Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church where Bach had been cantor.  Without ado, he sat at the organ and played an hour-long concert of Bach’s music, to the utter delight of a large audience and of Johann Friedrich Doles, the cantor at the time.  Bach’s influence runs like a golden thread through many of Mozart’s instrumental, orchestral, and choral works, including the Requiem.

Lea and Abraham Mendelssohn introduced their prodigy children, Felix and Fanny, to the music of J.S. Bach at a very early age.  Abraham’s father Moses, a prominent German philosopher and orthodox Jew, fomented the great German Classical period of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Moses was also a Bach enthusiast.  Lea’s and Abraham’s families, including Lea herself, along with two of J.S. Bach’s sons, C.P.E. and Wilhelm Friedemann, kept Bach’s music alive.  Lea’s aunt Sara hosted and directed family house-concerts for leading intellectuals and musicians of the day, where Bach’s music prevailed.  The Bach-savvy Lea gave her young son Felix piano lessons based on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

Sara advised Lea to employ Karl Friedrich Zelter, director of the Bach-focused Berlin Choral Society, as Felix’s music teacher.  Through Zelter, Mendelssohn acquired a complete manuscript of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which he later conducted with a 400-voice chorus in 1829.  After this successful and historic performance, Mendelssohn went on to publish the St. Matthew Passion as well as much of Bach’s church music.

Mendelssohn lived in Leipzig from 1845 until his death in 1847.  As an accomplished watercolorist, he painted the view from his upstairs apartment of the St. Thomas School, where Bach had been a teacher. The school had changed little since Bach’s time.  Mendelssohn reverently captured a scene that includes St. Thomas Church, the St. Thomas gate, the St. Thomas mill, and the Pleisse River. Visible are the windows of Bach’s second-floor study at the southwest corner of the school building.

Mendelssohn’s contemporaries, including Goethe, regarded him as Germany’s cultural leader for reviving Bach, for creating his own exquisite music, and for founding the Leipzig Music Conservatory.

Mendelssohn wrote successfully in every genre except opera, and he enjoyed long-lasting acclaim in Europe and England.  In celebration of Mendelssohn’s 200th birthday, we appreciate anew his study of Bach’s music, which resulted in choral music in which voices weave together in fine polyphony, enriched with emotive power celebrating human reconciliation and unity.

— Carol Talbeck