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The Story

Why reconstruct Mendelssohn’s 1841 revision of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion?

Bach’s stature and influence is so firmly established in Western culture that it’s difficult to imagine that 160 years ago his music was almost unknown to all but a few academics. It was through Mendelssohn’s recognition of Bach’s genius and his efforts in making Bach’s works accessible to a wider public that these works are recognized among the greatest masterworks. Revisions for Mendelssohn’s Berlin (1829) and Leipzig (1841) performances are preserved in Oxford‘s Bodleian Library (Mendelssohn made additional revisions after the 1829 premiere).

Mendelssohn revised the SMP to last around two hours with contemporary instrumentation, dynamics, and symphonic choral forces providing an interesting alternative for present-day audiences (Bach’s original is approximately three hours, with Baroque instruments, no written dynamics, and traditionally performed by small chorales). Though purists may express displeasure at altering SMP, if it weren’t for Mendelssohn’s efforts, Bach may have remained unknown to the greater public. Mendelssohn’s edits were designed to bring Bach to his contemporary community – the very community who didn’t have access to a SMP score. Our performance will demonstrate Mendelssohn’s intentions, not only as an historic monument to and reconstruction of Mendelssohn’s 1841 performance, but as a highly dramatic version of SMP.

With such intensified focus on SMP’s drama, for the performance MCP will project supertitles and have written libretti/project books available in support of Mendelssohn’s efforts. In advance of the performance, we will produce a BIG SING concert designed to invite participation from the audience using some of Bach’s SMP chorales, in addition to some Mendelssohn cantatas that are directly related to Bach’s influence. We will also present a symposium to examine Mendelssohn’s choices in comparison to Bach’s original.

Our culminating concert will be performed in Girard College Chapel, which can accommodate a double orchestra/chorus, soloists, and a large organ with a 32′ pedal. Historically, the 1829 premiere was in Berlin’s secular Sing-Akademie with an 800-seat capacity. In 1841, Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, with a 2000-seat capacity, was used. Thus, there is precedence to perform SMP in a sacred or secular space. Mendelssohn used operatic voices for the soloists in his performances; thus, we will be using Eric Owens (former MCP core singer), Marietta Simpson, and Yusuke Fujii (the Evangelist used by Masaaki Suzuki, one of the world’s foremost Bach specialists, twice) and Susanna Phillips as our primary soloists.

The concert will be recorded for HD video distribution by NAXOS for streaming and downloads.

Artistic Statement by Alan Harler
When we listen to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, we sense his deep concern for humanity and his desire that we hold ourselves to the highest values. After almost three centuries, audiences all over the world still respond strongly to Bach’s humanism and compassion. Working so closely with Bach specialist Koji Otsuki reinforced the idea that Felix Mendelssohn also revered Bach’s genius. I decided to travel to Oxford University myself to examine Mendelssohn’s own copy of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

Although I have been involved in over fifty commissions with Mendelssohn Club, I have never experienced such intimacy with a contemporary score. (Of course, Sibelius, the popular composition software program, makes it unnecessary for a present-day composer to ever write directly on manuscript paper.) Studying Mendelssohn’s own handwriting on his score was like inspecting the brushstrokes of a master painter. Did he choose pencil rather than in ink because of an underlying uncertainly about changes or was he simply being careful not to destroy the original? Do erased sections reveal that he was struggling with a given passage or phrase? Mendelssohn handled his rare copy with great care, tenderly laying paper over the parts he “cut” so that the original would never be damaged.

My time in the Bodleian Library at Oxford provided me with a deeper understanding of what Mendelssohn wanted to achieve with his version of The St. Matthew Passion. I now have a more profound appreciation of his respect for Bach as a master composer with so much to teach all who came after him. In many ways, Mendelssohn considered himself a student of Bach. Over a century later, my teacher and mentor, the brilliant Julius Herford, shared his own very deep connection to Bach the composer, and to Bach the man, with me and all his students including Leonard Bernstein, Margaret Hillis and Robert Shaw, among others. As a young faculty member at Indiana University and the Aspen Choral Institute, I was struck by Herford’s reverence for the Bach master–especially considering the historical context of the St. Matthew Passion and Herford’s experience as a Jewish man who had to flee Nazi Germany.

For the past five decades, I have longed to conduct Bach’s St. Matthew Passion having conducted the St. John Passion and Mass in B Minor numerous times. Yet, in my long career of teaching and conducting, the timing just never aligned with the resources required. A symphonic chorus as large as Mendelssohn Club never seemed appropriate to this work because of the intimate size of the group required in Bach’s original score. The score poses other challenges for a chorus of any size including the delicate and quite difficult coloratura passages and the Baroque period practices related to instrumentation, vocal affect, etc. All that changed, however, three years ago, when I heard Roger Norrington’s performance of Mendelssohn’s version. Here at last was a St Matthew Passion that was compatible with the 140 voices of Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia.

After more than forty years as a conductor and over a quarter century with Mendelssohn Club, I am honored and humbled to bring this glorious score to Philadelphia for its American premiere. I am genuinely excited to be advised by Maestro Masaaki Suziki, one the world’s foremost specialists and conductors of Bach. All of us are eager to replicate Felix Mendelssohn’s specific directions by performing this work outside of liturgical practice and by using operatic voices for the soloists. Obviously, presenting this version of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion provides our chorus with an historic opportunity to speak about our own founding in 1874. Finally, I am especially proud that our research and public performance will bring new awareness of this important score to audiences and choruses across the world.