Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Speaking to Dr. Jörg Hansen (Germany) in Jerusalem, curator of the exhibition showing Mendelssohn's part books for his performance of J.S.Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 1829

Dr. J. Hansen (Eisenach.thueringer-allgemeine.de)
On a wintry March 16th 2016, I met with Dr. Jörg Hansen, curator of “Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: brought back by a Jewish boy”, an exhibit showing at the Jerusalem Theatre and coinciding with the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival. Dr. Hansen is director of the Bachhaus in Eisenach, Germany.

PH: Dr. Hansen, how did you come to direct the Bachhaus, Eisenach?

Jörg Hansen: My university studies were in Philosophy, in Logic actually, but I love Bach’s music and became involved in the Bach Society. I have been the museum director since 2005 and it has been a great honour for me.

PH: Would you like to talk about the material for the exhibit you have brought to Israel?

JH: It was in 2013 that we managed to acquire the bulk of the material for Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion of 1829, the big event of the Bach Renaissance – the starting point. We acquired 62 of the 158 music books from which the choir sang. All this material was scattered throughout the world since being used in 1854 for the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion in London. It never went back to Germany. Fortunately, Mendelssohn’s score was acquired by the Bodleian Library (Oxford, UK), but all the other material became scattered. So, that was something big for us and an exciting project for people to fund.

PH: Was it difficult to find?

JH: Well, one or two years before we acquired it, I had been trying to buy it at Sotheby’s in London. Eight of these leaflets were on auction, but our grant of 25,000 Euros was not enough to buy them all.  There were some anonymous telephone bidders who almost doubled the amount. I was very disappointed. Then, a year or two later, we received the offer to get 62 of the booklets and they are really now almost all there is. So it is good to have the material in a museum dedicated to J.S.Bach, as it represents such an important event.

PH: There are a number of Bach festivals nowadays.

JH: Yes. Actually, the Bach Festival idea comes from when Bach’s music was known only to musicians but not to the public. They came into being to promote Bach’s music and initiate Bach music societies. The Bach Society that owns our museum has been sponsoring Bach festivals since 1901, mostly in Germany, but also in other European cities such as Paris, Vienna and Brussels. It also sponsors the Eastern European Bach Academy. Bach festivals have become quite a tradition.

PH: So now we are having our first Bach in Jerusalem Festival.

JH: Yes, it is splendid to have a Bach festival here in Jerusalem and an honour for us to be a part of it. In November, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra asked us to do this exhibition, as the St. Matthew Passion was to be featured at the Bach in Jerusalem Festival. We got funding for it from the Free State of Thuringia; it has been exciting to produce it. And we have all this material coming from the big events leading up to Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew. Indeed, what led up to it comes from a tradition that was essentially that of Jewish musical families, families such as the Itziks and the Mendelssohns.

PH: Can you elaborate on this?

JH: Sarah Itzik Levy (1761-1854) maintained an active musical salon, where she developed what might be called a “J.S.Bach cult”. Among her early visitors were Mozart and Haydn; the latter’s early biographer G.A.Greisinger gave her the autograph of Haydn’s Heiligmesse, which she later passed on to her great nephew Felix Mendelssohn. An accomplished musician, she had studied harpsichord with Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. As W.F.Bach’s main student in Berlin, it was Sarah who actively promoted music of the Bach family.

Sarah Levy’s sister, Bella Salomon (1749-1824) was taught music by Bach’s student Johann Philipp Kirnberger. One of the first to recognize the importance of the Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, (Bach’s keyboard music had been performed regularly since 1802) she sent a copy of the work to her grandson Felix Mendelssohn in 1823. Six years later he produced the performance.  Without that gift to her grandson and Mendelssohn’s momentous performance, there might not have existed a Bach House or Bach festivals in Israel or anywhere else.

PH: Can you tell me about the scores in the glass cabinet?

JH: Yes. I first saw a handful of them in an exhibition at the Mendelssohn House and was deeply touched that they still existed. The interesting thing is that they were copied from the score Bella Salomon, Mendelssohn’s grandmother, had given Felix when he was just 14 years old (1823). With Bach’s sacred music no longer performed, she asked the owner of Bach’s own score – a collector from Hamburg then living in Berlin and whom she had met a number of times – for a copy. So what we see here is a copy of Bach’s 1736 autograph – the parts used in 1829 and they were the start of Mendelssohn’s almost-obsession with Bach and was the incentive to performing the work again in 1829, for the first time after Bach’s death.

PH: Whose handwriting is this?

JH: That of Mendelssohn’s fellow students - students of the Singakademie (where it was performed); they have now almost all been identified. Having been a singer myself, it was so interesting to see the singers’ personal pencil markings, such as things they underlined.  Changes were made by Mendelssohn himself for the performance in 1829, such as “corrections” to the harmony of a chord and inserting the BACH motif, things a 20-year-old would do. Mendelssohn also decided the chorale “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden” (When I once must depart) be sung unaccompanied, as this would make it more dramatic. If you look here, you will see he has changed Bach’s major chord to a minor chord to be more effective in this such sorrowful piece. These choral parts were then taken to Leipzig in 1843, where Mendelssohn performed the St. Matthew Passion, this time with the St. Thomas Choir. A Bach monument was erected there, still standing today (unlike the Mendelssohn monument, which was pulled down in 1939). Then, in 1854, these same parts were taken to London for the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion there.

PH: Whose picture do we see here?

JH: This is a recently-found portrait of Bella Salomon. It is a reproduction. The portrait itself is tiny and painted on ivory; it was found in a drawer by a cousin of the current Mendelssohn family.  It is a wonderful painting of Bella. Bella Salomon was a staunch Jewess and disowned her own son when he converted to Christianity; he had been baptised in a moment of hasty decision in 1822, then adopting the name of Bartholdy. Felix Mendelssohn was baptized at age 7 and his parents kept the event secret from Bella for fear she would cut off relations from him, too. In honour of his philosopher grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, Felix did not want to give up the name of Mendelssohn, despite the fact that his father insisted Felix would never really be considered a Christian if called Mendelssohn. All this reflects the difficulties under which Jews were living at the time and the limited career opportunities available to them as Jews. But Bella Salomon and her sister did not go along with the idea of conversion: they donated a lot of money to the Jewish education system. Essentially, the whole Jewish social system was run by donations from wealthier people of the community.

PH: An interesting map here.

JH: It is a 1592 map of the world in the form of a clover leaf, with the continents placed around the city of Jerusalem. It appears in “Travel Book to the Holy Land”, a book of a number of curious maps like this one. The interesting thing is that Bach probably had in his own library the old folio format copy of this book of strange maps. In his private library he also had Flavius Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews” and “Judaism and the Stubborn Unbelief” (which, incidentally makes reference to Jewish traditions, to the Talmud and Kabbala), later prompting Nazi musicologist Karl Hasse to stipulate Bach’s “anti-Semitism”, although we cannot know whether Bach had even read the book. Bach, however, would never have met a Jew.  

PH: And this building?

JH: It is the Berlin Singakademie, which saw the famous 1829 re-performance of the St. Matthew Passion. Bella’s sister was a pianist there for more than 20 years, where the Mendelssohn family also had social- and professional connections with Carl Friedrich Zelter, who had taught Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.  Zelter considered Bach’s religious works too outdated, too priestly for contemporary ears, but he did direct further performances of the St. Matthew Passion in Germany when Mendelssohn was in England. 

PH: And the bust of Bach here?

JH: It is of a correction. There are not many of the original casts left. And here is one of Mendelssohn.

PH: And the two video films?

JH: One explains the St. Matthew Passion, the story of its rediscovery, the way Bach composed it, how it differs from how the St. John Passion was written: the St. Matthew lays emphasis on sacrifice and there is commentary throughout, making it a more poetic work than the St. John. 

The other screen shows a short video dealing with the question of whether Bach’s Passions are anti-Semitic, a strange question I would say, considering the fact that Bach would not have ever met a Jew.  But the question has been asked constantly since 1941. This may have been sparked by Bach’s dramatically operatic moments of fury in these works. However, if you look at the arias, they impart the message of compassion. The St. Matthew Passion gives reflexion on individual guilt and salvation.

PH: Dr. Hansen, thank you so much for your time and so much fascinating information.

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