WW1 Centenary (1914-1918) and the post-war revival of Bach’s music

WW1 Centenary (1914-1918) … 1918 and the new revival of Bach’s music

It had been coming for sometime.

Building upon the work of William Sterndale Bennett and Joseph Barnby in the 19th century, the latter conducting choral forces of 500 in Bach Passion performances with his Oratorio Concerts Choir, the composer’s music continued to be performed and presented across Europe throughout the conflict, this “war to end all wars”. In spite of the anti-German sentiment that pervaded British society from 1914-1918, Sir Henry Wood persisted in programming German music at the Proms, including a number of Bach works usually set to his own arrangements. He was encouraged no doubt by the attitude of his co-Proms founder Robert Newman, the manager of  Queen’s Hall, London’s première concert hall, who advocated that  “The greatest examples of music and the arts are world possessions and unassailable even by the prejudices and passions of the hour”.  Movements, as opposed to whole Bach works, were incorporated in programmes of what we would probably regard  today as an indigestible mix of music.

However, it should be remembered that concerts then were performed to audiences probably weighed down by the longevity of the war and the terrible loss of life, their needs being to have their spirits bolstered and patriotic fervour refuelled by what they heard, aided and abetted no doubt by the National Anthem of an Allied Country played at the end of each concert. Whether the notes and instrumentation were authentic as far as Bach was concerned were as far away from the musical agenda as you could get, but Wood’s approach to his Bach performances was meticulous and deeply considered. “Remarks about the mood and meaning of the words and music which are scattered plentifully throughout his scores reveal an insight not always evident in fashionably slick performances of today” (Performances and Performance Styles, Bach Passions. Paul Steinitz (Elek 1979).

Early Pioneers


Hubert Parry (1848-1918) Composer and Writer (pictured above). Best known as the composer of the inspired anthem “I was Glad”, Parry studied with the eminent 19th century composer, teacher, conductor  and founder of The Bach Society, William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875). As a dedicated writer on music, Parry wrote a significant book on Bach that rejoiced in the title “Johann Sebastian Bach: the Story of the Development of a Great Personality” published in 1909 https://www.amazon.co.uk/Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Hubert-Parry/dp/B00AB09K4G  Parry died in 1918 and his centenary is being marked this year.


Charles Kennedy Scott (1876-1965), organist and conductor (pictured above in 1925), was arguably the most important musical “mover and shaker” in the early years of the post WW1 new British Bach revival. He advocated the use of small choral forces in Bach performances and inspired his friend Hubert Foss to form the Bach Cantata Club in 1926, with the explicit aim to perform Bach’s cantatas authentically. The Bach Cantata Club choir was small, moving away from the gargantuan forces assembled in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.


Also involved was the eminent historian and writer Dr. Charles Stanford Terry (1864-1936) (pictured immediately above), who was the author of several books on Bach in the mid to late 1920s that became essential reference points for musicians at the time and indeed are still highly regarded today for their historical value.  Another participating eminent Bach scholar who also inspired the foundation of the Bach Cantata Club was Professor W Gilles Whittaker (1876-1944). The content of his two volumes on the cantatas may have been superseded since their original publication by contemporary Bach scholarship, but they remain a significant and influential  contribution to the study of what were rarely heard works then, were rarely performed (in the national sense) and regarded as ‘museum pieces’ by most.

220px-William_G__Whittaker     Professor W. Gilles Whittaker

Dr Albert Schweitzer     Dr Albert Schweitzer

The polymath Dr Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was a Vice President of Kennedy Scott’s Bach Cantata Club. This iconic organist, missionary and medical doctor had been energetically advocating the use of boys voices and period instruments in Bach performances since the early 1900s, with no additional instruments employed when realising the continuo part as well, as had been the practice in the 19th century. Schweitzer was also the author of  a Bach biography that still commands reference today and made several commercial recordings of the composer’s organ works. In 1956 he met Paul Steinitz, who was about to embark upon his own cycle of the extant church and secular cantatas. Schweitzer inscribed Dr Steinitz’s score of Bach’s cantata BWV 61.

Sir Hugh Allen (1869-1946) was a significant influence in British musical life in the first half of the 20th century, holding the prominent posts of Director at the same time of both New College Oxford and Royal College of Music, such was the regard and respect in which he was held. While at New College, Allen directed the Oxford Bach Choir and performed many of Bach’s church cantatas with his students, the works still new to that generation.

to be continued…..


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