WW1 Centenary (1914-1918) The post-war British revival of Bach’s music

WW1 Centenary (1914-1918)

1918 and the new British revival of Bach’s music

It had been coming for sometime. Bach’s music was still performed throughout WW1, both here in the UK (amidst considerable anti-German sentiment) and also in his homeland. The rich vein of interest flowing from 19th century Victorian Britain and its gargantuan performances of the Passions was still flourishing.  

After 1918, as the people began the long bumpy road to recovery, a more considered revival of the composer’s music began here in earnest, one that advocated a move away from the performance practice of the 19th century and Edwardian era. This revival and its underlying ethos inspired the foundation of the London Bach Society by Bach scholar and conductor Paul Steinitz in November 1946 in order to ‘get back to Bach in its original form’.

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.  After the War’s outbreak on 4 August 1914, the patriotic fervour that accompanied it soon gave way to stark horror as the first troop trains arrived back from the Front carrying members of the armed forces with grievous injuries. Anti-German sentiment soon took root. But in spite of that, 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.

By 1918 however, it should be remembered that concerts would be 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. To help with this, the National Anthem of an Allied Country was played at the end of each concert almost from the outset in 1914. Whether the notes and instrumentation were authentic as far as Bach’s music was concerned was probably far away from the original, 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).

With the end of the conflict, “peace out of pain” was a prolonged process for many. However, as a new decade began new ideas were brought to life and new opportunities created. In the Bach world, the seeds had already been sown.

Early Pioneers


Sir 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 the centenary is being marked this year.

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