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.

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