WW1 Centenary (1914-1918) The post-war 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 with its gargantuan performances of the Passions was still flourishing.  In 1915 however, Newcastle Bach Choir was founded by Bach scholar Professor W G Whitaker for the purpose of reviving Bach’s hitherto neglected cantatas. They were sung by just 24 singers, in English and to Whitaker’s editions, something that we should regard as a significant development now.

As the people began the long bumpy road to recovery after 1918 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 Victorian 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’ and later his Steinitz Bach Players in 1968.

Building upon the work of William Sterndale Bennett and Joseph Barnby, 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 WW1.  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 bearing 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 that were usually set to his own arrangements. He was encouraged no doubt by the attitude of his co-Proms founder and manager of  Queen’s Hall, London’s première concert hall, Robert Newman, 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.

It should be remembered that by 1918 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 Prom concert almost from the war’s 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. Officers returning found adjusting to life very difficult in what they hoped would be “A country fit for heroes”.  The surviving troops returned with a similar expectation and struggled to find work, which was in very short supply. The country was broke.  By the 1920s, the aristocratic and well-off generation who had lost their youth in wartime  service made up for it with partying to excess, while the lower classes just tried to make ends meet. However, as a new decade began so new ideas began to blossom and new opportunities were created. In the fall-out of conflict, a new social era was beginning; the great ruling Houses and Estates had lost their pre-war Edwardian influence.  In the Bach world, the seeds had already been sown.

Early Pioneers

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