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


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.


Charles Kennedy Scott (1876-1965)

This 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 huge forces assembled for the Passions performed in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.


Also involved was the eminent historian and writer Dr. Charles Stanford Terry (1864-1936) (pictured above left), 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 for their historical value today.

Another participating eminent Bach scholar who also inspired the foundation of the Bach Cantata Club was Professor W Gilles Whittaker (1876-1944) (pictured below left) who had earlier founded Newcastle Bach Choir. The content of his two volumes on the cantatas may have been superseded by contemporary Bach scholarship since their original publication, 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), were regarded as ‘museum pieces’ by most, and entirely in the ‘German domain’. These critiques of such a significant corpus of works endured and still confronted Paul Steinitz when he began his own complete cycle in 1958.

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 (and also later for Lina Lalandi’s English Bach Festival from 1962-65). 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 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 “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland”.

Sir Hugh Allen (1869-1946) was a major 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.


Had it not been for WW2, the London Bach Society would probably have been founded ten years earlier than 1946. In the 1930s Dr Paul Steinitz (pictured left) was studying for his London D.Mus while serving as Director of Music at Ashford Parish Church and Ashford Choral Society (Kent).  One of the works he was studying as part of his doctorate was Bach’s motet “Singet dem Herrn” BWV 225, the title later inscribed on his public memorial in St Bartholomew-the-Great, West Smithfield.  The more he studied the motet, the more his curiosity grew, reinforced by performances of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio BWV 248, St Matthew Passion BWV 244 and, in 1940, the Mass in B Minor BWV 232 – on this occasion minus the Creed. The (South)*** London Bach Society was eventually founded on 7 November 1946 in order to ‘get back to Bach in its original form’. Although the works of Palestrina and modern British composers formed an additional part of the charity’s objects at foundation, later modifications provided a sharper focus on the study and performance of Bach’s music that has remained central ever since.

** not to be confused with London Bach Society    *** ‘South’ was dropped from the title in 1952 as the Society drew its membership more widely.

© Margaret Steinitz (Artistic Director, LBS)


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