LBS , 70 years on – Our Journey with Bach   

The origins of the society, go back to the 1930s, when Paul Steinitz (pictured) became Director of Music at St. Mary’s, the parish church of Ashford, Kent. There, with the local choral society, he conducted performances of the Christmas Oratorio, the Matthew Passion and the B minor Mass. From the start, he insisted on the highest possible standards, using professional musicians where necessary. At the same time his curiosity was aroused as to how the music must have sounded in Bach’s day.

It is easy to forget that the reputation of the great master of the Baroque suffered a prolonged eclipse after his death in 1750, particularly as regards his choral works. It was only in 1829 that the St. Matthew Passion was revived, in Berlin under the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. The chorus was over 150-strong, most of the arias were omitted and the Evangelist’s part was stripped of all not considered essential.

Mendelssohn’s historic achievement marked the reawakening of popular interest in “old Bach”. Yet the style of performances, as they developed over the rest of the last century and into this, was far removed from Baroque practice. In his book Bach’s Passions, Dr. Steinitz writes of a London performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1870 with 500 voices, and of a 1903 German edition of the St John Passion with additional parts for clarinets, contra-bassoon, horns, trumpets, trombones, timpani and bass drum!

In 1905 Albert Schweitzer, a renowned Bach scholar and organist before he became a medical missionary in Africa, complained of the enormous size of choirs, the tendency to slow up at every cadence and the misunderstanding of the keyboard continuo part. He called for the use of boys’ voices, the revival of period instruments such as the viola d’amore, the viola da gamba and the Baroque organ, and the realisation of the continuo without additional instruments.

His prophetic pleas for interpretations consonant with 18th century style were gradually answered. The Polish instrumentalist Wanda Landowska played Bach on the harpsichord rather than the piano. The German violinist Adolf Busch, recognising the importance of dance in Baroque music, directed performances of the Brandenburg Concertos outstanding for their rhythmic vitality. Dr Steinitz was later to meet Albert Schweitzer in 1956.

In this country, where Samuel Wesley and William Sterndale Bennett had championed Bach’s music in the previous century, Charles Kennedy Scott and Harold Darke used chamber choirs for the choral works, while Arnold Dolmetsch revived interest in early instruments, from harpsichords to lutes and recorders.

The Early Years

It was against this background, in which Bach’s music was beginning to emerge from a 19th century patina of Romantic interpretation and sheer neglect, that the young Paul Steinitz’s interest in more authentic performance was awakened. But for the war he would probably have founded his own society to put his ideas into effect some years before he did. As it was, the first meeting of the South London Bach Society took place on a November evening in 1946, shortly after Dr Steinitz had become organist of St.Peter’s Church, Dulwich Common. The first musical resource to be formed was a choir of around 50-60 voices and the first choral rehearsal took place on January 7th, 1947, in the depths of one of the coldest winters of the century.

The singing membership was small by the standards of the time for a choir specialising in Bach. The first trust deed stated that the society would study the music of Palestrina and his contemporaries and of modern British composers as well as that of its namesake and the terms of reference for singing membership qualified. It was clear from the outset that Dr Steinitz’s long-term goal was the performance of Bach “in its original form”.

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