BACH’S JUBILEE PASSION 1952-2012
A Passion Première in a new Elizabethan Age
At this time of year we are either busy rehearsing or buying tickets for one of the Bach Passions performances coming up. The choice nationwide is now considerable, the approaches to them and the interpretations very varied. The presence of these inspirational works in our lives, created and provided by Bach for the Good Friday services in 1720s Leipzig, could almost be taken for granted. Passion performances are an essential part of our concert-going life….not so 60 years ago.
The death of King George VI on 6 February 1952 was a hammerblow to a country still recovering from wartime deprivations, clearing up the mess of war, finding its feet again, getting back to normal. In the musical world orchestras like the LSO renewed their activities, but the last years of the wartime King’s reign also inspired pioneering musicians to found new orchestras, new societies and new festivals with new ideas and new music. These have since become part and parcel of our lives - among them The RPO, (New) Philharmonia Orchestra and (South) London Bach Society in 1945 and 1946, the Aldeburgh and Edinburgh Festivals in 1948, with the Royal Festival Hall built in 1951 for the Festival of Britain as we woke up to a new decade of hope and renewal.
A première for the St. Matthew
With the accession of the young Queen Elizabeth just a few weeks before, one of the first landmark performances of the new Elizabethan age just beginning took place 60 years ago on Saturday 22 March 1952 in the historic setting of London’s oldest church, the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew-the-Great, West Smithfield (AD 1123). The performance was a concious attempt to take a fresh look at an existing masterpiece that has come to be regarded since as a key moment in the growing movement to promote ‘historically informed’ performances of Bach’s treasury of compositions ….in other words the movement to get back to Bach in its original form.
When Paul Steinitz prepared and directed the London Bach Society’s presentation of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1952, it was the first performance in Britain of the work in its complete and original German form. The language was still an enemy tongue, yet the audience was invited to participate in three chorales. Up to that time the German language had been jettisoned in favour of the more acceptable, but unreliable, English translations. Also a case could have been made that it was too soon to bring a German work sung in German to a British audience just seven years after the war’s end….but no one did. However it wasn’t just the language that was the most important consideration, controversial enough though that would have been at the time, nor was the society’s choir and the soloists the first to have ever sung the work in its original language here and we did not claim that. The most influential ingredient in this ground breaking performance was the concept of it- no cuts, movements in the correct order, smaller forces, period style playing and singing, appropriate ornamentation, a correct text, with notational inconsistencies prevailing corrected using the score available at the time. No portative chamber organs existed – harpsichord was the main continuo instrument; there were no baroque instruments except the late, great Ambrose Gauntlett played the solo in the famous bass aria in Part II on the viola da gamba. There was no lowering of the pitch.. however it was performed in a church, complete and in its original German form. The performance became a cherished annual event, drawing a Who’s Who of artistry to the platform and broadcast almost annually by BBC Third Programme, later Radio 3. Above all it set musicians and audiences thinking…and changed the approach
How far we have come now….. © MS
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