Bach's Legacy: The Music as Heard by Later Masters

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  1. Russell Stinson
Bachs Legacy The Music as Heard by Later Masters

ohann Sebastian Bach's legacy is undeniably one of the richest in the history of music, with a vast influence on posterity that has only grown since his rediscovery in the early nineteenth century. In this latest addition to his long list of Bach studies, renowned Bach scholar Russell Stinson examines how four of the greatest composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, and Edward Elgar - engaged with Bach's legacy, not only as composers per se, but also as performers, conductors, scholars, critics, and all-around musical ambassadors.

Detailed analyses of both musical and epistolary sources shed light on how these later masters heard and received Bach's music within their musical circles, while colorful anecdotes about their Bach reception help humanize them, reconstructing the intimate social circumstances in which they performed and discussed Bach's music. Stinson focuses on Mendelssohn's and Schumann's reception of Bach's organ works, Schumann's encounter with the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, Wagner's musings on the Well-Tempered Clavier, and Elgar's (resoundingly negative) thoughts on Bach as a vocal composer.

Engagingly written, copiously annotated, and thoroughly up to date, Bach's Legacy traces the historical afterlife of Bach's music and offers fascinating insights into how these later masters defined it for their audiences and beyond.


This book deals with the “afterlife” of Bach’s music, which is to say the composer’s posthumous role in music history. As such, it represents the discipline of reception history, a field within art and literature that focuses less on the work itself than on the response of the reader, listener, or viewer. In the domain of musicology, reception historians normally trace the influence of one composer on a later one, or they engage with reviews, editions, transcriptions, concert programs, or performance styles. The historical layers imparted by this re-contextualization add immeasurably to the music’s significance.

Reception historians have chosen Johann Sebastian Bach as a subject more often than any other composer, and for obvious reasons. The “rediscovery” of Bach’s music in the early nineteenth century, after all, marked the first time that a great master, after a period of neglect, was granted his rightful place by a later generation. Given Bach’s vast influence on posterity, there is no shortage of material, and there is every reason to believe that the field of Bach reception will continue to grow over the course of the twenty-first century. The two most important catalysts thus far in this process have been the sixth volume of the Bach-Dokumente series (Ausgewählte Dokumente zum Nachwirken Johann Sebastian Bachs 1801– 1850), an 815-page compilation of materials from the first half of the nineteenth century, published in 2007; and Bach und die Nachwelt, a four-volume series of essays, published between 1997 and 2005 and spanning almost two thousand pages, that covers the reception of Bach’s oeuvre from 1750, the year of the composer’s death, to the year 2000. Both have been invaluable resources for my own research.

In the present monograph, I consider how four of the most prominent composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, and Edward Elgar-engaged with Bach’s legacy. At the heart of the matter, of course, is how these titans incorporated elements of Bach’s style into their own masterworks. But rather than pursue this fairly obvious line of inquiry, I have chosen instead to investigate how these individuals responded to Bach’s art in ways other than “compositional,” whether as performers, conductors, editors, scholars, critics, lecturers, or all-around ambassadors. How did these now-canonical composers help define Bach’s oeuvre for their audiences and beyond? What exactly did these later masters hear in the music of their great predecessor?

In each of the following four chapters, which are given in roughly chronological order, I combine the disciplines of history, biography, and musical analysis in an attempt to answer these and other questions. I begin with Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, the figure most often associated with the so-called Bach revival, with an eye to Mendelssohn’s encounter with Bach’s organ works. Having written extensively on this topic in the past, I explore here the abundant new information on the subject found in Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Sämtliche Briefe, a just-finished twelve-volume set of Mendelssohn’s letters that, as the first complete text-critical edition of these documents ever attempted, is bound to open up a host of fresh perspectives on the composer’s life and output. To judge from his letters, Mendelssohn “received” Bach’s organ works in a variety of musical and social contexts across Europe, for he was just as prone to play them on the piano at a salon gathering in Düsseldorf or Paris as he was to render them on a pipe organ in Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, London, or Wittenberg. We behold him enthusing over the transcendent beauty of the music, struggling with its uncompromising pedal parts, arranging private recitals of it, and turning it into a parlor game of sorts. I give particular emphasis to an all-but-lost collection of Bach piano transcriptions by Mendelssohn’s friend Johann Nepomuk Schelble (VI VARIERTE CHORÄLE für die Orgel von J. S. BACH für das Pianoforte zu vier Händen eingerichtet), whose contents Mendelssohn shared with both his friends and his family.

The next chapter is devoted to Robert Schumann and his circle. It represents both a conflation and a revision of a pair of articles I recently published (in German) in the Bach-Jahrbuch. Like his good friend Mendelssohn, Schumann had a particular affinity for Bach’s organ works, and the subject matter of the first part of this chapter is a virtually unknown anthology of fourteen organ chorales by Bach compiled by Schumann for his colleague Eduard Krüger. Though employed for most of his career as a schoolmaster in remote Ostfriesland, Krüger was a formidable critic in addition to being a fine organist. He thanked Schumann for his efforts by sending him brief commentaries on the individual pieces—most of which were still unpublished—just as he did some years later in a letter to the hymnologist Carl von Winterfeld, in hopes of piquing Winterfeld’s interest in the music. Krüger’s commentaries improve our understanding of the compositional style and historical performance practice of these works specifically as well as the reception of Bach’s organ chorales in the nineteenth century generally.

Chapter 2 continues with some new insights into Schumann’s reception of Bach’s vocal compositions, especially the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, provided by the recently published “Rhineland” diary of Woldemar Bargiel, the half-brother of Schumann’s wife Clara. This material, unexpectedly, also raises some intriguing questions about Beethoven’s celebrated pun on “Bach.” Schumann preferred the smaller dimensions and quicker pacing of the St. John Passion, a work he also perceived as more “profound” and “melancholy” than the St. Matthew. He championed the St. John as an editor and critic in Leipzig as well as a conductor in Dresden and Düsseldorf.

Richard Wagner was hardly as redoubtable a Bach connoisseur as either Mendelssohn or Schumann, but, as I discuss in Chapter 3, he revered the Well-Tempered Clavier. Precisely how Wagner reacted to these forty-eight preludes and fugues is documented by the diaries of his wife Cosima and by various inscriptions preserved in his personal copy of Bach’s collection. These materials have been available to musicologists for decades, but they have yet to be systematically investigated. Cosima reported on a series of soirees at the couple’s Bayreuth home at which the pianist Joseph Rubinstein—one of the more tragic figures in music history—performed essentially all forty-eight works and at which Wagner held forth as a lecturer. Wagner at these gatherings commented fascinatingly on diverse aspects of the music, including its programmatic implications; he also compared certain movements to operas by Mozart and himself. In Wagner’s view, the Well-Tempered Clavier revealed the true nature of Bach’s genius.

The setting in Chapter 4 shifts from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, and from Germany to the United Kingdom, with a focus on Edward Elgar’s personal copy of Albert Schweitzer’s monograph J. S. Bach, a unique and essentially unknown document from Edwardian England whose copious annotations betray Elgar’s disdain for Bach as a composer of vocal works and for Schweitzer as an author. Elgar’s scribblings in this source are at once caustic and entertaining, and they touch interestingly not only on Bach’s music per se but also on matters of performance, not to mention such side issues as Bach portraiture, a famous anecdote about Brahms and the Bach-Gesellschaft edition, and Elgar’s own hobby of betting on horse races.

This book would not have been possible without the help of numerous organizations, institutions, and individuals. First of all, I was able to present preliminary versions of the first three chapters at meetings in New Haven (biennial meeting of the American Bach Society), Liverpool (annual conference of the Royal Musical Association), and Salzburg (International Biennial Conference on Baroque Music). The stimulating comments I received from colleagues at those events helped me to rethink and refine my work. It was also my good fortune to conduct on-site research at the Richard-Wagner-Museum in Bayreuth, Germany, and on the property now known as The Firs (Elgar’s birthplace) in Lower Broadheath, England. For their assistance with my work in these archives, I thank Chris Bennett, Sue Fairchild, Gudrun Föttinger, and Kristina Unger. My travels abroad were funded by Lyon College and the University of Louisville. For answering my questions, volunteering information, and/or supplying photocopies, I would like to acknowledge the following colleagues, friends, and family members: Bernhard Appel, Tanja Dobrick, Marion Flaig, Wm. A. Little, Michael Musgrave, Annegret Rosenmüller, Birgit Stinson, Thomas Synofzik, Joe Tierney, Yo Tomita, Melvin Unger, Matthias Wendt, John Whenham, and Peter Wollny. I thank Tyler Brightwell for preparing the musical examples. A special word of gratitude goes to Suzanne Ryan of Oxford University Press for her support of the project from its inception. My greatest debt is to my wife Laura, for her encouragement and love.

Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.
Russell Stinson Batesville, Arkansas December 2019
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