The publishing contract that J S Bach never saw

Sotheby’s are today selling the first contract for the publication of the St Matthew Passion.

Not signed by the composer, who had been dead for 80 years by the time Mendelssohn rediscovered the work in 1829.

Nor by his family.

Our friend Stephen Roe reports:

The document is completely unknown and unrecorded in the extensive literature on Bach and his Passion and it reveals how quickly the work was edited and printed after Mendelssohn’s concerts. It is the contract between the musician and journalist Adolf Bernhard Marx and the publisher Adolf Martin Schlesinger.

It is dated 8 April 1829, that is to say, between the second and third performances of Mendelssohn’s version. The contract is signed by both Marx and Schlesinger and was retained by the publisher in his archive, where it remained for almost two hundred years, until its recent discovery.

Read on here.

bach in eisenach

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  • We may never fully know how difficult it was for the great composers to get contracts or get paid for writing their masterpieces. Beethoven often begged to be paid for music he had submitted to his publisher when they asked for more music. Not for nothing, I find it challenging in 2016 to get new music commissioned, but the difference is, in our time, composers get commissioned to compose music that intends to be performed during their lifetime. Moreover, many works by the great composers were never heard by them during their lifetime, as in the case of Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ not until 1830–80 years after Bach passed! The final statement: “The publication of the Matthew Passion in 1830 was a stunning success and the mass-printing of the vocal and full scores propelled Bach’s towering masterpiece to the wider world. It could now be performed anywhere in Germany or where German was spoken and sung. The explosion of interest in Bach, ignited by Marx, Mendelssohn, Zelter and Schlesinger, dates from this publication. It established Bach’s reputation worldwide. Without the St Matthew Passion, the world would be a much less interesting place.”

    • I thought that the St Matthew Passion was performed during Bach’s life time, and by himself (wasn’t there a story of one of the listeners at the time who said she thought it was ‘like an opera’?).

    • I know it’s almost required to cast every classical composer’s life as tragedy but Bach had steady-paying jobs, with the opportunity to write a ton of music, that most people who yearn to be labeled “composer” today would kill to have.

  • The Matthäus Passion was indeed performed under the Kantor’s direction in Leipzig, but not at the Thomaskirche -if memory serves- but at the Nicholaikirche, which was the other musical venue under Bach’s supervision.

    It is also important to note that, in true Romantic fashion, Mendelssohn felt compelled to “update” the work in question. What those Berlin audiences heard in those arguably “historic” performances was something that by today standards would be -justfiably- inadmissible: Mendelssohn (not withstanding his inmense gifts) had re-worked Bach to make it more palatable/accesible to his audience.

    A while later Wagner did the same for Mozart’s Don Giovanni, citing the younger composer’s inability to “properly grasp” the breadth of his subject matter.

    Luckily for Mendelssohn and Wagner, they did not have to struggle with aesthetics of having to program concerts of so-called symphonic (?) video-game scores.

    Touché, mes amis.

    • Yes it was. My point is that many works were not, and there may be many unpaid works and unfulfilled contracts over the years. Such research into this might yield surprising results.

    • In opposite to Wagner’s Mozart adaptions, Mendelssohn’s reworking was not only, and perhaps not even primarily an attempt to make a work more suitable to the musical esthetics of the day, that could also be done without changes. It was a necessity because some indispensable instruments like oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, and viola da gamba were no longer available and had not yet been reintroduced as modern equivalents (let alone as playable copies or originals.) Therefore to perform the piece at all was impossible without some rewriting and arranging.

      • True. The entire instrumentarium of art music changed halfway 18C and was constituted anew in a form we still see / hear today (with very minor changes).

        • I estipulate your clarifications, but -semantics be damned- Mendelssohn did alter the original materials, all in good faith of course. If he had merely re-orchestrated the piece, I wouldn’t have even bothered to write. But I do not fancy myself to be a front line erudite in these matters. Thanks for reacting with such elegance and knowledgeability.

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