The contract for the first ever publication of Bach’s Matthew Passion – the work that Mendelssohn rediscovered and which introduced Bach to a modern audience – is to be auctioned today at Sotheby’s.

Contract that helped bring Bach's St Matthew Passion to the world to be auctioned
A statue of JS Bach in front of the Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, where his St Matthew Passion was first performed in 1727. Photograph: Peter Usbeck/Alamy

When JS Bach died in 1750, his music was virtually forgotten. Only a few of his compositions were published in his lifetime. His music survived in handwritten copies prepared by himself and his pupils, and as a result many works were lost, or survive incomplete. In the circumstances, we should be fortunate that so much has survived.

It was early in the 19th century, thanks to the young Felix Mendelssohn and others, that Bach’s works began to be noticed. On 11 March 1829, one of his towering masterpieces, the St Matthew Passion, was thrust on an unsuspecting world. Mendelssohn, barely out of his teens, conducted a performance, heavily cut and in part re-orchestrated by him, at the Berlin Singakademie, a building and institution that survive still today. Two further performances followed there on 21 March and 18 April, the latter conducted by Mendelssohn’s teacher CF Zelter.

These performances were revelatory sensations. The St Matthew Passion was relaunched to a modern audience. But Mendelssohn’s concerts took place using manuscript parts as there was nothing yet in print.

Contract that helped bring Bach's St Matthew Passion to the world to be auctioned
The 1829 contract for the publication of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Photograph: Courtesy Sotheby’s

A new document has recently been discovered that sheds light on the first publication of the work. 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.

The publication of the Matthew Passion was a stunning success and …propelled Bach’s masterpiece to the wider world.

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.

The document provides a lot of detail about the background to the Passion’s publication. Schlesinger charged Marx with making a vocal score, for voices and piano (he also published one for full orchestra and chorus). He specified fees, including a down-payment, the rest on completion. If Marx used the services of others, presumably Mendelssohn and Zelter, it was up to him to pay them, not Schlesinger. We have to be especially grateful to Marx that he did not use Mendelssohn’s heavily cut, revised and re-orchestrated version. Instead he went back to Bach’s original found in the earliest manuscripts. Had he not done so, the world might easily have lost the St Matthew Passion as conceived by Bach.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.