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Book Review: Bach In Berlin Salons

A salon scene in an engraving by Antoine-Jean Duclos after a painting by Augustin de St.-Aubin (1774).


Sara Levy’s World: Gender, Judaism and the Bach Tradition in Enlightenment Berlin. Rebecca Cypess and Nancy Sinkoff, editors. University of Rochester Press, 2018. 292 pages.

By Joshua Jacobson

Here’s what they taught us in Music History class: Johann Sebastian Bach died in 1750 and his music was forgotten until Felix Mendelssohn conducted the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829. Sure, there was the van Swieten library, but other than that? The world of music scholarship has only recently discovered the role a group of Jewish salonnières in late 18th-century Berlin in preserving the music of the great Baroque master. Rebecca Cypess and Nancy Sinkoff’s monograph, a collection of fascinating essays based on a conference they had produced at Rutgers University, provides a significant resource for reassessing the historical record.

The book is organized around three main topics. Part One, “Portrait of a Jewish Female Artist: Music, Identity, Image,” provides historical and sociological background for that unique salon culture. Part Two, “Music, Aesthetic, and Philosophy: Jews and Christians in Sara’s World,” deals with broader issues of Jewish-Christian relations. In Part Three, “Studies in Sara Levy’s Collection,” the authors offer a unique form of score analysis. A brief appendix presents several letters exchanged between Sara Levy and a Swedish diplomat.

The main focus of this volume is on Sara Itzig (1761-1854). There was reportedly a “Bach cult” at the home of her father, Daniel Itzig (1723-1799), the king’s banker and “court Jew,” who had hired Johann Philipp Kirnberger, a student of J. S. Bach, to give keyboard lessons to his daughters. One, Fanny, married the Viennese banker Baron Nathan Adam von Arnstein and established a salon at their home in Vienna. Another, Bella, married Levin Jacob Salomon, and their daughter Lea married Abraham Mendelssohn, son of the famous philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Lea and Abraham begat Felix and Fanny.

Sara, who studied with Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and earned a reputation as a virtuoso performer on both fortepiano and harpsichord, established a popular salon in her magnificent home in Berlin with her husband, Solomon Levy. It became a gathering place for a cross-section of Berlin’s intelligentsia — a rare meeting ground of nobility and upper bourgeoisie, Christians and Jews, men and women, poets and bankers and musicians — who came together to engage in witty conversations and to listen to readings and musical performances.

Sara also employed a professional copyist and accumulated a sizable music library that included many instrumental works of J. S. Bach and his sons. At the end of her long life, she donated her music collection to the library of the Berlin Sing-Akademie, an amateur musical institution, with which she had occasionally performed as a keyboard soloist. In 1805, her nephew, Abraham Mendelssohn, had purchased most of the estate of J. S. Bach, including more than 100 original autograph scores, and a few years later donated it to the Sing-Akademie, under the stewardship of his friend, Carl Friedrich Zelter.

Rebecca Cypess

In 1819, Abraham Mendelssohn’s 10-year-old son Felix joined the Sing-Akademie and became a student of Zelter’s. Intrigued by excerpts of Bach’s music that Zelter had been parceling out, Felix wanted to see the real thing. Enter Sara’s sister Bella Itzig Salomon, who gave her grandson Felix a gift that would have far-reaching consequences, a manuscript copy of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. That gift eventually led to Felix’s conducting, on March 11, 1829, the first performance since 1742 of Bach’s Passion. In her chapter, Yael Sela points out that the concert also became a significant event in the formation of a rising German-Protestant nationalism.

Part III of the volume offers a metaphorical look at the chamber music that was performed in Sara Levy’s salon. Cypess notes that many of the duets were of a style in which “both of the featured voices are primary voices, and neither dominates the other.” Cypess posits that these duets mirrored not only the salon model of human voices in polite conversation, but also inter-religious socialization within an enlightened society, an attractive concept for the doubly marginalized: Jewish women.

In Chapter Eight, Steven Zohn describes the style of some quartets in Levy’s collection as a reflection of the witty and egalitarian social dialogue of salon culture, involving the temporary suspension of differences of social status, gender, and religion. He discusses the interaction of the instruments in C. P. E. Bach’s Quartet in D major, W. 94, with equal wit, writing about the “keyboard’s newfound assertiveness… shocking the other instruments into the submissive role of accompanying.”

Nancy Sinkoff

But the zinger comes in Christoph Wolff’s chapter. The Bach collections at the Berlin Sing-Akademie remained uncatalogued for years, all references to the Jewish salons and the work of the Mendelssohns were suppressed during the Nazi era, and the Red Army confiscated the priceless collection after World War II. It was finally repatriated from Kiev to Berlin in 1999, allowing scholars during the past two decades to better understand the role of the Berlin salonnières in appreciating and preserving the music of J. S. Bach and his sons. Cypess and Sinkoff’s volume, approaching their topic from multiple perspectives, provides a long-overdue corrective to a historic misunderstanding.

Joshua Jacobson, Northeastern University Professor of Music emeritus, is the founder and director of the Zamir Chorale of Boston, author of several books, dozens of articles, and more than 100 choral arrangements and editions.

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Labor Day Concert: Martin Schmeding

As part of the series of jury concerts taking place over the week of the Boston Bach International Organ Competition, jury member Martin Schmeding of Leipzig plays the annual Labor Day concert at First Lutheran Church, a program of music by Bach, Bruhns, Frescobaldi, Grigny, Krebs, Medek, Mendelssohn, van Noordt, Scheidemann, and Steigleder.

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Dana Marsh: Basking In Bach In DC

Dana Marsh conducts his first concert as artistic director of the Washington Bach Consort on Sept. 16.
(Photo by David Betts)


By Donald Rosenberg

In his youth, Dana Marsh savored the music his father played at home. Peter Marsh served as first violin in five major string quartets (Berkshire, Lenox, Pacific Philadelphia, Sequoia), but he didn’t restrict his practice sessions to chamber-music repertoire. He regularly explored what many violinists consider the peak of their solo literature — Johann Sebastian Bach’s sonatas and partitas.

The Washington Bach Consort was founded in 1977 by J. Reilly Lewis. (David Betts)

Now, many decades later, the younger Marsh is preparing to devote himself to Bach in newly significant ways. On Sept. 16 at National Presbyterian Church in the nation’s capital, he will conduct his first concert as artistic director of the Washington Bach Consort.

Marsh, 53, sang Bach as a boy in New York’s St. Thomas Choir School and at England’s Salisbury Cathedral. He later recorded all of the motets and St. John Passion as a member of the Choir of New College Oxford, focused his undergraduate years at the Eastman School of Music on Bach’s organ works, and performed other Bach masterpieces for several decades as a countertenor.

“I think for every musician, that composer’s name carries a certain resonance that’s almost autobiographical,” said Marsh, director of the Historical Performance Institute and chair of the Early Music Department at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, in a recent phone interview. “The way we approach the music changes over the long haul and is bound up in the maturation process of every musician. It’s just a supreme kind of opportunity to have that music be the complete core of what this organization does.”

Bach has been at the core of the Consort since its founding in 1977 by choral conductor and organist J. Reilly Lewis, who shaped the group into an admired performing institution over nearly four decades. In June 2016, the organization was jolted by Lewis’ sudden death at 71, prompting the board to question whether to disband or continue.

Stephen Wright, Washington Bach Consort board president

The board opted to give the latter a try. The Consort announced the artistic-director opening and hoped someone would apply. To the organization’s surprise and delight, about 40 candidates from around the world sent resumes.

“That blew us away,” said board president Stephen Wright. “We didn’t know — and shame on us for not knowing it — the esteem with which the group was held in the music community. That was a slap in the face. We realized we have something here we have to preserve and make better.”

The list of candidates was whittled down to 15 semi-finalists and then five finalists, whose “auditions” included conducting the Consort in a subscription program and participating in the ensemble’s free Noontime Cantata Series.

From the start, the process was highly transparent. “There were 16 people on the search committee, the majority of whom were musicians,” said executive director Marc Eisenberg. “In addition, we listened to the opinions of our faithful. We strongly encouraged all of our ticket buyers to give us feedback. Everyone that was remotely involved with the process had a voice.”

In the end, said principal cellist John Moran, the choice of Marsh came down to “a combination of a lot of different factors. From the moment he started rehearsing, he showed himself to have an excellent rapport with the choir and the orchestra. He’s knowledgeable about the music and very knowledgeable about performance practice and takes the performance practice side to heart without getting in the way of the music.”

Marc Eisenberg, Consort executive director

Along with those characteristics, “he has a wonderful collaborative style of working,” Moran added. “I didn’t feel like he was telling us what to do but bringing out the best we could do. He was not the only one of the candidates who has that quality. It’s less rare in conductors working with period instruments. He has a very warm personality. I think it was easy for the board to imagine him in all kinds of situations. Talking to an audience, meeting with donors, and all the musical stuff are clearly first rate.”

The repertoire for the finalists’ subscription concerts was determined after asking the candidates what they’d like to conduct. Then the search committee assigned the “big-bang” works, as Eisenberg dubs these major pieces. Marsh was asked to conduct Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which he led in December 2017. That performance, the Noontime Cantata concerts, and discussions with the board and musicians persuaded him that he could get used to the frequent commute between Bloomington and DC.

“What struck me most in visiting was just the real sense of a closely-knit, together, family kind of atmosphere,” said Marsh. “I had never met Reilly [as Lewis was called]. I had quite a good number of friends who had sung for him over the years and spoke very highly about his very positive influence as a mentor chiefly and just somebody that dealt a great deal of trust among his singers and instrumentalists. That was clearly evident, having never met him, in the just how the organization seemed to function.”

John Moran, Consort principal cellist

Cellist Moran, who, like his wife, violinist-violist Risa Browder, has played with the group for more than two decades, can speak about how the Consort has functioned with special authority: He grew up in DC and, as a 14-year-old, attended the ensemble’s inaugural concert in 1977, when his teacher was a member of the orchestra. Under Lewis’ leadership, the Consort evolved in terms of performance practices, especially at the urging of its period instrumentalists.

“At the very first concert [in 1977], they actually used period instruments for one or two pieces, but mostly modern instruments,” Moran said. “Around 1997 or so, when Risa and I came back from Europe worried we’d have to do lot of modern-instrument playing to make a living, we wanted Reilly to switch over. After a couple of years, he switched to period instruments for big subscription concerts and then the Noontime concerts.”

The Consort, which has an annual budget of around $1 million, presents its four subscription programs only once, though executive director Eisenberg said he anticipates the number of programs and performances will expand under Marsh. Eisenberg is also counting on the new artistic director to provide important guidance about touring and recording.

Marsh is eager to do so. “It’s my vision to bring the Consort closer to the European early music circuit,” he said. “There’s a lot going on over there. The programming at the European festivals that feature early music in some way tends to be a bit more variegated, different every year. I was just over there speaking with friends who have some close contacts. Hopefully by 2020, we’ll have some very firm plans in place for performing abroad — certainly that and recordings. We’d like to set up ultimately a schedule of recording projects that take us a through a 10-year period. We’re going to have to look at some creative ways at approaching that kind of a project.”

Consort founder J. Reilly Lewis (1944-2016). (Tom Wolff)

Marsh wasn’t involved in determining the repertoire for the Consort’s 2018-19 season, but he’s happy with the repertoire — and pining to outline for the board his programming ideas for the 2019-20 season, the first he will fully devise. His inaugural concert Sept. 16, “Handel & Bach: Sing a New Song,” will include the former’s “Ode for St. Cecelia’s Day” and the latter’s cantata “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” and Magnificat.

Later in the season, Marsh will lead Bach motets (Dec. 16), music of Bach and Italian masters (March 10), and Bach’s Easter and Ascension oratorios (May 5).

As he contemplates his future with the Consort, Marsh is gratified on many levels. He has the full support of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music to be away while fulfilling his duties in DC. And he looks forward to delving into more Bach, including music he may not know.

“This is the most delightful part of any undertaking where that composer’s music is at the center of it,” Marsh said. “There always will be the odd cantata you haven’t encountered, and you find yourself incredulous because the qualities are so captivating. That’s really the best, most serendipitous part of the process.”

Donald Rosenberg is editor of EMAg, the magazine of Early Music America, and author of The Cleveland Orchestra Story: “Second to None.”

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Boston Bach International Organ Competition

The inaugural Boston Bach International Organ Competition takes place September 2-9 and is open to emerging artists of any nationality who have completed their schooling and are between the ages of 26 and 37. Sixteen contestants will arrive during the last week of August to prepare for the three rounds of the competition. The BBIOC is quadrennial like its Leipzig counterpart, and is intended to

  • promote further artistic development of players already engaged in professional careers,
  • increase the general public’s awareness of the breadth and scope of Bach’s organ music; and
  • showcase Boston as a leading center of historically informed organ building and performance practice, and home to many internationally prominent organists.

The jury consists of Arvid Gast (Lübeck), Chair; James David Christie (Boston-Oberlin), Christian Lane (Boston-McGill), Hatsumi Miura (Yokohama-Ferris), Christa Rakich (Hartford), Martin Schmeding (Leipzig), and Carole Terry (Seattle). Competition rounds take place in order at Old West Church, Church of the Advent, and First Lutheran Church. Jury concerts will be held in order at First Lutheran Church, King’s Chapel, Harvard Memorial Church, Trinity Church, and the Church of the Advent. Arvid Gast plays a Sunday afternoon concert out in Worcester at St. Joseph’s Chapel, Holy Cross College, and a winners’ concert will cap the week at First Lutheran later that evening.

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