Bach and the Romantics

Music by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Robin Holloway and one of their primary influences, JS Bach


Bach: Jesu meine Freude
Brahms: Fest und Gedenkspruche, Op. 109
Robin Holloway: Five madrigals
Robin Holloway: The consolation of music
Mendelssohn: Three psalms Op. 78
Schumann: Vier doppelchörige Gesänge


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As listeners of classical music, we tend to consider individual composers either in isolation or as part of some broad stylistic trend outlined for us by musicologists. But it is also fascinating to examine the close personal relationships between particular masters (or sometimes, particularly in the 19th-century, the extraordinary antipathies). In this concert we are presenting music by three of the greatest composers of the 19th-century German Romantic school, whose lives interacted to an unusual degree. And this music is put in context by that of JS Bach, the one 18th-century composer who helped to unite the outlooks of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, and by that of Robin Holloway, a composer of our own time who has in turn been strongly influenced by the German Romantics.

It should be remembered that for more than half a century after Bach’s death, his memory was kept alive largely as an brilliant organist. Only a few of his works (mostly those that made it into print) were studied, and hardly any performed in public. It was largely due to the efforts of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms in the mid-nineteenth century that the revival of his music began.

Bach & Mendelssohn
Mendelssohn earliest known composition dates from 1820, when he was just 11 and studying at the Berlin Singakademie. In that first year as a composer, there followed in quick succession a profusion of small-scale works, in which one of his main influences was the contrapuntal technique of Bach, whose fugues he would copy out. At that time Bach’s large-scale works (composed more than 70 years earlier) were considered impossible to perform. But 1829, one of the most significant achievements of musical history took place when the 20-year old Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of the St Matthew Passion since Bach’s death, ushering in the modern cultivation of Bach’s music. In 1835 Mendelssohn moved to Bach’s own town of Leipzig, where, among other things, he introduced Bach’s orchestral suites into the civic concert hall. His performance of Bach’s Concerto for 3 pianos was a sensational success: Clara Wieck (later to become Schumann’s wife) was one of the other soloists. In 1840 Mendelssohn inaugurated with a concert of organ music the raising of funds for the erection of a Bach memorial in front of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.

Bach & Schumann
It was in 1829 that Schumann first encountered the choral music of Bach as a member of a musical society in Heidelberg, and by 1832, he was turning to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as a practical model for study. And having copied out Bach’s Art of Fugue, in 1845 Schumann composed six organ fugues on the theme B-A-C-H. In 1850, Schumann took a leading part in founding a Bach Society to commemorate the centenary of Bach’s death by issuing a complete edition of his works. The following year he conducted Bach’s St John Passion in Dusseldorf and formed a small vocal ensemble which met fortnightly in private houses: its staple fare was Bach’s motets. In 1853, inspired by Mendelssohn’s piano accompaniment to Bach’s famous violin Chaconne, Schumann provided accompaniments to Bach’s unaccompanied violin sonatas, with a view to them reaching a wider public.

Mendelssohn & Schumann
Schumann owed a large measure of his development and fame to the held and sponsorship of Mendelssohn, who conducted the premieres of Schumann’s first two symphonies and his Piano Concerto (with Schumann’s wife Clara as soloist). Indeed Clara went on to perform under Mendelssohn’s baton a further 20 times. Mendelssohn was later to engage both Schumann and his wife as teachers at his newly-founded Leipzig Conservatory. Shocked by Mendelssohn’s sudden and early death in 1847, and after attending his memorial service in Leipzig, Schumann took great trouble to record his ‘Reminiscences of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’ (not published until 1947).

Bach & Brahms
Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was the pre-eminent keyboard companion of Brahms’s private hours: Brahms once commented that ‘With this I rinse my mouth every morning’. Further, ‘when a new Bach edition appears, I let everything else go, for there is nothing as important to me as studying the volume. I know I shall learn something new.’ When improvising, it was with the style of Bach that he most often deceived the uninitiated. But he plainly liked to bring out what he found to be a latent romanticism in the music of the earlier composer. In employing a great variety of tone and touch, and an elasticity of tempo, he is said to have revealed ‘exquisite poems’ even in the preludes and fugues. As a conductor of choral music, Brahms regularly programmed not only Bach’s major works but also his cantatas. And at the climax of Brahms’s symphonic career, in the finale of the Fourth Symphony, Brahms paid a final homage by adapting a theme from a Bach cantata chaconne as the ground bass for 32 variations.

Schumann & Brahms
The mutual hero-worship between Brahms and Schumann (and indeed Schumann’s wife Clara) cannot be overstated. After the great violinist Joachim introduced Brahms to the Schumanns in 1853 at the age of 20, Schumann wrote in his diary ‘visit from Brahms – a genius’, and followed this up by an extraordinary hagiographical article: ‘a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes have stood watch … Even outwardly he bore the marks announcing to us: “This is the chosen one.'” The Schumanns response to Brahms’s music and playing, their identification with his aims and values, forged an intimate relationship that transformed Brahms’s fortunes as a composer. He revered his relationship with them both, and they were amongst his closest musical friends. That same year Brahms and Schumann collaborated in the composition of a violin sonata using as its theme Joachim’s motto, Brahms providing one movement and Schumann two. When Schumann finally entered a private lunatic asylum in 1854, Brahms was one of only a handful of people to be allowed to visit. He and Clara were the two last people to see Schumann the day before his death in 1856, following which Brahms wrote, ‘To me Schumann’s memory is holy. The noble pure artist forever remains a model and ideal. I will hardly be privileged to love a better person.’

Bach. Mendelssohn. Schumann & Brahms
We are told that by 1871, when Brahms took up his permanent residence in Vienna, he kept a portrait of Bach above his bed, an engraving of Robert and Clara Schumann on his writing table, and an engraving of the young Mendelssohn on the wall. And by the end of his life, Brahms extensive library included the full sets of the complete editions of Bach, Schumann and Mendelssohn.

NOTES ON THE WORKS (in chronological order) 

Jesu, meine Freude (?1723) Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
It may come as a surprise to lovers of Bach’s generally exuberant motets that most were probably composed for burial or memorial services. Jesu, meine Freude, the earliest and longest of the motets, is no exception. It is believed to have been sung at the funeral of of the widow of the Leipzig postmaster on 18 July 1723, and as such was probably Bach’s first opportunity to demonstrate his compositional skills in his new post as Kantor of the Thomasschule, the appointment that he retained for the remaining 27 years of his life.

Like most of the other motets, it is a setting of texts compiled from more than one source. In this case, the composer interleaves all six verses of a chorale (praising the gifts of Jesus Christ, as well as longing for his comforting spirit) with verses from Chapter 8 of the Letter to the Romans (speaking of Jesus Christ freeing man from sin and death). In order to guide the listener through the eleven movements, Bach employs a symmetrical structure: for instance the first and last sections are identical, the second and tenth use the same material, and the third to fifth largely correspond with the seventh to ninth. At the very centre of the work, and constituting the heart of its theological message, lies a substantial fugue (‘Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich’). This attention to the formal architecture of an extended work is typical of Bach, and distinguishes him from, for instance, Handel, who is generally content to let the dramatic flow control the structure. Furthermore, although the chorale melody itself is treated in a variety of ways: it is heard ‘straight’ in the first and last sections, but for the rest of the chorale verses the tune is elaborated to a greater or lesser extent, almost disappearing from view in the fifth section (‘Trotz’).

It is now tolerably clear that most of Bach’s choral works would originally have been sung by soloists, one voice to a part. But we make no apologies for continuing the long tradition of performing his works chorally: whatever may be lost by way of clarity is arguably made up by the possibility of greater dramatic impact. And the inclusion of this work amongst the others in the programme clearly shows up the strong relationships between Bach’s choral writing and those of his 19th-century successors.

Three psalms, Op.78 (1843-44) Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
1. Psalm 2: Warum toben die Heiden 2. Psalm 43: Richte mich, Gott, und führe meine Sache 3. Psalm 22: Mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen?

Although Felix Mendelssohn was born into a notable Jewish family, at the age of 7 he (with his siblings, and later his father Abraham) were baptised into the Christian faith. Abraham was of the genuine conviction that he would thereby be able to reconcile the moral content and ethical essence of Christianity with the specific inclination of the Enlightenment philosophy espoused by his own father, the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. And it was this reconciliation that was to prove a vital component of Felix’s later religious attitude and convictions.

In 1843 Mendelssohn was entrusted with the direction of the newly-formed Berlin cathedral choir, and his compositions for them reveal a preference for the a cappella style of the early Italian masters. Nowhere is that more apparent than in these settings, for eight-part choir,” of three psalms, chosen no doubt for their aptness for a highly expressive and dramatic choral technique.

Four songs for double choir, Op.141 (1849) Robert Schumann (1820-1856)
1. An die Sterne (Friedrich Ruckert) 2. Ungewisses Licht (J.C. von Zedlitz) 3. Zuversicht (J.C. von Zedlitz) 4. Talismane (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

The first three of these songs, probably written for a choir Schumann instituted in Dresden, form a satisfying musical and poetic triptych, with a common theme of advising us to look beyond ourselves, to the sky and the stars, for comfort and inspiration… The key relationships allow one song to lead inexorably into the next, as the three songs (slow-fast-slow) begin and return to a tranquil G major. The fourth song was conceived as a separate piece, and was put together with the others for posthumous publication. Accordingly, we will perform it on its own later in the programme.

Festival and Commemoration Sentences, Op.l09 (1888-89) Johannes Brahms (1833-97)
1. Unsere Vater hofften auf dich (Psalm 22 vv.5-6, Psalm 29 v.ll) 2. Wenn ein starker Gewappneter (Luke Ch.ll, vv.21, 17b) 3. Wo ist ein so herrlich Volk (Deuteronomy Ch.7, vv.7, 9)

These short double-choir ceremonial settings on biblical texts date from the latter part of Brahms’s career, when he wrote a number of a cappella choral works. This move towards smaller choral performing forces echoed his decided shift towards chamber works after the completion of the bulk of his symphonic output. These late works often betoken a nostalgic impulse, and this work carries definite echoes of Bach’s own motets, both in counterpoint and harmony.

Five Madrigals (1976) Robin Holloway (b.1943)
1. Ecce puer (James Joyce) 2. Children’s voices (‘New Hampshire’ from Landscapes, T.S.Eliot) 3. Eyes that last I saw in tears (T. S. Eliot, adapted by Robin Holloway) 4. Voices of birds (‘Cape Ann’ from Landscapes, T.S. Eliot) 5. Red river (‘Virginia’ from Landscapes, T.S. Eliot)

Robin Holloway’s compositional homages to the music of the 19th-century German Romantics first came to attention with his 1970 orchestral work Scenes from Schumann, being essentially paraphrases of Schumann lieder. Holloway’s particular affinity with the Romantics also colours many of his subsequent works, particularly those of the 1970s. But the Five Madrigals, with their compact settings of poetry, their very title, and the colourful and witty word-painting, hark back to the heyday of the English madrigal at the turn of the 17th century. The first poem (‘Behold the young boy’) simultaneously celebrates the birth of Joyce’s grandson and mourns the death of Joyce’s father.

The Consolation of Music (1966-1977) Robin Holloway
1. Charm me asleep (Robert Herrick) 2. The Consolation of Music (William Strode)

The composition of this two-part work proceeded in reverse order. Firstly Holloway set the last verse of the second poem, followed many years later by the first two verses, each similar but with different degrees of elaboration. Finally the compilation of poems by Herrick (each taken by the low and high voices respectively) was added as a preface. The music is characterised by a lightness of touch which is belied by its polychoral tonalities, as different groups of high and low voices are alternately set off against each other and brought together on common ground.

Sam Laughton

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    which beguiles with its ravishing combination of the ethereal and the profound" (Radio 3 broadcaster, Jeremy Summerly)

    "The singing is among the finest you’ll hear from a chamber choir" (Radio WRST, University of Wisconsin)

    "A very enterprising selection...the choir make a light, fresh sound and sing with enthusiasm and commitment...the music is well performed and well recorded"

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  • Stopford: Ave Regina Caelorum

  • Tavener: Butterfly dreams

  • Poulenc: Bois meurtri

  • Musgrave: The subway piranhas

  • Weir: Love bade me welcome

  • Britten: Carry her over the water

  • Fauré: In paradisum

  • Somewhere over the rainbow

  • Chilcott: Advent Antiphons

  • Rachmaninov: Vespers

  • Allwood: Charades III

  • Tallis: Lamentations

  • Josquin: Agnus Dei

  • Have yourself a merry little Xmas

  • Schumann: Zuversicht

  • Poulenc: La bonne neige

  • Stanford: The Blue Bird

  • Britten: God’s grandeur


  • Recordings

    It would be difficult to praise the performances too highly (Choir and Organ)

    Highly attractive...hugely enjoyable" (Time Out)

    Robust yet tonally refined performances ***** (BBC Music Magazine)

    Sam Laughton's Elysian Singers perform here with captivating intensity ***** (Classic FM)

    Subtle, disciplined, radiant (Gramophone)

    The Elysian Singers perform this often difficult work with clarity, precision and emotional punch (American Record Guide)

    Exquisitely sung with full-bodied, lively tone ***** (Classic CD)

    Magnificent (Church Times)

  • Media

    I travel back from London with the St Matthew Passion filling my head, after the moving performance from the Elysian Singers and Royal Orchestral Society under Sam Laughton at St James’s Piccadilly (The Spectator, April 2019)

    The female voices of the Elysian Singers contributed to a magical serenity descending over the [Albert] hall during Neptune, and when considered alongside the evening’s earlier strengths, helped to register this show as an undoubted early highlight of this year’s [Prom] festival (Music OMH, July 2015)

    A profound otherworldliness was initiated by the entry of the Elysian Singers, the off-stage female chorus seeming to sing from a distant planet, far beyond earthly realms (Seen and Heard International, July 2015)

    In the posthumous premiere of Sir John Tavener’s Monument to Beethoven, [John] Scott’s organ interjections brought visionary breadth to the Elysian Singers’ luminous tapestry (The Times, March 2014)

    Amongst chamber choirs they’re one of the best (Sir John Tavener, BBC TV interview)

    The classy Elysian Singers (Howard Goodall on Twitter, November 2013)

    That superb choir (John Woolrich, Radio 3)

    The excellent Elysian Singers directed by Sam Laughton (Classical Source, reviewing our 2014 Festival Hall concert)

    Ambitious, well executed and strangely compelling (Simon Jack, reviewing Open Outcry on Radio 4)

    Excellently performed by the Elysian Singers under Sam Laughton (Keith Potter, The Independent)

    A persuasive ensemble, excellently attuned to this repertory (The York Press)

    “The Elysian Singers came up trumps…luminously soft and uniform” (David Ardatti review)

  • Feedback

    Heard you sing last Sunday in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Wow! (especially the Kodaly). Thanks, come again soon (S&MG, Dublin)

    I was moved, not just by the music, but also by the creativity of humankind, continually sharing new ways of contemplating life, and by the discipline of ordinary people who work hard and unpaid to interpret this beauty and emotion to others (York blog)

    Last night’s concert was wonderful–and the links between these two great composers intriguing. Many thanks indeed (PE, Oxford)

    Heard your Gallant Weaver recording played on Radio 3 this morning – beautiful! It made my day 🙂 Gordon (e-mail address supplied)

    There were so many bits I loved. But most of all you looked, as a choir, like you were actually enjoying yourselves. Your encore made me cry for some reason – I think sitting there for a couple of hours was perfect therapy in the run up to Christmas – it made me want to run home and stick the girls’ stockings up and scatter cinnamon around the house (TM, London)

    Your CD of Sir Granville Bantock’s music arrived today – what treasures it contains. As someone who has enjoyed singing in choirs for many years, I found this recording very special. Congratulations to all concerned!! (BL, Hobart, Tasmania)

    I just wanted to let you know how much I’ve been enjoying the new album. The choir sounds fabulous throughout. Congratulations! Please pass along my gratitude to your excellent singers (JL, USA)

    The closest I’ve come to a spiritual experience for a very long time… (DF, Streatham, after hearing the choir perform James Macmillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross)

    You made such a lovely sound this morning. Ave regina coelorum was exquisite – quite the loveliest thing I’ve heard for a long time (J P-B, Salisbury, 2011)

    We cannot thank you enough for the beautiful singing, which totally exceeded our expectations. We feel very privileged. I particularly loved the descant – it was a moment I will always remember (N&T wedding, April 2013)

    The Elysian Singers truly live up to their name; there is something heavenly about their singing…For the duration of [Peter Maxwell Davies’ Solstice of Light], I felt washed clean by its words and its music, taken out of the clutter and complications of London life. (JB, London blog, Feb 2014)

    Beautiful, uplifting music and an eclectic repertoire. A very enjoyable evening (Audience Club reviewer, Feb 2019).