Hanna Arie-Gaifman
© Courtesy of 92nd Street Y
A twenty-year-old German musician conducts J.S. Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion. The year is 1829 and the venue is the Sing-Akademie in Berlin. It turns out to be that rare thing: a truly transformative performance, a performance that firmly planted Bach’s works in the German canon of musical greatness, a position of eminence from which they have never since been dislodged. Mendelssohn was conscious of the significance of what he was doing, writing: “To think that it took an actor and a Jew’s son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world”.

The outline of this story is pretty much common knowledge, at least in musically literate circles, explains Hanna Arie-Gaifman, Director Emeritus of the Tisch Center, New York, and guiding spirit of an upcoming festival in June entitled “The Bach-Mendelssohn Connection”.

Less commonly known, she points out, is the richly layered backstory, involving generations of families, Bachs and Mendelssohns and Itzigs, in an Enlightenment Germany open to inter-religious mingling and social advancement as never before. As a Jewish woman steeped in the traditions of Mitteleuropa (Arie-Gaifman is Czech) and of the States, having run the literary and music program at 92Y in New York for twenty-two years until her retirement last year, this relatively unknown backstory is what intrigued her from the very start.

“How did it happen” she found herself asking “that a talented young man had the ability and the possibility to perform the complete work in Berlin with a semi-professional organization? How did he even get hold of the full score? I’d ask musicians.” They didn’t know.  The Passion had not, after all, been performed for 102 years, and, however extraordinary it might seem to us, Bach’s reputation was as a mere musical mathematician: he was certainly not du jour. Arie-Gaifman set about to unearth for the wider audience a rich historical journey, previously mainly known only to musicologists.

In this story, prominent roles were played by brilliantly educated women in the Mendelssohn family. Enter Bella Salomon, for instance, “the classic Jewish grandmother”, she chuckles. She was the one who had The Passion score specially copied as a gift for Felix. “I’d like to believe that it’s a gift for Mendelssohn’s Bar Mitzvah”. Now that would be intriguing, I agree, although she adds that there is no way of knowing for sure. “And he did take Christianity seriously,” she said later of this youthful convert to Protestantism.

The Kaufmann Concert Hall
© Courtesy of 92nd Street Y
Bella was one of thirteen Itzig children (on Felix’s maternal line): all the family, six daughters included, not only received an excellent education in music but maintained deep connections with Bach’s sons and students. Sara (Levi), another sister and, in time, Felix’s powerful great-aunt, supported C.P.E. Bach and later his widow. Mendelssohn’s own father bought most of C.P.E. Bach’s estate, donating a collection of 5000 manuscripts to the Sing-Akademie. “What we have are examples of super-generous sharing”, familial financial clout put in the service of art that transcends any monetary value, but may not survive without it.

Arie-Gaifman is at pains to counteract the traditional claim that these elite women were taught merely superficial accomplishments – polite languages and gentle tinkling of the ivories. It’s true that their knowledge of languages and social graces served them well in the beau monde, but there was serious substance too. Sara was a semi-professional harpsichordist, Felix’s sister, Fanny, as we know, a pianist. All this befitted them for the exercise of real cultural power in the theater of the salon.

“When we usually think of salon culture” muses Arie-Gaifman, “we think of social gatherings, talking, fun, food, booze.” But let us not underestimate their importance as spaces devoted to the preservation and sharing of good music in non-intimidating, intimate, mixed settings. Some people may see evidence of conservatism in the Bach family cult of the Mendelssohn family, for sure, but for Arie-Gaifman, it is simply evidence of their good taste. “In music, innovation is not the sole value”. In any case, she goes on, they were innovating, through the accepted social framework of the day. By the time Fanny ran the family salon, we have solid evidence of a dialogue about programming in letters between her and her brother. “What should be on a program? Who should be on it?” Questions we still ask.

Over ten days in June 2022, the festival will celebrate and explore these rich stories, linking the Bachs and Mendelssohns. The four concerts on the main stage, in the Kaufmann Concert Hall, promise a dazzling line-up. The Emerson and the Calidore String Quartets will open the festival with extracts from Bach’s Art of Fugue and Mendelssohn’s Fuga from his Op. 81 String quartet and Octet in E-flat major. In a festival celebrating extraordinary intergenerational family musical cultures, it gives something of a thrill to learn from Arie-Gaifman that Steven Isserlis is himself a descendent of Mendelssohn. He will play Bach’s Six Suites and Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata no. 2 in D major. Young Polish violinist Maria Włoszczowska and pianist Jeremy Denk will perform Bach’s Six Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard. Arie-Gaifman usually hears people before she invites them to perform, and she hasn’t yet heard Wloszcsowska, but she laughs: “Jeremy doesn’t usually rave. And he raves about her”. Quietly pushing back against those who jostle the canon to make way for the new, she reflects on the value of hearing, once again, what we have heard many times before. “Certain works have to be performed regularly… Yes to new works, yes to commissions… but there’s an excitement to old works too”. It is a comment that would not be out of place in one of Bella’s, Sara’s, or Fanny’s salons. At the last mainstage concert, flutist Brandon Patrick George and harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani will perform sonatas by both J.S. and C.P.E. Bach.

Arader Galleries
© Courtesy of 92nd Street Y
There are also more intimate sessions, salon-style, in the Arader Galleries, situating the music in the aesthetic atmosphere of the visual arts. “It’s important,” Arie-Gaifman emphasizes, that “it’s not intimidating”, a word that reoccurs several times in our conversation. She also emphasizes that we need to attend more to the “art of listening” than we do. It’s an insightful point – even a challenge, and reminds me immediately of the Oscar Wilde quip – when you play good music, people don’t listen, and when you play bad music, people don’t talk. That wasn’t the case in the salons, nor will it be the case here. Elizabeth Mann on flute and Mahan Esfahani on harpsichord will recreate the salon of Sara Levi, whilst pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen will play a microcosm of a program Fanny would have presented, including some of her own compositions. Arie-Gaifman is especially excited by Esfahani’s celebration of Bachs, father and sons, on the clavichord. She launches: “When is the last time you heard a clavichord?” I have to pause to try to recall, and draw a blank. Point made.

So who, I ask finally, do you hope will be the audience come June? “The curious,” she answers, disarmingly, and adds: “A curious audience makes things lively and engaged. And we have many curious people here in New York”. I’m writing this from aloft a pod in mid-town, where I’m staying this weekend, looking down at the ever-moving, ever-driven crowds below. She’s surely right. Let’s hope they stop to listen. 

Click here to learn more about The Bach-Mendelssohn Connection Festival.

This article was sponsored by 92nd Street Y