On-line Book Review

Assistant Editor, The Bach Bibliography

Dimension 15.5 x 24 x 2 cm
TITLE Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn's Revival of the 'St. Matthew Passion' by Celia Applegate.
PUBL. DETAILS Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005. xii, 288p. US$35.00
ISBN 978-0-8014-4389-3
DESCRIPTION An account of the changing national and cultural ideas which contributed to the 1829 revival of the St. Matthew Passion
WORKS COVERED BWV 229, 232, 243, 244, 248, 529, 846-893, 1080
READERSHIP Bach scholars and enthusiasts interested in the reception of Bach’s music in the nineteenth century.

Gives readers a fresh perspective on the reception of the Passion by considering the famous 1829 performance “at the end, not at the beginning, of an historical evolution”


ome recent studies in Bach reception have yielded enlightening results. Celia Applegate’s article “Bach Revival, Public Culture, and National Identity: The St. Matthew Passion in 1829” – published in A User’s Guide to German Cultural Studies in 1997 – examined how Felix Mendelssohn’s successful marketing of the St Matthew Passion led to the work’s present-day status at the pinnacle of Western choral music. Eight years later, Applegate’s article has been substantially expanded and re-released in monograph form.

In her introduction, the author explains: “This is a book about how a group of people, narrow in their range of social backgrounds but broad and various in their views of the world around them, “bestowed meaning” on Bach, on his vocal works, on listening to and making music altogether”. Indeed, in summarizing this extensive project, Celia Applegate – a highly regarded and experienced interdisciplinary historian – hints at the challenges of “disentangling” the collective enthusiasm for the Passion which was aroused in both individuals and institutions at the time, and making sense of it.

Contents in brief


List of Abbreviations


Chapter One: Great Expectations: Mendelssohn and the St. Matthew Passion

Chapter Two: Toward a Music Aesthetics of the Nation

Chapter Three: Music Journalism and the Formation of Judgment

Chapter Four: Musical Amateurism and the Exercise of Taste

Chapter Five: The St. Matthew Passion in Concert: Protestantism, Historicism, and Sacred Music

Chapter Six: Beyond 1829: Musical Culture, National Culture



In six engaging chapters, Applegate expands upon a number of issues which will already be familiar to many scholars researching reception in the early nineteenth-century. Instead of giving a broad overview of ‘Nation and Culture’ during this period, Applegate takes a fresh approach by focusing attention on a single event: the 1829 performance of the Passion in Berlin. 

Applegate’s imaginative and carefully though-out design is vital to this book’s success. She chooses to begin with an account of the 1829 performance though the eyes of Felix Mendelssohn in chapter one, and moves backwards in the remaining chapters in order to explore her subject in more detail. Indeed, the opening chapter serves both as an excellent introduction to this subject and as an incentive to read further to discover the roles played by intellectuals, amateurs and journalists in this famous performance at the Singakademie. The author adds to the vast amount of existing scholarship in this area (for example, Martin Geck’s 1967 study of the Passion revival) by reinterpreting over eighty primary sources, including letters and journals (listed pp.265-270).

In chapters three and four, Applegate’s meticulous research and confident delivery challenges some of our perceived ideas about the German nation at this time; for example, it is fascinating to discover that, before a performance of the Passion could ever take place, it was necessary for a concert-going public to effectively be ‘created’ (whether or not this was Mendelssohn’s conscious plan is perhaps a question for future research). Applegate closely examines this phenomenon and the factors which contributed to the creation of a musical public who would be prepared to attend Mendelssohn’s revival. She achieves this by considering the role of journalism and rising popularity of musical amateurism during this period. In essence, readers are able to see how the ‘notion’ of a collective German identity became realized in 1829.

Bach in Berlin deals comprehensively with the people who were involved in the events leading up to the revival 1829. At times this makes for confusing reading; some readers may be discouraged by the seemingly endless list of intellectuals, philosophers, journalists and biographers who are introduced in each chapter. Also, I felt that chapter five, which deals with the secularization of the Passion, could have been more concise, although Applegate is to be given credit for expanding on many of the ideas raised by Michael Marrisen’s 1993 Musical Quarterly article, and placing them in context.

Despite these minor issues, I feel that Bach in Berlin is essential reading for Bach scholars working on the reception of any aspect of his repertoire. In particular, the inclusion of footnotes on each page and an extensive index provide an excellent starting point for further investigation. Applegate has successfully used the Passion as a microcosm for the state of the German nation in the early nineteenth century and, in so doing, has widened Bach scholars’ appreciation of the events surrounding this pivotal performance.

Published online on 2 July 2007