On-line Book Review

IAN MILLS
Assistant Editor, The Bach Bibliography


FRONT COVER OVERVIEW

Dimension: 24.2 x 16.5 x 2.0 cm

TITLE The Reception of Bach's Organ Works from Mendelssohn to Brahms by Russell Stinson.
PUBL. DETAILS Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. viii+232p. Hard back. Price: £26.99
ISBN 0-19-517109-8
TO ORDER Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX2 6DP, UK.
SUMMARY
DESCRIPTION The first substantial monograph on the subject of the reception of Bach’s organ works in the nineteenth century.
WORKS COVERED BWV 106, 137, 140, 150, 152, 227, 525-527, 530, 532-548, 549-552, 562, 564-566, 569, 571, 572, 574, 575, 578, 579, 582, 590, 592, 593, 596, 599-644, 645-50, 651-668, 669-689, 692, 705, 711-713, 717, 718, 737, 738, 741, 766-769, 802-805, 850, 872, 898, 916, 1108
READERSHIP Bach scholars and performers interested in the reception of these works and the role of these four individual composers in the nineteenth-century Bach-revival.
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION Deepens our understanding of how Bach’s organ works were rediscovered during this period by using many fascinating sources translated into English for the first time. Also contains Brahms’ study score of Fantasia in G Major, BWV 572.

T

he so-called ‘Bach revival’ of the early nineteenth century has been the focus of a great deal of research activity within the past decade. Scholars have become increasingly aware of the wealth of information which can be gleaned from the study of the reception of Bach’s repertory. The systematic study of how his music was received by different audiences in different cities at different times allows us to build a more accurate picture of Bach’s musical legacy; furthermore it allows us to understand how and why certain works have achieved popularity in the present-day canon above others.

It may be observed that the revival of Bach’s vocal music has been of particular interest to scholars working in this field; in comparison, the study of the reception and performance of his keyboard and instrumental works has been a less popular choice with musicologists. Russell Stinson’s The Reception of Bach’s Organ Works from Mendelssohn to Brahms – the first substantial monograph of this subject – will prove a welcome attempt to redress the balance.

Contents

Introduction

 

1. Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy

Youth

The Grand Tour

Young Adulthood

The Leipzig Bach Recital

The Final Years

2. Robert Schumann

Leipzig

Dresden and Beyond

3. Franz List

The Traveling Virtuoso

Weimar

4. Johannes Brahms

An Overview

Brahms as a Scholar of Bach's Organ Works

Appendix: Johannes Brahms's Study Score of the Fantasy in G major, BWV 572

Notes

Works cited

Index

The Reception of Bach's Organ Works from Mendelssohn to Brahms by Russell Stinson. (Oxford University Press, 2006)
'Stinson has successfully combined biography and analysis to produce a book that is highly readable and accessible to both scholars and enthusiasts' --- Ian Mills

'highly readable and accessible'

It is not surprising that Stinson has chosen the reception of Bach’s organ music as the subject for his latest monograph. His most recent publications (on the Orgelbüchlein and the ‘Great Eighteen’ chorales) contained brief but engaging chapters on the reception of these famous collections. In his latest book, Russell Stinson attempts to shed more light on this fascinating area by considering how four major nineteenth-century composers – Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms – interacted with the organ music of J.S. Bach throughout their careers.

The structure of the book is simple and extremely effective. In four chapters, Stinson discusses how Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms reacted to Bach’s organ music as performers, teachers and composers. Stinson’s recounting of how each composer became acquainted with Bach’s works is most engaging; in particular, the opening chapter on Mendelssohn (the longest of the four) paints an intimate portrait of how the young composer became enthralled by the music of his beloved Bach. Here, Mendelssohn’s response to the discovery of ‘new’ Preludes & Fugues and Chorale Preludes is brought to life by extracts of letters to his family (many of which have been published in English for the first time) and well-chosen musical examples. We are constantly reminded that the dissemination of these unpublished works was fraught with complications: there are many anecdotes which recall how Mendelssohn went to great lengths to find manuscripts to copy. Stinson’s ability to tell these stories vividly is one of the most attractive features of this book.

Stinson’s narrative is frequently interrupted to allow more detailed discussion of specific works. Scholars and performers alike will find these discussions enlightening. Stinson also makes good use of tables to present more detailed information (e.g. dates of documented performances of Bach’s organ works by each composer). One discussion, concerning Liszt’s transcription of Bach’s famous Prelude in A minor BWV 543/1 for piano (pp.108-116), is particularly well crafted. Here, we can observe how Liszt edited the Haslinger edition to produce a version for piano. A facsimile of Liszt’s personal copy of the Prelude (Goethe-und Schiller-Archiv, Weimar, GSA 60/U 46) is a welcome addition to the book as it allows us to observe Liszt’s methods in great detail. In total, the book contains twelve such facsimiles which are reproduced in sufficiently high quality to allow pencil markings and corrections to be seen.

The final chapter on Johannes Brahms is, in my opinion, Stinson’s most successful; scholars will find his study of Brahms’ markings in his Bachgesellschaft edition a stimulating and highly original contribution. Following an overview of Brahms’ relationship with the organ music of Bach, Stinson begins a detailed study of ‘Brahms as a scholar of Bach’s works’. By considering the markings in his personal scores, Stinson attempts to assemble – for the first time – a picture of how Brahms extracted fragments of Bach’s works to use as a stimulus for own compositions. Brahms’ annotations include the highlighting of themes, form, rhythmic and harmonic irregularities, ornamentation and fingerings. The chapter reaches a powerful and convincing conclusion by suggesting how Brahms used the knowledge which he gleaned from this study to compose his own Eleven Chorale Preludes op.122.

Not all of what Stinson has to say will be a revelation. Indeed, the reception-related essays found in Bach und die Nachwelt, Bd.1 & Bd.2 (1997) had already introduced scholars to the role that these composers played (along with Beethoven and Wagner) in the nineteenth-century revival of Bach’s music; however, I found Stinson’s organ-centred contribution on all four composers more enlightening. In particular, I felt that Stinson’s chapter on Felix Mendelssohn reached more powerful conclusions than Wolfgang Dinglinger’s essay in Band 1 (pp. 379-420), not least because the later was devoid of musical examples.

A monograph dedicated to the reception of Bach’s organ works is long overdue. In The Reception of Bach’s Organ Works from Mendelssohn to Brahms, Stinson has successfully combined biography and analysis to produce a book that is highly readable and accessible to both scholars and enthusiasts. Russell Stinson should be commended for assembling information from a great variety of sources in order to produce this valuable resource. I am sure that his enthusiasm for this subject – and the book’s extensive bibliography – will help stimulate further study in this fascinating area.

Published online on 7 February 2007