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The origins of the society, go back to the 1930s, when Paul Steinitz (pictured) became Director of Music at St. Mary’s, the parish church of Ashford, Kent. There, with the local choral society, he conducted performances of the Christmas Oratorio, the Matthew Passion and the B minor Mass. From the start, he insisted on the highest possible standards, using professional musicians where necessary. At the same time his curiosity was aroused as to how the music must have sounded in Bach’s day.
It is easy to forget that the reputation of the great master of the Baroque suffered a prolonged eclipse after his death in 1750, particularly as regards his choral works. It was only in 1829 that the St. Matthew Passion was revived, in Berlin under the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. The chorus was over 150-strong, most of the arias were omitted and the Evangelist’s part was stripped of all not considered essential.
Mendelssohn’s historic achievement marked the reawakening of popular interest in “old Bach”. Yet the style of performances, as they developed over the rest of the last century and into this, was far removed from Baroque practice. In his book Bach’s Passions, Dr. Steinitz writes of a London performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1870 with 500 voices, and of a 1903 German edition of the St John Passion with additional parts for clarinets, contra-bassoon, horns, trumpets, trombones, timpani and bass drum!
In 1905 Albert Schweitzer, a renowned Bach scholar and organist before he became a medical missionary in Africa, complained of the enormous size of choirs, the tendency to slow up at every cadence and the misunderstanding of the keyboard continuo part. He called for the use of boys’ voices, the revival of period instruments such as the viola d’amore, the viola da gamba and the Baroque organ, and the realisation of the continuo without additional instruments.
His prophetic pleas for interpretations consonant with 18th century style were gradually answered. The Polish instrumentalist Wanda Landowska played Bach on the harpsichord rather than the piano. The German violinist Adolf Busch, recognising the importance of dance in Baroque music, directed performances of the Brandenburg Concertos outstanding for their rhythmic vitality. Dr Steinitz was later to meet Albert Schweitzer in 1956.
In this country, where Samuel Wesley and William Sterndale Bennett had championed Bach’s music in the previous century, Charles Kennedy Scott and Harold Darke used chamber choirs for the choral works, while Arnold Dolmetsch revived interest in early instruments, from harpsichords to lutes and recorders.
The Early Years
It was against this background, in which Bach’s music was beginning to emerge from a 19th century patina of Romantic interpretation and sheer neglect, that the young Paul Steinitz’s interest in more authentic performance was awakened. But for the war he would probably have founded his own society to put his ideas into effect some years before he did. As it was, the first meeting of the South London Bach Society took place on a November evening in 1946, shortly after Dr Steinitz had become organist of St.Peter’s Church, Dulwich Common. The first musical resource to be formed was a choir of around 50-60 voices and the first choral rehearsal took place on January 7th, 1947, in the depths of one of the coldest winters of the century.
The singing membership was small by the standards of the time for a choir specialising in Bach. The first trust deed stated that the society would study the music of Palestrina and his contemporaries and of modern British composers as well as that of its namesake and the terms of reference for singing membership qualified. It was clear from the outset that Dr Steinitz’s long-term goal was the performance of Bach “in its original form”.
Smaller choral forces, and an orchestra to scale, allowed the intricacy of Bach’s counterpoint to emerge. The use of period instruments such as the viola da gamba and the harpsichord were steps towards the formation of the Baroque orchestra with which we are familiar today.
As well as those who made music, the society from the beginning had non-singing members; they were eventually to become known as Friends of the LBS. Over the years they have been an informed and enthusiastic audience at concerts, as well as providing financial and organisational support.
In March 1952, in the Priory Church of St Bartholomew-the-Great in London, where Dr Steinitz had become organist, the society gave what was the first performance in England of the St. Matthew Passion in its entirety and in the original language. Writing over a quarter of a century later, Dr Steinitz recalled that the work was well received, though there was controversy about the German, until recently an enemy tongue. The Matthew was to become the staple Lenten fare of the LBS for the next 35 years.
In 1958 Dr Steinitz embarked on a project which would later be seen as his “life’s work” – the public performance of Bach’s extant cantatas, 208 in all. This extraordinary corpus of music, most of it written for the different seasons of the Lutheran Church’s year, fell into disfavour shortly after the composer’s death, its religious message being alien to the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment, and had remained largely unexplored ever since. It is the LBS’s great achievement to have brought these works, over a period of nearly 30 years, to the British public. No one who heard them can forget the excitement of discovering the astonishing fecundity of Bach’s imagination in setting sacred texts to music.
Old Instruments Introduced – Steinitz Bach Players founded
The 1960s saw the introduction of more period instruments into LBS performances that were first use in modern times – the cornet, sackbut, clarino or natural trumpet, Baroque flute. This process culminated in 1968, with the foundation of Steinitz Bach Players, a group of professional musicians who shared Dr Steinitz’s wish for a style of playing (heightening the dance element by a light upbeat and brisk tempi) to complement the sound made by the choir. Among them were Alan Loveday, Michael Laird, Tess Miller, Adam Skeaping and Jennifer Ward Clarke. The orchestra was run as a separate organisation until 1983, when it merged with the London Bach Society to form a new charity.
In 1964 the society made its first visit to East Germany, singing in St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig, where Bach was Cantor from 1723 until his death, and in Halle, the birthplace of Handel. Dr Steinitz saw the tour not just in artistic terms but as a political gesture, a reaching out across the Iron Curtain made possible by the universal nature of Bach’s genius.
Meanwhile, the performance of contemporary music, stipulated in the society’s first trust deed, had not been neglected. In 1956 the choir, under Robert Craft, gave the first performance in this country of Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum. Works were commissioned from Nicholas Maw, John Tavener, Christopher Brown and Stanley Glasser. That commitment to contemporary music was dropped in the new constitution of 1983, the society having concluded that other groups (e.g. London Sinfonietta) were better equipped to promote such works and to complement that promotion with an education programme. However, with the help of the Arts Council, a cantata was commissioned from composer Christopher Brown, also a long-time singing member of the LBS, to mark Dr Steinitz’s 75th birthday in 1984.
If the 1960s saw the interest in Baroque performance style quickening. the 1970s witnessed its full flowering. Musicians such as Roger Norrington, John Eliot Gardiner, Christopher Hogwood and Trevor Pinnock drew large audiences for concerts given on period instruments. Dr Steinitz, who had helped prepare the ground for their success, was also moving further towards his goal of performing Bach “in its original form”. In 1976 he used 24 singers from the LBS choir, accompanied by an orchestra of period instruments, including Baroque oboes, to record three cantatas for BBC Radio 3. These were to set the style for the completion of the cycle that Dr Steinitz had begun in 1958.
Domestic engagements were interspersed with foreign tours, to Israel (1969), the United States (1971 and 1973), Italy (1975) and Bulgaria (1980). A second visit to Leipzig, the highlight of which was a performance of the B minor Mass in St Thomas’s, took place in 1983. It was supported by the British Council.
In 1985, the tercentenary of Bach’s birth, Dr Steinitz was awarded an OBE for his services to music. His widow, Margaret, remembers going to Buckingham Palace on a snowy day in March, the car full of music stands and a chamber organ for a performance that evening. The concert was part of the LBS’s Bach 300 Festival, a foretaste of what was to happen after Dr Steinitz’s death.
The cantata cycle was completed in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in December 1987. At the end, Dr Steinitz, acknowledging the applause, raised above his head a picture of the composer, which had hung from the conducting podium during the concert, a gesture that had become a feature of LBS presentations. This epitomised his singular dedication to Bach’s music.
Five months later Dr Steinitz was dead. Towards the end of his life his thoughts were running along the following lines: the formation of a consort of professional singers, the use of boys’ voices where possible (an idea which he had already tried out with Salisbury Cathedral Choir), the foundation of an annual Bach festival beginning in the autumn of 1988, and an invitation to the Thomanerchor, Bach’s old choir, to visit this country.
Going forward meant taking up the baton where Dr. Steinitz had placed it and remaining true to our purpose. The society’s amateur choir was wound up in the summer of 1989, after 42 years of existence, its final performance, of the B Minor Mass in St Andrew’s Holborn, having taken place a month before. The LBS committee had come to the conclusion that in the light of modern scholarship, it was no longer artistically tenable to have a 60-strong amateur choir performing with an orchestra of period instruments. Just as the Steinitz Bach Players had switched entirely from modern to Baroque instruments in the early 1980s, so it was now time to reduce the choral forces accordingly. Painful as the decision was for the former singing members to accept, some of them having been with the Society for many years, most subsequently joined other choirs and have gone on to sing different repertoire to complement their LBS experiences.
In 1990 Dr Steinitz’s widow, Margaret, founded the annual Bach festival (later named Bachfest). The programmes centre on Bach, his family and his contemporaries. Usually there is a theme, for example the composer at Weimar (1990) and at Leipzig (1992). The educational part of the society’s charitable purpose is expressed in the promotion of groups which deserve wider recognition, in the singing days for young amateur musicians with which the 1993 and 1996 festivals began, in public lectures, above all, in the presentation of works still rarely heard in public.
The highlight of the 1994 festival was the first visit to this country of the Thomanerchor Leipzig, under their new Cantor, Professor Georg-Christoph Biller. They performed the 1725 version of the St John Passion in King’s College Cambridge, Westminster Abbey, Birmingham Town Hall and Wells Cathedral. BBC Radio 3 publicised the tour and recorded one of the performances. The concerts enabled the choir to sing a Bach Passion with a period-instrument orchestra, Steinitz Bach Players, for the first time since the 18th century.
Preparations for a new century
The 1997 festival concentrated on Bach and the Romantic movement (in the figures of Mendelssohn and Brahms), which both provided the impetus for the revival of Bach’s music and was influenced by it. The next two built upon successes in the previous years in order to prepare for the Bach 250th anniversary in 2000, an occasion marked at St. James’ Palace with a ‘Bach and China’ evening in the presence of HRH The Prince of Wales and presented by the Society’s President Sir David Tang in the magnificent State Apartments.
In the first decade of the new century, the Society has continued to engage its audiences with a wide range of events promoted in the annual Bachfest. These are planned always with an eye to building on past achievements and bringing them into sharp relief with the modern age.
In 2002 the 50th anniversary of the Society’s famous UK première of Bach’s Matthäus-Passion of 1952 was marked at Bachfest with a small-scale performance of the work in St. John’s, Smith Square that invited the solo singers (who also formed the two choirs) to ‘characterise’ their parts in a dramatic semi-staged version that continued to enhance modern Bach scholarship. Once again, as in 1952, the audience participated in three settings of the Passion Chorale with words and music especially provided. This was also a Royal Occasion and given in the presence of HRH Princess Alexandra escorted by Sir David Tang and Rupert Fraser (LBS President and Vice President respectively).
Moving on, in 2005 the Bachfest series included the UK ‘live’ première performance of a newly discovered Bach aria. This had been found earlier that year in a shoe box at the Anna Amalie Library by eagle-eyed researcher Michael Maul, as part of the on-going survey of all archival and library material in central Germany being carried out by the Leipzig Bach-Archiv. The Diamond Jubilee of the Society’s foundation in November 1946 was marked in 2006 by an appearance at the Royal College of Music of Thomanerchor Leipzig, on tour here already with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. The boys sang Bach’s motet ‘Jesu, meine Freude’ from memory – a poignant choice as this was the first Bach choral work ever to have been presented in the UK (3 June 1809 directed by S. Wesley) and was also the first Bach choral work performed by the Society’s original choir at one of the inaugural concerts (directed by Paul Steinitz) in June 1947. Three years later, an 18-30 Bach Club was launched as part of Dr. Steinitz’s centenary. 2013 saw the Society presenting the UK ‘live’ première of the early version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion (1727), possible as the result of new research and the publication of the score and performing material. This was presented as part of a development policy to show the Society working today, building upon its huge legacy and with new generations of artists sharing our platform. Always willing to take part in national commemorations, “Reformation 500″ (1517-2017) was marked by Lutheran communities across the globe. Bach and most of his musical family members were dedicated Lutherans and provided music for the church and the home as a reflection of Martin Luther’s priorities. Bachfest focussed on this entirely, working with the celebrated Tenebrae Choir, lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and Steinitz Bach Players in order to contribute to the celebrations. Interrupted by Covid-19, Bachfest has been rested for nearly two years publicly, but produced four online recitals and filmed introductions and interviews in spring 2021, and will relaunch these as part of the Society’s 75th Anniversary in 2021-2022. London Bach Society will also be a patron of the Leipzig Bachfest in June 2022, something that would have been impossible at foundation in 1946.
In tandem and led by the Council of Trustees, LBS is currently embarked on a new development campaign with one of the purposes being to acquire a London ‘home’ for the Society and all its belongings. What a wonderful achievement that could be.
Seventy five years on….
Seventy five years after the foundation of the LBS, Dr Steinitz’s vision has been realised and is being taken forward. Our Artistic Director is his widow, Margaret Steinitz. The choirs used in the festivals are small and professional; the orchestra plays on period instruments; this country’s close ties with the Continent have been marked by the presence of eminent musicians such as the late Gustav Leonhardt; the participation of young performers and a substantial education programme reflects Dr Steinitz’s long association with students and a determination to persuade a new generation of Bach’s greatness. In 2010 the Bach Club played host to the charismatic and controversial pianist James Rhodes, the tickets for which were snapped up via Twitter in the space of a week as LBS embraced Social Media when promoting concerts. For its 10th Birthday, Art of Moog played to a full Bach Club in 2019, playing Bach on synthesisers and creating some beautiful sounds that were easily recognisable as JSB. How far we have come!
Outside the annual festival, Steinitz Bach Players carries out commissioned engagements, the society hires out its chamber organ and allows its valuable collection of Bach orchestral material to be used by other music organisations nationwide. In 1996, the Society’s annual Journal ‘Bach Notes’ was launched. Published in September, the Journal serves both as an outlet for the further promotion of the LBS’s own activities and an entrée into the wider world of Bach. From day to day Mrs Steinitz is also kept busy with enquiries by ‘phone and email relating to the performances of Bach’s works as well as continually planning and preparing for future events. In January 2009, she delivered a Paper entitled ‘Ways to Bach’ at the 2009 Dialogue Meeting of the Bach Network UK at Oxford www.bachnetwork.co.uk. This suggested that a greater energy was now required to make Bach, his music, life and times more readily accessible to young people and that the academic world had a vital role to play in working with Bach Societies and others in order to achieve it.
The LBS has prospered in a competitive artistic and financial climate because it has known how to adapt while staying true to its founder’s goals. It is unmoved by musical ideas that are superficially thought out, but always eager to encourage genuine exploration of and research into the Bach repertoire. Much of his work still needs vigorous promotion. The frontiers must be continually rolled back.
Footnote: See also “An Essay on our Journey to Bach”/Margaret Steinitz, The Organ Magazine, December 2014
Updated 9 August 2021.