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Note: This column is to be read with Bach’s music playing quietly in the background – perhaps the Aria from his “Goldberg Variations” for solo piano.

Prologue

This dialogue is a fictional conversation based on historical facts. The characters are the great German classical music composer and conductor Felix Mendelssohn and his son. Felix Mendelssohn was grandson of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86), that legendary genius of philosophy.

Felix Mendelssohn was a key figure in resurrecting the music of Johann Sebastian Bach from obscurity with his famous performance in 1829 of Bach’s supreme masterwork –”The Passion According to St. Matthew.” Prior to this historic performance, for almost a century Bach’s music lay in boxes in the cellars of the German cathedrals where he once performed. This short invention pays homage to … The Forgotten Genius.

{Setting – In the study at the home of Felix Mendelssohn, Leipzig, Germany, 1828}

Dialogue characters

  • Felix Mendelssohn

  • Mendelssohn’s young son

Narrative

Son: Father! Whose music is this in these old, dusty, dirty, moldy boxes?


Mendelssohn: {As tears begin to well up in his eyes and a tremble in his voice} My son – my dear, dear son. This music is by a very, very great composer who lived many years ago.


Son: What is his name?

Mendelssohn: Johann Sebastian Bach.

Son: Where did he live, Father?

Mendelssohn: He was born in Eisenach, Germany, in 1685. He died in 1750.

Son: Where did Bach work?

Mendelssohn: He worked right here in the city of Leipzig, Germany, at the Cathedral of St. Thomas Church, only a few blocks from here.

Son: Where did you get these boxes of old, dusty, dirty, moldy music from, Father?

Mendelssohn: I found this music in the basement of the Cathedral of St. Thomas Church down the street where Bach used to work, son.

Son: Father, why did they put Bach’s music in these old, dusty, dirty, moldy boxes in the basement of the church?

Son: {highly inquisitive, looking up into his father’s eyes} Father?! … Was Bach a bad man?

Mendelssohn: {with tears streaming down his face now} No, son … no. Bach was not a bad man, he was a very, very good man!

Son: Father, they can’t play Bach’s music in the basement of that church, can they Father?

Mendelssohn: No, son, they can’t play his music while the music stays in those old boxes in the basement of the church.

Son: Father, why are you crying? Did I do something bad?

Mendelssohn: No, son. You did nothing wrong. I cry tears of joy and tears of sadness.

Son: Tears of sadness, and joy? … But father, I-I-I don’t understand.

Mendelssohn: Yes, son. My tears of joy are for the magnificent discovery I’ve made in finding this music of Bach.

{Proclamation style} Johann Sebastian Bach was the greatest composer, violinist, organist, choirmaster and harpsichord player of his day, and the more I read and play his music – this music in these old, dusty, dirty, moldy boxes – the more I realize that he was the greatest composer and musician that ever lived, yea, he was the greatest composer that will ever live.

Son: Father, then why do you cry the tears of sadness?

Mendelssohn: Son, because Bach, like many truly great individuals in history, Jesus Christ, for example, were not appreciated in their day. He was not appreciated by his own people. Remember the Bible verse I taught you last week?

A prophet is not without honor,

except in his own country, and in his own house.

~ Matthew 13:57

Son: Father, why didn’t the people appreciate Bach’s music?

Mendelssohn: Son, that is a very, very hard and complex question. I’ll do my best to answer it. You see, times were changing during the time Bach lived in. Bach lived during the Baroque Period of music history where great artists glorified God with their works. Likewise, the Renaissance Period before was a time where everything man did was dedicated to God.

Bach’s death in 1750 ended the Baroque Period and a new worldview emerged – the Age of Enlightenment, where men consciously and purposely sought to free themselves from following God’s laws. Man now saw himself as autonomous, independent, secular, humanist and liberated! Bach’s Christian-based music was now considered out of style with the times.

Son: Father, but how can man be free without God?

Mendelssohn: He can’t be free, son. Man thinks he is free, but he’s actually a slave:

  • A slave to his passions;

  • A slave to his lusts;

  • A slave to materialism;

  • A slave to sex, power, money, influence;

  • A slave to what people say, think and believe, not to what is good, virtuous and honorable, despite what the people say;

  • A slave to his own achievements.

Son: Father, what piece of music is that on your desk?

Mendelssohn: Son, this is a very, very special piece of music. This is Bach’s original manuscript to his “Passion According to Saint Matthew.” It was written for two large four-voice choirs, a boy’s choir and large orchestra, which includes full strings, woodwinds, brass instruments and tympani.

{Proclamation style} IT IS ONE OF BACH’S SUPREME MASTERPIECES AND ONE OF THE GREATEST PIECES OF MUSIC YET WRITTEN!

Son: Was that the music in one of those old, dusty, dirty, moldy boxes, father?

Mendelssohn: Yes, son. Yes, it was.

Son: {with urgency}But Father! Why was the greatest music yet written kept in those old, dusty, dirty, moldy boxes? Why, Father?! … {looking up at his father} Why?

Mendelssohn: {pause, big sigh}I imagine because those people who conclusively believed in the Age of Enlightenment weren’t very enlightened, were they, son?

Son: No, Father, those bad people who put Bach’s music in those old, dusty, dirty, moldy boxes were not very enlightened at all!

Adopted from Essay No. 24 of my book, “Beyond the Veil: Essays in the Dialectical Style of Socrates” (2000, 2004).



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