When I was first invited to attend the Bach Choir of Bethlehem’s Christmas Concert in Advent 2014, I had no idea that that and the Bach Festival in May would become annual traditions. I believe that I have missed only one year since then, and now my wife has become as attached to these events as I am. From the gusto with which the people of Bethlehem celebrate the Christmas season, the liturgy celebrated in the local Moravian Church—which includes a prayer for the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II—and the spirit of the Bach Festival, now in its 112th year, one can readily grasp the vitality of tradition in this originally German city—and it’s infectious, I can attest.
I recently spent an afternoon at the 92nd Street Y, listening to Angela Hewitt play the Goldberg Variations, the second recital of a pair which began with the First Book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The hall was packed for both concerts. The audience remained raptly silent during both. This afternoon every single member of the audience who was capable of standing was on his feet, expressing sincere gratitude for the great music they had just heard. There was a kind of religion in this, and it brought Jews, Christians, agnostics, and atheists together to hear the greatest of all music, which people who know it regard with spiritual fervor. This is the third year of Ms. Hewitt's Bach cycle, which will continue next season, overlapping with Garrick Ohlsson's traversal of the complete piano music of Brahms. That is how J. S. Bach is cultivated in the neighborhood where I live.
These weeks following following Easter have proven rich in musical events that transcend the usual rationales behind public performances, usually having something to do with attracting large crowds to hear prestigious musicians in prestigious venues, or the annual ritual of Handel's Messiah or one of Bach's Passions. I'm thinking of special occasions, either serving some higher human purpose or deeply rooted in the culture of a particular place—for example, a recent performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Westchester County, which was not only outstanding in itself, but held to benefit an especially inspiring cause...of which more in another place soon. I've already written about the special power of the Bach performances in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which have continued under various local auspices since at least 1823.
The Bach Choir of Bethlehem surely must be one of the most extraordinary musical institutions in the world. Situated a small city with an important industrial history, now entirely in the past, the Bach Choir has a tradition connecting it with a point in the performance history of Bach's music which antedates the Mendelssohnian Bach Revival by six years. Bethlehem can also be proud that this venerable institution did not emerge from the indulgences of the city's wealthiest families, but from the religious traditions of the Moravian Protestants who settled there in the 18th century. Following the precepts of Martin Luther, they held their musical traditions in high esteem.
Where was the first documented performance of a Bach cantata in this country? Where were the St. John Passion, the Christmas Oratorio, the B Minor Mass, and the Art of Fugue first performed complete here? Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.