It Could Happen to You

By John Hertz: One-third through Henry Hardy’s monumental four-volume Letters of the monumental Isaiah Berlin (IB 1909-1997; Flourishing 1928-1946, Enlightening 1946-1960, Building 1960-1975, Affirming 1975-1997, some 3.000 pages, completed 2015), I came across this innocently-presented footnote (Enlightening p. 197 n. 3).

The Siena Musical Week was founded in 1939 to introduce to wider audiences undervalued composers of the past, starting with the then little-known Vivaldi.


One cannot accept Dr. Hardy’s modesty about these notes, they’re wonderful.

About the subject, on the next page is a 1950 letter to Bernard Berenson, in which IB says, helplessly (if you will allow me to say so) self-referential, “my head in a great whirl with all the ideas, images, glimpses of persons & relationships, forms of life which, if you will allow me to say so, you scatter with so prodigal & unreckoning a hand.”

4 thoughts on “It Could Happen to You

  1. From what I have heard, J.S. Bach had been lost to history until he was rediscovered by Mendelssohn. I still have problems believing that. Maybe there’s an SFF writer out there who turns all the literature out there into a footnote to greatness.

  2. Many of Bach’s works stayed in print continuously. Here’s a paragraph from an article on Roger Norrington presenting the (severely cut and re-orchestrated and re-harmonized) Mendelssohn version of the St. Matthew’s Passion of Bach:

    The Matthew Passion that we know and love might never have seen the light of day were it not for that performance, though the frequently cited belief that Mendelssohn single-handedly unearthed Bach’s entire output is not true. “It’s wrong when people say he wasn’t heard after his death in 1750,” says Norrington. “He was known quite well. All composers had the Preludes and Fugues and the Art of Fugue and the small chambery stuff. It was the big pieces, the John Passion, the Matthew Passion, the B Minor Mass that weren’t known.” Copies of Bach’s major choral works seemingly circulated in rare manuscript copies, more talked about than ever seen. “Beethoven knew about the B Minor,” says Norrington. “He tried to get hold of a copy when he was studying for the Missa Solemnis, but he couldn’t get one. Haydn had a copy of the B Minor, but not of the Matthew.”

  3. It was sort of a qualified claim when it was made, and I think subsequent repeats of it tended to overlook the qualification. It’s like when someone from Disney would tell a reporter a fact like, “SNOW WHITE was the first full-length cel-animated motion picture,” and it would get repeated as “SNOW WHITE was the first animated feature.” This was the first time I went and looked it up, but I’ve been aware that Beethoven and Mozart, for example, knew Bach’s work (Mozart even arranged some of it), so the claim didn’t quite jibe with that.

    Bach’s star has fallen at times, and in various ways. For some time, CPE (or KPE) Bach was “the” Bach to the musical world, but that may have been just when he was still around, or when his most notable pupils were at the top of their game. I’m not finding names of any pupils in Wikipedia, and I’m too lazy to go look in Grove’s, but Wikipedia does say, “Bach’s work itself influenced the work of, among others, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn,” as well as mentioning that CPE presented some works by his old man (Schumann compared the two, giving preference to JSB).

    Wilhelm Friedemann was another son who made good, and there are pieces by several other Bachs, before and after Johann Sebastian. JCB wrote a lovely little Anglaise that I think of almost every week at the Irish jam because there are one or two pieces we play there that have moments of similarity, and I will just up and play the thing there one of these times.

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