A less-than-magnificent reception for Bach 's "Magnificat"
On today's date in 1875, American conductor Theodore Thomas, a passionate advocate for both old and new music, led the Cincinnati May Festival chorus and orchestra in the first American performance of J.S. Bach's "Magnificat."
Bach composed this work in 1723, originally for Christmas use in Leipzig, then revised the score ten years later in 1733. The American premiere, 142 years after that, was also a reworking, since the original instrumentation was expanded for large 19th century orchestra and Bach probably would have been astonished at the size of the Cincinnati chorus performing his music.
Bach's "Magnificat" served as the opener for a Festival performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The Beethoven was a huge success, and Cincinnati newspapers of the day referred to "Ninth Symphomania" breaking out in their city.
The newspapers were less impressed with Bach's "Magnificat." The Cincinnati Commercial review opined: "The work is difficult in the extreme… most of the chorus abounds with rambling sub-divisions. We considering the 'Magnificat' the weakest thing the chorus has undertaken… possessing no dramatic character and incapable of conveying the magnitude of the labor that has been expended upon its inconsequential intricacies."
Well, no one who actually heard that 1875 performance is still alive to ask whether it was really as terrible as all that, and in any case, we suspect American audiences and performers have a gotten a little more used to Bach's "inconsequential intricacies" since then.