Composers Datebook®

Mendelssohn dusts off an old classic

Composers Datebook - March 11, 2024


On today’s date in 1829, a 20-year-old German composer named Felix Mendelssohn conducted the first public performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in almost a hundred years. Earlier, Mendelssohn had written to a friend:

“You may know from the papers that I intend to perform the Passion, by Sebastian Bach, a very beautiful and worthy piece of church music from the last century, on March 11 at the Berlin Academy of Music. I ask if it would be possible for you to grant us the pleasure of your company that evening ... to honor an old master and dignify our celebration by your presence.”

Mendelssohn’s 1829 performance sparked a revival of interest in Bach’s music, generally considered too unmelodic, mathematical, dry and incomprehensible for the audiences in Mendelssohn’s day. It really took some doing for Mendelssohn to pry the score of Bach’s Passion from the Berlin musician who owned it, and who said it was a total waste of time to perform such an outmoded, unfashionable piece of music.

But, in fact, the performance was so well received that Bach’s Passion was performed again 10 days later, to even greater acclaim, on March 21, the anniversary of Bach’s birth.

Music Played in Today's Program

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): ‘St. Matthew Passion’; Netherlands Bach Society; Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra; Ton Koopman, cond.

On This Day


  • 1876 - American composer Carl Ruggles, in Marion, Mass.;

  • 1897 - American composer Henry Cowell, in Menlo Park, Calif.;


  • 1791 - Haydn: Symphony No. 92, conducted by the composer, at the first of his London concerts; Haydn had composed this symphony at the request of a French count in 1788-89, and presumably its first performance took place in Paris around that time; The symphony's nickname, "Oxford," derives from a July 7, 1791, performance conducted by Haydn at the Sheldonian Theater at Oxford University, where Haydn was awarded an honorary degree;

  • 1830 - Bellini: opera I Capuleti e I Montecchi (The Capulets and Montagues), in Venice at the Teatro la Fenice;

  • 1851 - Verdi: opera Rigoletto, in Venice at the Teatro La Fenice;

  • 1867 - Verdi: opera Don Carlos (first French-language version in 5 acts) at the Paris Opéra;

  • 1886 - Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony (after Byron), in Moscow (Gregorian date: Mar. 23);

  • 1888 - Dvorak: Symphony No. 2, in Prague; This symphony was composed in 1865;

  • 1915 - Ravel: ballet Ma Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose), at the Paris Opéra; This orchestral score is based on an earlier Ravel work of the same name for two pianos;

  • 1917 - Respighi: tone-poem The Fountains of Rome, in Rome;

  • 1929 - Colin McPhee: Concerto for Piano with Wind Octet, in Boston;

  • 1999 - Corigliano: A Dylan Thomas Trilogy, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with soloists and the National Symphony, Leonard Slatkin conducting;


  • 1829 - Mendelssohn conducts a revival performance of J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passio" in Berlin.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®