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How the St Matthew Passion came to Australia

An academic symposium on the first Australian performances of the J.S. Bach's St Matthew Passion, initiated by the Australian Bach Soceity, was an event long wished for by the musicologists Dr Janice Stockigt and Dr Samantha Owens.

On 15 September 2012, several leading early music scholars gave a fascinating insight into the first Australian performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Dr Andreas Loewe (photo), Chaplain of Trinity Col-lege, asked an audience of some 50 people “What happened to lead to a Melbourne performance of this previously unknown work being la-belled ‘the greatest of all the holiday gatherings’ in 1875?” According to Dr Janice Stockigt from The University of Melbourne, Mendelssohn’s resurrection of Bach, together with reports published in The Musical Times, had sparked British interest, which in turn influenced Australia. “The concert illustrates the rapidity with which Melbourne society emulated what was seen to be in vogue in England,” added Stockigt.

The first full performance of the St. Matthew Passion in the Southern Hemisphere took place at the Melbourne Town Hall in 1875. Conducted by Joseph Summers, it was described in The Argus as “not in that condition of preparedness in which it should have been when such a grand audience was met together to be present at the first performance of it.” 

Dr Jula Szuster from The University of Adelaide painted a vivid picture of the first Adelaide performance on 28 May 1903. In Brisbane, as reported by Dr Samantha Owens from The University of Queensland, parts of the St. Matthew Passion were performed as early as 1874. However, the next Brisbane recital was not for nearly 50 years, partially due to the prevailing anti-German sentiment during the First World War.  The instrumentation of the early performances is fascinating. In Melbourne, Joseph Summers added massed brass and percussion instruments to the score. The ensemble in Adelaide included two string orchestras and an organ but no wind players, while the 1874 performance in Brisbane featured a double quartet of strings.

In her insightful response, Professor Stephanie Trigg from the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions focused on how Australian settlers perceived this “extraordinary music about death and passion.” Professor Kerry Murphy, Head of Musicology at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, gave the closing remarks: “Today’s Symposium once again illustrates that while it is easy to view geographical and cultural isolation as a problem, in fact it can be a great advantage since it could lead to startlingly fresh understandings of mainstream European repertoire, with audience’s gaps in knowledge enabling them to receive works relatively free from preconceptions.”

After the Symposium, the guests were treated to a performance of Bach’s Cantata “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele” (BWV 180) at Trinity College Chapel. Professor Graham Lieschke gave a lively introduction to the recital, which featured the Early Voices and the Baroque Ensemble of the Early Music Studio, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, under the baton of Greg Dikmans. The results of the Symposium will be presented at next year’s Bach Network UK meeting in Warsaw. Thank you to all those involved for a fascinating and memorable afternoon!

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