Bach in the USA

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Friday, April 21, 2017

In 1863, the price of The New York Times was three cents, and many plunked down their pennies to read front-page news about "the rebellion"—what we now call the Civil War.

But if you were a new music aficionado back in 1863, you probably turned to the concert listings on the "Amusements" page. One of Verdi's newest operas, "Un Ballo in Maschera," had just closed at the Academy of Music, and the contemporary composer-pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk had given a concert of his latest works the day before, too.

After all that "modern" music, maybe you were in the mood for some really OLD music. The enterprising duo of William Mason and Theodore Thomas was offering a "Soiree of Chamber Music" at Dodworth's Hall on April 21, 1863, and the program included the first public performance in America of the Concerto in C Major for Two Keyboards and Strings by J.S. Bach. Now this was REALLY old stuff—a work that predated the birth of America in 1776 by a good 50 years!

The Times did not review this Bach premiere, but the next documented American performance in Boston in 1877 was described in Dwight's Journal as a "cheerful, lightsome, everyday sort of composition," with the reviewer adding that (quote) "Bach's everyday is something finer than the common mortal's… the work [was] full of vigor and life, the best of tonics…"