Chapter One: A Time For Bach: The Story of the Bach Aria Group (1946-1996) by Sara Lambert Bloom

Populated by musical virtuosi and intellectual geniuses with personalities even bigger than their talents, the Bach Aria Group (BAG) played and sang its way across America and abroad for a half-century. From its inception in 1946, wonderfully complex factors were at play within the vast and rich contributions of the Bach Aria Group, contributions that commanded the attention of the musical public from its inception in 1946.

Behind the intense beauty of the performances is a story of equal intensity and beauty, the story of the BAG, its creator and artistic director, William H. Scheide, his successor, Samuel Baron, and the musicians they brought together to study, rehearse, perform, broadcast, and record the music of a single composer who gave us such a wealth of treasures.

The central mission of the ensemble is encoded in its name: The Bach Aria Group. “TO SERVE BACH: New Aria Group Organized to Perform Music That is Seldom Heard,” heralds the article written by Mr. Scheide for the New York Times (Sunday, January 25, 1948). But why was it important enough to inspire William Scheide to spend most of his working career and a small fortune to bring these arias to the public?

Run, run, run. Run, run, run, run; run, run, run (to get your bread).
Run, run, run. Run, run, run, run; run, run, run (to get it all).
Run, run, run. Run, run, run, run; run, run, run (or you’ll be dead).

The British-American conductor, Raymond Leppard, described vividly the role that the revival of eighteenth-century music played in healing the American nation after the Second World War. In his book, Authenticity in Music, Leppard wrote of the dissolution of the inner life of Americans, the dissolution of their heretofore devotion to the ideal of building a present superior to any ever known, with the promise of better and better life to come. This vision was interrupted by the First World War but somehow it had managed to survive; now it seemed totally lost amid the realization and fear of the terrible things that were done during the Second on a scale never before imagined. Slow and steady progress toward a “Celestial City on earth,” where conditions were comfortable and life was just, was challenge enough, “but to rekindle optimism and assuage fears after the blaze and brilliance of Hiroshima was quite another thing.” (1) It was Leppard’s observation that Americans yearned for “almost anything that bespeaks an older, enduring value, something that has endured for years, maybe for centuries, and can still be counted valuable,” (2) to recapture some sort of permanence after the horrors of such massive, man-made destruction and the evil and atrocities of the Holocaust.

No one faith came to replace the older creeds. The single, binding factor was the fear and sense of peril. The search for reassurance took myriad different courses. Cults flourished as never before, all purporting to provide a solution, sustaining faith. Some, perhaps, achieve something along those lines; some use the needs of the young for their own profit. The more emotional, evangelical religions have fared better than the authoritarian ones. Some people, the more politically minded, make do with anti-nuclear marches and campaigns against various social injustices, real and imaginary. In extremis, some take to terrorism. More widespread than any of them, and more important because it can be incorporated in all of them, is the rediscovery of past values. . . . The realization that music before 1800 is still able to communicate its vitality in present performance apparently undiminished by the intervening years has put music among the most vivid and potent instruments of hope that all is not and will not be lost, that some values are constant and likely to remain so. (3)

MOMENT OF TRUTH: A gray Sunday afternoon, a crowd filing into the Curran Theater. On stage, against a faded green curtain, only a few unmatched chairs and folding metal music racks–the kind you remember from your school days. An oddly assorted foursome files onstage–broad and corn-fed Eileen Farrell, tiny Jan Peerce (wearing thick glasses), heroic Carol Smith, towering Norman Farrow–followed by a pianist, oboist, flutist, cellist, and violinist.

This is the Bach Aria Group. The overhead lights blaze down pitilessly, exposing every wrinkle, every hollow–but then the music begins: the clean geometrics, the soaring lyricism of Johann Sebastian Bach, and suddenly it doesn’t matter how they look or how they are presented. For two hours, timeless perfection fills the theater–and, obliquely, all the pretensions of our era, all the sugar-coating over emptiness are laid low.

At the end, the crowd walks slowly out of the Curran as from a cathedral, filled with truth and beauty. This is what Bach, performed by nine artists on a bare stage, can create–this, and the feeling that all is not yet lost.
— Herb Caen, San Francisco Chronicle, c. 1952

Just as the war was ending, a young scholar-musician born in Philadelphia on January 6, 1914, raised in his ancestral home in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and who had immersed himself in the study of the music of J.S. Bach since the mid-1930s, had the idea that he could do something to help.

The twentieth century has received spiritual shocks that make the tranquil experience of the nineteenth seem ridiculous. No more cataclysmic shattering of a world could be imagined. And yet the protagonists of music, that small minority for whom music has presumably become the serious matter of their lives, continue to propagate this shattered world as though it still existed unimpaired,

Mr. Scheide wrote in 1946 in an unpublished article, “The Need for a New Music,” that shows both his unwillingness to stand idly by and his faith in the power of a certain kind of music.

Nearly simultaneously with the founding the Bach Aria Group, William Scheide commissioned a short film through which he announced the mission and revealed the inner workings of the Group under his direction. A Time for Bach was written by Marc Siegel and photographed by Boris Kaufman, with Baroque sequences drawn by Philip Stapp; it was produced, directed, and edited by Paul Falkenberg, all respected professionals of the day. With the Group’s newly gathered musicians making what was probably their first and last acting appearances (in alphabetical order: Julius Baker, flute; Robert Bloom, oboe; Jean Carlton, soprano; Norman Farrow, bass-baritone; Bernard Greenhouse, cello; Robert Harmon, tenor; Sergius Kagen, piano; Margaret Tobias, alto; Maurice Wilk, violin), the twenty-minute film begins with fanciful composites of eighteenth-century engravings animated by Stapp while Bach’s great C Major Fugue is heard, performed by the organist Carl Weinrich. Overlaid scrolls the written message:

Few periods in history could be more different in mood than the time of Bach and our own. The joy of living of baroque culture and a transcendent religious faith characterize Bach’s life and work.

It is a far cry from the harshness and furious tempo of the world in which we live. Many creative forces, however, challenge our time, trying to reconcile its contradictory elements.

Within this context, the film traces the rehearsal work of the BAG, a unique ensemble of vocalists and instrumentalists, first organized in 1946 by William H. Scheide. In reintroducing the little-known arias from Bach’s more than 200 extant cantatas, the Group has offered to radio, record, and concert audiences a new Bach. . . . gay and buoyant yet spiritual and deeply moving.

The Group’s work represents an attempt to bridge two centuries and to bring to the present day something of the strength, the inspiration, and the peace of mind of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Cut to the harshness and furious tempo of postwar America. With a snare drum tapping out a frantic cadence, the audio sharply shifts from the magnificent organ work to a screaming factory whistle while the camera pans down the Empire State Building, the still fresh American icon whose record height stood until the building of the World Trade Center decades later, and then traces up an industrial smoke stack. Ordinary people are shown hurrying amid symbols of both the mundane and the extraordinary events of their daily lives—a telephone, a tornado, an army tank; pipelines and protesters; a wrecking ball, and Babe Ruth running the bases; marathon dancing; trains and apartment buildings and mills; crowded masses during travel, rest, and work. The drum’s incessant beating accompanies the text of the film’s breathless chant:

Run, run, run. Run, run, run, run; run, run, run (to get your bread).
Run, run, run. Run, run, run, run; run, run, run (to get it all).
Run, run, run. Run, run, run, run; run, run, run (or you’ll be dead).

But then, symbolically, blinds, doors, and windows are opened to the sounds of Bach’s serene oboe obbligato from the aria from Cantata 82: “Ich habe genug” (“It is enough”). The camera pans across men and women at work on sculptures and drawings, pursuing academics, the literary and medical arts, the acts of voting and working together as citizens, capturing the sense of enlightenment and renewal for which the country was striving after the war.