History of the Baldwin Wallace University Bach Festival
In the Beginning
Established by Albert Riemenschneider and his wife, Selma, in 1932, the BW Bach Festival has grown from a local event to one that attracts people from all over the United States and brings international performers and Bach scholars to the BW campus every spring.
While on their way back to Berea from a Bethlehem Bach Festival, the Riemenschneiders hatched the idea for a similar festival in Cleveland. For the first BW festival, all but one of the soloists came from the Cleveland area and the chorus numbered about 100 singers (students and community residents) who rehearsed just once a week. As was the custom of the time, the works were performed in English and the audiences joined in on the choruses.
In 1975, performance changes were made, designed to present a more authentic rendering of Bach’s music, which was becoming increasingly important in the music world.
“The changes took nothing away from Albert Riemenschneider,” Warren Scharf, former Conservatory director recalled. “He was a pioneer. He did Bach when Bach was not being done. His performance standards matched what was done at the time. The changes had to do with getting the Festival into the mainstream of Bach performances.” Smaller ensembles and original language added to the authenticity of the performances.
Through the years, the BW Bach Festival has brought well known artists and scholars to the campus. Among those have been Arleen Auger, Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Seth McCoy and Derek Lee Ragin as well as perennial favorites Karl Markus and Bruce Abel. This year’s vocal soloists include Tamara Matthews, soprano; Jennifer Lane, mezzo-soprano; Stanford Olsen, tenor; Christopheren Nomura, baritone and Kevin Deas, bass-baritone.
A Reluctant Leader
Were it not for an ailing music professor, Albert Riemenschneider might never have come to head the Conservatory and ultimately establish the Bach Festival. A would-be mathematician, he was drafted as a music professor during his junior year at German Wallace College to fill in for the ill professor. Although neither Albert nor his father Karl, who was president of German Wallace, were enthusiastic about the idea, college administrators persuaded him to take the position. Upon his college graduation in 1899, he was appointed full-time music instructor and head of the department, a position he held until 1947.
To perfect his own organ techniques, Riemenschneider studied the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the most prolific organ composers of all time. As he became more familiar with Bach’s work, he was seduced by Bach’s choral works as well.
While others saved their pennies to invest in land or the stock market, Riemenschneider scrimped to invest in Bach manuscripts. Those purchases eventually led to the collection that is the basis of BW’s Riemenschneider Bach Institute.
From Casual Collection to
In a forward to the Catalog of the Emilie and Karl Riemenschneider Memorial Bach Library, Selma Riemenschneider recalled,“I feel sure that he (Albert) had no intention of making a real collection of Bach’s works and of books about him until 25 years after this period (the collection’s beginnings), though in the meantime he was constantly adding to his material. It was sometime after our marriage in 1904, when he realized what a sizable Bach collection we had, that he began to gather catalogs from prominent book dealers in the United States and abroad. He also made the acquaintance of many of these book dealers and, at every opportunity, he and I would pay them a visit.”
In one instance, Riemenschneider asked his niece, who was leaving for a honeymoon trip to France in 1946, to secure music and other Bach items from a book dealer who had held them for him during World War II.
The Riemenschneider Bach Collection was formally presented to the College following Albert Riemenschneider’s death in 1950. Until 1969, portions of the collection were dusted off and displayed during the Bach Festival, then returned to a locked room where they were seldom used.
Shortly after being named Conservatory director, Warren Scharf met with Dr. Edwin Riemenschneider, son of Albert and Selma, who was concerned about the fate of his father’s collection. Scharf brought a panel of Bach experts to Berea to assess the collection. As a result, the Riemenschneider Bach Institute was established and one of the panel members, Elinore Barber, became its first director. She also initiated the journal “Bach” in 1970, which features articles written by international Bach scholars and has subscribers in approximately 30 countries.
Today the Riemenschneider Bach Institute is housed in Merner-Pfeiffer Hall. Director Melvin Unger oversees the facility, which includes a research library, a vault (for the manuscripts and rare books) offices and listening room. Unger joined BW in 1998, following Elinore Barber’s retirement.
The Institute’s holdings have grown exponentially since its beginning and today the collection numbers more than 20,000 items. The Institute attracts music scholars from around the world, who come to the campus to study.
Chorales From the Tower
Each Bach Festival concert is preceded by a performance of the Festival Brass Choir under the direction of John Brndiar. Weather permiting, the ensemble performs from the tower of Marting Hall, announcing the festival, not only to Bach patrons, but also to the campus and Berea as well. This tradition is borrowed from the Bethlehem Festival which, in 1900, had the Moravian Trombone Choir play Bach chorales from the belfry of the Moravian church where the Bethlehem Choir sang the first American performance of the Mass in B Minor.