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For the Love of Bach ... Play On!

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(c) David Newton-Dunn (2014)

This Father's Day, June 15th, at Richardson Auditorium on Princeton University's campus, two giants of J.S. Bach scholarship and dedicated ambassadors for his Cantata repertoire, in particular, were brought together by a shared passion for the genius of Bach and a vision that, over the course of several decades, has endeavored to deliver his timeless music to the hearts and souls of many around the world.

William H. Scheide and Sir John Eliot Gardiner's respective scholarly curiosities and untamable musical energies inspired each to found vocal and instrumental ensembles (decades apart) that would go on to perform at the time little-known repertoire and remain in the music-historical canon as the Bach Aria Group and Monteverdi Choir. (Maestro Gardiner would continue this frontier-opening streak by founding two more iconic ensembles following Monteverdi Choir's success: the English Baroque Soloists and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.)

A little more about each. William ("Bill") Scheide--Princeton-based 100-year-young Bach scholar, philanthropist, bibliophile, and humanitarian--was born in Philadelphia. Having grown up in a household passionate about music, culture, rare books, and the well-being of humanity, Scheide went on to major in history at Princeton University (Class of 1936) as the school's music department had not yet come to formation at the time. Continuing his studies on to the graduate level at Columbia University, Scheide earned an M.A. in music in 1940 and embarked on a decades-long rediscovery of Bach through epochal concert tours with the Bach Aria Group--pairing soloists like Marian Anderson, Jan Peerce, Richard Tucker, and many others in unlikely polyphonic dialogues upon intimate college town stages and in taste-setting cultural capitals of the world, and through his groundbreaking contributions to scholarly journals--becoming the first American to publish in the Bach Jahrbuch, while initiating efforts to promote and reward Bach scholarship at academic institutions worldwide.

In a strikingly parallel development across the Atlantic, John Eliot Gardiner's initial music education was inspired by family music-making in his native Dorset, UK. He, too, having majored in history at King's College, Cambridge, ventured into the music performance arena with a larger-than-life mission to reawaken contemporary audiences' joy in internalizing early music repertoire. Having found himself under the tutelage of Thurston Dart and Nadia Boulanger, Gardiner was emboldened to take a leap of faith into the sound-world of early polyphony with a conducting debut of Monteverdi's "Vespers"--an event that would become a stepping stone on the way to one of the most prolific careers witnessed. In a pilgrimage similar in spirit to Scheide's Bach Aria Group tours, Gardiner immersed the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in an unprecedented 52-week tour of Europe and the US, ushering in the Leipzig Kantor's sacred cantatas into the 21st Century with renewed energy and spirit.

The link that enabled the two men to come together--marking Gardiner's Princeton debut--is the Bach portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann (1748) with which Gardiner grew up in the UK and which is now housed in Princeton, under Scheide's watchful eye.

Scheide institutionalized Bach scholarship in the US by enabling the work of people like Arthur Mendel and Christoph Wolff, facilitating in the founding of the American Bach Society and Princeton University's Music Department, while assuming stewardship of and adding to a world-renowned collection of rare books & manuscripts from the Guttenberg Bible to the Bill of Rights and autograph scores from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven to Faure and Wagner, housed at the Scheide Library at Princeton.

Gardiner, who continues to educate and inspire through a multifaceted discography of over 250 recordings and a dizzying number of concerts throughout the world, recently published "Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven" (KNOFP, 2013) and just assumed leadership of the famed Bach-Archiv in Leipzig, where Scheide he is a founding curator.

Through the decades, their work--born out of a healthy marriage of intellectual curiosity, risk-taking, and spiritual sensitivity--has stood the test of time and given rise to many an aspiring performer and scholar. Let us hope that such exemplary cross-generational, cross-continental collaborations cease not in our times and continue to shape and propel all children of culture through pioneering discoveries on to greater heights.