Steel, Silk, Speakeasies – and Bach?
by NCM Historian Martha Capwell Fox
Steel plants, silk mills, speakeasies—the Bach Choir of Bethlehem and its Bach Festival have outlasted them all. September is Classical Music Month, so here’s a tale of a time two of those worlds intersected.
Bethlehem has been the home of the Bach Choir, the oldest such choral music group in the US, since 1898. Two years later, the Choir presented the first American performance of Bach’s famous Mass in B Minor. Since then, the opportunity to hear this and other musical treasures in live concert has drawn tens of thousands of music lovers from around the world to Bethlehem for the annual Bach Festival.
Each Festival attracts its share of notables, both musical and otherwise. In 1924, they included Baltimore’s famed journalist and professional curmudgeon H. L. Mencken, and his friend and publisher Alfred A. Knopf. In the Roaring 20s, South Bethlehem was noted for its concentration of speakeasies, strip clubs, and brothels. Thus, as Joan Campion wrote in Saturday Night on the Southside, the annual Baroque music fest in Lehigh’s Packer Chapel was “incongruously perched on the far side of what was in fact a red-light district.”
Hoping for a bit of liquid refreshment after the concert, Mencken and Knopf were taken to a speakeasy by a cab driver. Since they didn’t know the password to the illegal bar, the suspicious doorkeeper refused to let them in. Finally, Mencken, waving the score of the B Minor Mass they had just heard, convinced him that they were musicians, not federal agents and he and Knopf got their drinks. And then presumably went home sated with beautiful music and bootleg gin.
After a COVID-virtual Festival in 2020, the 114th edition of the Bethlehem Bach Festival will be held in May, 2022. Visit https://bach.org/bach-festival/ for more information!