Erwin Bodky, founder of the Cambridge Society for early Music, was born in East Prussia n 1896. By the age of twelve he was known as a child prodigy on the piano, and his later music education included degrees from the Preussische Hochschule für Musik and the Scharwenka Conservatory in Berlin. Among his teachers were Richard Strauss, Ernst von Dohnányi, and Ferruccio Busoni. He performed under Wilhelm Furtwängler and Bruno Walter, and was twice awarded the prestigious Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Prize.
While still in Berlin, Bodky grew interested in the interpretation of early music, and more particularly in the music of J. S. Bach. He and Busoni parted ways when the latter discovered that Bodky was performing from urtexts and not Busoni’s arrangements. Bodky was able to borrow early keyboard instruments from the Berlin Collection and eventually obtained a harpsichord from a local builder. In the 1920’s Bodky made some of the first authentic instrument recordings of early music for L’Anthologie Sonore using an original Ruckers harpsichord. In 1932, he published his first book, Der Vortrag alter Klavier Musik (Performance Practice of Early Keyboard Music).
In 1938 Erwin Bodky came to America, where his talents, optimism, and determination were soon appreciated. His first position was on the faculty of the Longy Scho_ol of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, teaching thoroughbass and music history. In 1950 he became the first professor of music at Brandeis University, and shortly thereafter began work on his last book Interpretation of Bach’s Keyboard Music, which was published in 1960 by Harvard University Press.
Upon his arrival at the Longy School of Music, Bodky began conducting the school’s orchestra in early music concerts at Harvard’s Germanic Museum. In 1942 he and a group of supporters formed a committee to continue the series in the Houghton Library at Harvard. The next year, the Cambridge Collegium Musicum was formed with Wolfe Wolfinsohn, Iwan D’Archambeau, and Erwin Bodky as its nucleus, performing with guest artists for larger works. These concerts were groundbreaking, communicating the findings of scholarly research through persuasive performances. By the 1949-50 season the audiences had grown so large that it was necessary to hold the events in Sanders Theatre, and in 1952, the Collegium was reorganized as the Cambridge Society for Early Music. Erwin Bodky died in 1958, leaving behind him the memory of a man of great purpose and a Society which has continued to this day in the pursuit of his high ideals.
The Cambridge Society for Early Music is America’s oldest organization for the promotion of music up to the early 19th century. From the very first concerts i_n the 1940’s Erwin Bodky presented audiences with programs mixing familiar and little-known names, from Bach, Scarlatti, and Rameau to Reicha, Kozeluch, and Punto. The late Harvard Professor of Music, G. Wallace Woodworth, wrote that it was Bodky “who stated the aim of the Society – to offer the musical public of Boston and Cambridge a series of concerts devoted to the music of the Renaissance, the Baroque, and the early Classical periods, and to perform that music in a manner faithful to the style of the period in which it was written. It was he who interpreted that ideal, not in terms of dry pedantry, but in live music-making, which sought to bring forth in our day the deepest beauties of the older art. It was he who believed passionately that the listeners of the twentieth century would respond to that beauty, as they have, with everlasting gratitude to the founder for that life-giving experience.”
Over the years since Bodky’s death the Cambridge Society for Early Music has continued in the spirit of its founder, presenting solo, chamber, choral, and orchestral concerts of early music. It has dug deeply into the riches of five centuries of music, educating, enlightening, entertaining, and musically satisfying its audiences. Performances have included local, national, and foreign musicians. These have ranged from psaltery and fortepiano soloists to viol consorts and lute song ensembles, from soloists such as Ralph Kirkpatrick, Frans Brüggen, and Gustav Leonhardt, to orchestras such as Concentus Musicus Wien under Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardner.
The Chamber Music by Candlelight Series was begun by the CSEM in 1981, presenting concerts in small halls, allowing audiences a contact with the music and musicians such as would have been common in the past, but which is rarely affordable in this age of the large concert hall. Each of these concerts tours over the period of a week through several communities outside the Boston-Cambridge area, reaching new and expanding audiences.
The Society is particularly proud of its encouragement of talented young musicians. In 1968, in honor of Erwin Bodky’s pioneering efforts, the Society established the Bodky Competition. In three decades over sixty musicians have received the Bodky Prize, and many of them are now leaders in the field of early music with extensive performing and recording careers.
The Cambridge Society for Early Music, the first such society in America, has contributed enormously to establishing the Boston area’s reputation as the early music capital of America. It has acted as a focal point for greater understanding and appreciation of the vast repertory in this field and has inspired other such societies across the country. Building on its own past, the Society looks towards a future with many more advances to come and carries forward its commitment to making the great and wonderful music of our past a continuing source of enrichment for our present.