A present-day successor to Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Christoph Biller has directed Leipzig's St. Thomas Boys Choir for over twenty years. Deutsche Welle spoke with the Thomaskantor about his post.
DW: You are the 16th Thomaskantor succeeding Johann Sebastian Bach. A huge legacy. Is it a burden too?
Georg Christoph Biller: Granted, it's not easy. But if one were to continually dwell on the subject, one would only feel paralyzed, unable to do anything. I don't think about it all the time, but instead, allow myself to be inspired by it.
What are the things you have to do as the Thomaskantor?
Not much has changed since Bach's time. One is not only an artist and a conductor, but also has to take care of finances, education and many other things. I also compose, for instance. And I'm also part of the artistic board of directors of the Bachfest Leipzig.
Why does Bach continue to fascinate the thousands of people who come to Leipzig's Bach Festival and reverently listen to concerts in the church and on the market square?
Bach monument in front of St. Thomas' Church
One singer explained the difference between Handel and Bach to a Korean television crew just a few days ago. He said: "Handel wrote for the people, Bach, for the universe. And there's something to that! But one can see that Bach was also capable of writing for the people, such as with the popular "Wachet auf" cantata. It's a really catchy tune!
Do you believe this universal aspect also incorporates people of other religions? We view Bach as the Protestant composer. Or can one separate Bach from Protestant tradition?
One can. That's the mystery of Bach's music - even if it is based on Lutherism, it can still reach all cultures in all parts of the world!
How do your St. Thomas Boy Choir members respond to Bach's music?
Half of the choir members actually come from homes where religion isn't practiced. When I took up this post, I thought that was one thing I could change. But it's reality. But parochial or not, no singer can remain unmoved by Bach. I just try to ensure that the content is understood as well as possible. And children are certainly at an advantage because they soak things up a lot quicker than adults - without so much of a filter. Children understand a lot!
The choir members seem to completely identify with the choir and its traditions. Do you have to motivate them?
For me, music is authenticity! In every phase. And this authenticity must be lived out. I want to get that across to children. Of course, they always try out their tricks. I tell the boys the truth, directly, and then I realize again and again: I'm on my own. Most teachers and parents don't seem to have the courage to put authenticity above everything else. So we have to teach the boys pretty much everything essential. And I think it's disastrous when children get the sense from most of the teachers and people around them that when they tell the truth, they will only be at a disadvantage in life. That is a really bad message!
In the area of music, the term "authenticity" is often used within the context of historical performance practice. Here in Leipzig, you're really at the source of Bach scholarship. Do you also study source materials?
That's one factor. But that's not authenticity in and of itself. If I employ authentic peformance practices, that doesn't necessarily make me authentic!
You've spent most of your life concentrating on Bach. Anything left yet for you to do in that regard?
I can imagine putting Bach's "Die Kunst der Fuge" ("The Art of Fugue") in some form - I don't know which one yet - so that a larger audience can comprehend it. "The Art of Fugue" is difficult for a broad audience to digest; it's hard even for the initiated. But it's magnificent music!
Georg Christoph Biller has been Cantor of Leipzig's St. Thomas Boy Choir since 1992, following in the footsteps of Johann Sebastian Bach, who held the post from 1723 to 1750. Biller himself was a member of the choir from 1965 to 1974.
Interview: Adelheid Feilcke and Rick Fulker