Celebrating 800 years: St. Thomas Boys Choir | Music | DW | 22.03.2012
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Celebrating 800 years: St. Thomas Boys Choir

Not many choirs can look back on an 800-year history, but the St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig is exceptional not just in that respect. Johann Sebastian Bach led the group as cantor for 27 years.

The Middle Ages weren't quite as dark as the eras that followed have tended to make them out to be. The period from roughly the 5th to 15th centuries also ushered in immense change and development, and Leipzig was a case in point. The city built up rapidly, and the economic upturn it experienced led to the establishment of the Saint Thomas Church in 1212.

"The church was founded as a kind of penitence on behalf of the Margrave of Meissen, who had been insubordinate toward the King and the Kaiser," explained Stefan Altner, manager of the St. Thomas Choir.

The church was initially led by clerics who organized their daily lives according to the Rule of Saint Augustine. But the men were a bit too lazy to complete the daily hours of prayer required by the religious ordinance, so they employed boys and young men to perform chants in their place. And so the St. Thomas Choir was born.

Reformation and revival

The choir performs in Leipzig's Saint Thomas Church

The world-famous choir performing at home in Leipzig's Saint Thomas Church

In 1541, two years after the Reformation began in Leipzig, the church was torn down. But the Saint Thomas Cantor, the choir's director, continued to work hard to maintain the quality of the group's sound.

"The quality of music in the St. Thomas Church was so rich and magnificent that you probably would have had to go to Italy to hear something similar," said Stefan Altner.

The boys in the choir kept up with the times when it came to music, and that was reflected in the compositions they sang. Scores came from all across Europe, and performances included works by Ludwig Senfl, Heinrich Isaac, Josquin Desprez and many other prominent composers.

"Even before Bach's time it was spectacular what you could hear at the church," Altner noted.

A tough teacher: Bach

The greatest cantor in the choir's history was unquestionably Johann Sebastian Bach

"Many of the choirboys take far too long to develop, and most of them can't do a thing," the strict teacher wrote in a letter to the city dated 1730, adding that city officials needed to figure out just how acceptable church music could be made under such circumstances.

Bach and his 55 choirboys had an enormous amount of work to conquer: Alongside providing musical accompaniment for church services, they also set the mood at secular public events. Despite all of that work, Bach also found time for his own compositions. In Leipzig, he wrote the Saint John Passion, the Saint Matthew Passion, the Christmas Oratorio and his motets.

Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach wasn't all that pleased with the choir boys of his day

Leipzig's Bach Museum is currently exhibiting a spectacular recent find, a book in which the Thomas choir members from 1730 to 1800 presented their personal CVs. Until a few weeks ago, the book was considered lost. But it may prove to be a key in solving some of the remaining mysteries in the biography of the greatest Saint Thomas cantor.

Big celebrations

The current choir members under cantor Georg Christoph Biller sang Johann Sebastian Bach's music for prominent guests during the ceremony opening the celebrations of their 800th anniversary. 16-year-old choir member Ansgar Führer was well aware of the significance of the event.

"It's really great and fanastic that we are able to experience this anniversary," he said, adding, "And we have the many people who came before us and continued the tradition to thank."

It's thanks also to Bach's music that the Saint Thomas Choir was able to survive the Nazi era and the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) unscathed, says Stefan Altner.

"Both dictatorships tried to appropriate the choir for their own purposes - they would use the choir as a kind of ornament," Altner said, noting that it was never possible to transform the choir into a cover for Nazi or communist ideology.

"It's demonstrable that that didn't happen," Altner explained.

Into the future

President Joachim Gauck shakes hands with a singer

A prominent guest: the new German President Joachim Gauck shakes hands with a singer

The Saint Thomas Choir commissioned five composers to write sacred works as part of the 800th anniversary programming. The point is to demonstrate that the choir's repertory is still up to date and not simply a repository for early sacred music.

The current cantor and the famous German composer Hans Werner Henze are among the five composers. Their works will be premiered over the course of the year during church services in the Saint Thomas Church.

In honor of this year's celebrations, the choir has made it into two different museums. The "Bach House" is presenting a show until late July that examines the lives of the Thomas singers and their most famous cantor. An exhibition titled "Celebrate, rejoice! 800 years of St. Thomas" at the Museum of City History (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig) also takes a fond look back at the history of the choir.

Author: Claus Fischer / gsw
Editor: Rick Fulker

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