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Satisfying the craving for Bach

Rick Fulker
March 25, 2019

Bach is a booming business, as the Bachfest Leipzig has discovered, with more events seeing higher ticket sales. Director Michael Maul is thinking ahead with plans to showcase dozens of choirs from around the world.

A statue of Bacg in front of a building
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Jan Woitas

After last year's record-breaking attendance, the most often heard question was: can the Bachfest Leipzig sustain the momentum?

In Michael Maul's first season as festival director in 2018, the schedule of events grew by half, from roughly 100 to 150. Increased supply, surprisingly, met with increased demand, with over 90 percent of the available tickets sold.

The program included, among other highlights, Bach's most famous church cantatas. It was a focus suited to Leipzig, as it was there that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) spent the last 27 years of his life as cantor of St. Thomas Church, with church music as his central activity.

Michael Maul
Bachfest director Michael MaulImage: DW/R. Fulker

A hard act to follow?

The 2019 season from June 14-23 will shift its focus from Bach's role at St. Thomas to his time serving wealthy patrons. Under the slogan "Court Composer Bach," this year's festival highlights works written largely before Bach's time in Leipzig when he was engaged at various courts. They include favorites such as the Brandenburg Concertos, the violin concertos and works for various solo instruments.

"Last year we had visitors from 47 countries, but we wanted to up the ante," said director Maul, who is also a scholar at the Leipzig Bach Archive. He is looking even further ahead to the festival's 2020 season, which promises to be highly international event. "After a systematic search, we actually located 219 Bach choirs and societies around the world." These organizations then received invitations to travel to Leipzig in 2020 and perform at the very locations where Johann Sebastian Bach himself once made music.

Rental bikes adorned by images of Bach
When in Leipzig, you're not likely to overlook the fact that there's a Bachfest there Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J.Woitas

A leading role

At their own cost, 65 Bach societies agreed to participate in the musical summit — from the East Malaysian Bach Singers to the Paraguay Bach Society to the Choir of Trinity Wall Street in New York. With a smile, Maul relates how the latter immediately replied with the words, "We want to have a leading role in your festival!"

The choristers from Wall Street will have to match up to 64 other choruses and Bach societies from 21 countries, however. Invoking the tradition of get-togethers in Bach's own big family, the Bachfest 2020 will go by the name, "We Are Family." In part, the playbill sees professional musicians performing works by Johann Sebastian Bach's predecessors, sons and various relatives. In addition, the diverse international Bach Societies will perform a complete choral cantata cycle of 62 works.

Choir boys singing in sailor suits
Of course, the boys of the St. Thomas Choir will be there tooImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Gercke

Festival director Maul was himself astonished at the response to his invitation: "These were pieces devised to be used in a certain congregation in a particular German city but are now performed by people all over the world who aren't necessarily Protestants and maybe don't even understand the texts. Yet this music not only has its effect but can even convince people to travel thousands of miles to make music at Bach's final resting place."