Thomaskirche in Leipzig and Bach: the church's musical history, importance and legacy explored

Today, we think of Leipzig as the home of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra and the music publishers Breitkopf & Härtel, but above all as the place where JS Bach wrote his greatest music. Simon Heighes explores its oldest cultural and educational establishment, the triad of church, choir and school known as ‘Thomana’, which continues to flourish both at home and abroad.

Beautiful view of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig,
Published: May 27, 2022 at 9:53 am
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When was Thomaskirche built?

The earliest stirrings of music at St Thomas Church (Thomaskirche) came from the singing school established by Augustinian monks in the early 1200s. To begin with, the church would have echoed simply to plainchant, but by the middle of the 13th century, just as in England and France, the monks began to use polyphony. With its associated school, St Thomas soon became the most important of Leipzig’s churches, and by the 15th century the post of its musical director, Thomaskantor, was formalised.

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Thomaskirche during the Reformation

In 1519 the first major post-holder, Georg Rhau, wrote the music introducing the debate between Martin Luther, the incipient Protestant, and the defender of the Catholic faith, Johann Eck. Rhau’s strong Lutheran sympathies forced his departure shortly after, but Leipzig nevertheless embraced the Reformation in 1539, soon becoming the leading centre of Lutheran church music. All church property now passed to the Town Council, which turned the Thomasschule into a grammar school with the Thomaskantor as its musical head. The Kantor was more school teacher than Kapellmeister and although he directed music at the churches of St Thomas and St Nicholas, he was employed first and foremost by the school where he was resident. The third most senior member of staff, the Kantor was responsible for teaching music, Latin and other subjects to the boys, as well as training the choristers.

By the early 17th century the reputation of the choir had spread beyond Leipzig’s town walls and the post of Thomaskantor began to attract a succession of first-rate musicians with wide intellectual interests. Sethus Calvisius (Kantor 1594-1615) was a distinguished theorist, chronologist and astronomer, while Sebastian Knüpfer (1657-1676) was admired for his profound knowledge of philology and poetry. His mentor, Tobias Michael (1631-1657) read theology and philosophy but above all cherished the choir, raising the level of performance by insisting that pupils be selected first and foremost for their singing ability; he also saw the choir safely through the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).

The first really front-rank composer was Johann Hermann Schein (1615-1630) who, unusually for a Thomaskantor, composed secular as well as sacred music and published it systematically. But even he couldn’t escape the mundane demands of the day job: teaching ten hours of Latin grammar and four hours of singing a week. On the bright side, though, there was always the respect and revenue to be earned from the choir’s attendance at the weddings and funerals of Leipzig’s great and good, a role which resulted, during Knüpfer’s tenure, in the elevation of the Thomaskantor to Leipzig’s director of music, increasing the status of the post – and also its workload.

Prestige encouraged innovation and the Thomaskantors led the development of Lutheran church music with the colourful, large-scale festival cantata, cultivated by Knüpfer and his successor Johann Schelle (1677-1701), and the chorale-based cantata linking the hymn of the day to the subject of the sermon – a form that Bach would later perfect. Schelle and his successor Johann Kuhnau (1701-1722) shared a deep awareness of the meaning of the biblical texts they set, and to give them the fullest possible expression they broadened the scope of the cantata to include operatic style recitatives and arias. But along with these developments, the baton they passed to their heir was weighted with increased responsibilities and the demand to stretch the St Thomas choir between four of Leipzig’s churches.

Why did Bach go to Thomaskirche?

But it’s clear now why Bach applied to be Thomaskantor in 1723. The post was one of the most important and prestigious, with a choir to match. Although he later complained that changing jobs from Kapellmeister to Kantor involved a downward social step, Bach was keen to escape the vagaries of royal patronage he endured at Cöthen and longed to embrace the more varied and challenging duties in Leipzig. He was attracted, too, by Leipzig’s intellectual atmosphere, though in the end he wasn’t very keen to teach Latin – nor do his dormitory inspections – much to the irritation of his superiors.

Bach ruthlessly selected only the most musically able boys for the school, whom (his contract instructed him) he was to treat ‘in a friendly manner but with caution, and in case they don’t wish to obey, they should be chastised with moderation or reported’. Every weekday except Thursday he taught them singing, theory and how to play a range of instruments; the most talented dozen or so sang for him at St Thomas’s. Aged between 12 and 23, with voices that didn’t break until they were 17 or 18, Bach had time to mould his trebles and altos into accomplished and sometimes exceptional singers. On their days off, the boys earned extra money for the school by singing in the streets and accompanying criminals to their place of execution with solemn chorales.

Bach’s tenure was one of prodigious activity gradually giving way to disillusionment and the pursuit of his own musical goals. There was no love lost between him and his employers, the town council, who disliked the way he tried to be Leipzig’s Kapellmeister rather than the Thomaskantor. Despite this, Bach’s greatest achievement was to raise the standard of Leipzig’s church music by writing music of superlative quality and training the choir to new heights to do it justice.

After Bach’s death the importance of church music in the city’s musical life was gradually eclipsed by the rise of opera and orchestral concerts. Bach’s successors were at the forefront of these developments. In 1781 Johann Hiller founded the Gewandhaus concerts, regularly involving the choir of St Thomas and establishing the link between the choir and orchestra which continues today. And it was with the first publication of Bach’s motets in 1803, edited by Thomaskantor Johann Schicht, that the Bach revival began. Leipzig led the way, and in 1850 the Bach Society was founded to publish Bach’s complete works for the first time. Thomaskantor Wilhelm Rust produced 26 volumes between 1855 and 1881 and, for the 700th anniversary of St Thomas’s in 1912, his successor Gustav Schreck revived the music of Thomaskantors dating back to Georg Rhau.

Thomaskirche today

By the beginning of the 20th century the church of St Thomas’s could boast a choir of national importance, celebrated for its choral singing and devotion to Bach. Under Karl Straube the choir gained its international reputation with foreign tours and, in the 1930s, pioneering broadcasts of Bach’s cantatas – then still little known. Günther Ramin continued the tours and broadcasts, steering the choir through World War II and the post-war Communist government.

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Today, the choir has around 100 boys aged between nine and 19, plus a talent scout and a special infant school to nurture the next generation. It costs just €73 (£61) a month for school and board, though the fees from all concerts and recordings end up in the council coffers. Although €12.5m (£10.5m) bought them a new boarding house in 2012, the boys have their feet firmly on the ground. ‘We are nobody special; we just do something special,’ says one young Thomaner. ‘We start out as trebles and end up as tenors and basses… but we’re not always singing. We are very down to earth and like to have time to be lazy, listen to our iPods and play football.’ Anyone expecting St Thomas to be filled with Bachian reverence today will be disappointed – as in Bach’s time, the church resonates to the busy coming and going of the boys and the constant drama of rehearsal.

Authors

Simon HeighesJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

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