800 Years Thomana – a choir celebrates
A Festival Year
To celebrate the 800th anniversary of the founding of a choir, a school and a church by city charter in 1212, the first phase of a year-long celebration took place in Leipzig from 19-25 March. This first phase celebrated the foundation and history of the Thomanerchor, now a world-renowned boys choir made famous by a certain Cantor who directed them and composed most of his church music for them – Johann Sebastian Bach, who served from 1723-1750, Soli Deo Gloria. The second celebratory events will be for the Thomasschule in September and the third for the Thomaskirche from 31 October (Reformationsfest) – 4 November (Mendelssohn Todestag). Interspersed is a range of events that includes the annual Leipzig Bachfest (7-17 June). All this has been five years in the planning and preparation, with various books published, a stunning exhibition curated and music, music, music that is central to this city’s being. It is also a marvellous excuse for the Leipzigers to celebrate their greatest assets and ambassadors….and they did in large numbers last week.
The formal State and Civic celebration took place on Tuesday 20 March in the Thomaskirche in the presence of the new President of the Federal Republic of Germany Dr. Joachim Gauck, the Mayor of Leipzig Dr. Burkhard Jung and representatives from across the spectrum of German political and cultural life. I was delighted to be given an invitation and represented the London Bach Society, whose historic first appearance in Bach’s church took place in 1964, and repeated later in 1983 with Steinitz Bach Players as part of Martin Luther Year. LBS hosted the first ever visit to the UK by the Thomanerchor in 1994.
Bach’s music interspersed the various speeches made for this formally informal occasion, with these preceded by the majestic Prelude and Fugue in C major BWV 545 played by Thomasorganist Ulrich Böhme. Bedecked with a special 800 Thomana scarf, we listened to the motet Singet dem Herrn, the chorale from Cantata BWV 140 and Dona Nobis Pacem from the Mass in B minor, complemented by erudite presentations from Professor Christoph Wolff (Bach-Archiv) and Pfarrer Christian Wolff (Thomaskirche) as well as the Leipzig Mayor and the Minister President of the Free State of Saxony. The church was packed and the atmosphere electric. Following the formalities, hundreds of us walked in procession through the city streets to the site of the new campus Forum Thomanum about a mile away, in warm spring sunshine and where it was Open House.
The following day brought celebrations for hundreds of former Thomaner who gathered in the New Town Hall to be entertained by vocal ensemble amarcord, Die Prinzen, and of course the present Thomanerchor….but for me there was one very important task to perform on this, Bach’s 327th Birthday, and that was to light a candle in the Thomaskirche on behalf of the London Bach Society.
Later in the week, two Motettes (Services) enabled the Thomaner to invite other distinguished choirs to share their celebrations. This included the Choir of King’s College Cambridge whose solo Motette last Friday enabled the congregation to hear some gems from the treasury of English church music by William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Henry Purcell, William Walton and Benjamin Britten. A first hearing of such pieces for the majority, the singing was of the highest order and the Motette very warmly received. It also heightened the anticipation for the four-choir Motette to follow on Saturdaywith Regensburg Domspatzen, Dresden Kreuzchor, Leipzig Thomanerchor and Choir of King’s College Cambridge coming together each to share some of their musical heritage. The repertory was drawn from across the spectrum of styles and periods, with the choirs each contributing a segment of specially selected works, from Victoria and Orlando di Lasso to former Thomaskantors Joh. Herrmann Schein and Joh. Sebastian Bach, from Duruflé and Petr Eben to Brahms and Frank Martin. King’s chose three contrasting works from the modern English church music repertory: Judith Weir’s Illuminare Jerusalem, Nicholas Maw’s One Foot in Eden and Giles Swayne’s setting of Magnificat. A packed Thomaskirche was held spellbound by the young people’s voices raised in song. A wonderful and inspirational week. Margaret Steinitz
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