The archive of the THOMANERCHOR Leipzig

By Leipzig Bach Archive

Bach-Archiv Leipzig

It is one of the greatest treasures in the history of
European music: The unbroken connection of musical, educational, cultural and
socio-historical sources from over six centuries make the archive of one of the
oldest boys' choirs in the world an unparalleled cultural asset.

"Entwurff einer wohlbestallten Kirchen Music" (Letter) (1730) by Johann Sebastian BachLeipzig Bach Archive

Did it all begin with Bach?

Johann Sebastian Bach became the Thomaskantor in 1723. He composed, taught, rehearsed and lived with his family — as well as the 55 students in the choir — at the St. Thomas School by the churchyard. Already then, the choir, founded in 1212, looked back on a tradition of more than 500 years. No one could have guessed at the time that Bach would one day be its most important cantor: After Georg Philipp Telemann and Christoph Graupner had declined offers, Bach was only the third choice for the position.

In his famous Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music, Bach describes his ideal performance practice.

Sinner Legacy 27 of 37Leipzig Bach Archive

As early as the 18th century, the cantors at St. Thomas saw it as their task not only to compose new works but also to preserve its unique choral tradition. This meant tending to older repertories. Bach frequently placed compositions by his predecessors on the singers' music stands and his successors did the same. Under Gottlob Harrer and Johann Friedrich Doles, it was Bach's popular choral cantatas that above all else continued to be heard in Leipzig's churches.

Hardly any music has survived from Gottlob Harrer's short tenure between 1751 and 1755. A series of handwritten documents has been preserved in the receipt book of the Sinner bequest.

"Gott sei mir gnädig" ("God have mercy upon me") by Johann Friedrich DolesLeipzig Bach Archive

Remnants of a lost treasure

The Bach student Johann Friedrich Doles is the Thomaskantor with the longest term in office. He conducted the choir for 33 years between 1756 and 1789 and composed over 100 cantatas, 35 motets and several passions.

The choir's previous music library, which was relocated and then lost during the Second World War, once housed an extensive collection of Doles' compositions. Today, besides some prints only a fragment of an autograph manuscript with the last bars of the psalm setting "Gott sei mir gnädig" ("God have mercy upon me") has survived.

Four sacred arias 4 of 16Leipzig Bach Archive

In addition to the losses in the choir library, only a few of Johann Adam Hiller's compositions have survived. His term as the Thomaskantor between 1789 and 1804 was especially marked by the performance and arrangement of other works.

He performed German-language versions Handel's "Messiah" and Mozart's "Requiem". And his editing practice went even further: scenes out of Italian operas by the capellmeister at the Catholic Dresden court, Johann Adolph Hasse, were transformed into musical pieces for the Protestant church services.

"Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" ("Ah God, how oft a heartfelt grief") 1 of 28Leipzig Bach Archive

In the years after 1804, August Eberhard Müller as the Thomaskantor (and who since 1800 had been the permanent successor to the elderly Hiller), led the preservation of Bach in Leipzig to its first tentative highlight.

He made scores for study and performance purposes from the performance materials of Bach's choral cantatas that were available in the music library of the St. Thomas School.

"Messa a otto voci" 50 of 50Leipzig Bach Archive

The "Thomaner Motet" becomes famous

In 1810 the long-term capellmeister of the Gewandhaus, Johann Gottfried Schicht, exchanged his position for that of the Thomaskantor, which was financially well-secured by the city. The traditional "Thomaner Motet", which takes place in the form of a musical vesper service on Saturdays, was publicly announced in the newspapers by Schicht for the first time, which attracted a wider audience.

His eight-part a cappella mass, composed in January 1813, was reworked a few months later for choir and orchestra. The autograph scores of both versions have been preserved in the archive of the THOMANERCHOR Leipzig.

"Das Volk, so im Finstern wandelt" ("The people who walk in darkness") 6 of 56Leipzig Bach Archive

After having conducted the Kreuzchor in Dresden for three years, Christian Theodor Weinlig took over the position of Thomaskantor in 1823 and presided over the choir for almost 20 years. Weinlig was not only a good vocal teacher but also very popular as a composition teacher—his most famous students include Clara Schumann and Richard Wagner.

His cantata "Das Volk, so im Finstern wandelt" ("The people who walk in darkness") was written between 29 October and 30 November 1826 for the approaching Christmas season.

"Gott, deine Güte reicht so weit" ("God, your goodness reaches so far") (1849/1849) by Moritz HauptmannLeipzig Bach Archive

The roots of the Leipzig Bach tradition

Moritz Hauptmann was appointed Thomaskantor in 1842 on the recommendation of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. With Hauptmann, a new era of preservation of Bach’s heritage began in Leipzig as Bach's cantatas became regular repertoire in the Sunday services.

Hauptmann's three-part choral movement "Gott, deine Güte reicht so weit" ("God, your goodness reaches so far") for two sopranos and alto dates back to 18 March 1849 and appeared a short time later in print as his op. 35, no. 3.

"Heilig und hehr ist der Name des Herrn" ("Holy and noble is the name of the Lord") 49 of 49Leipzig Bach Archive

After Hauptmann's death, Ernst Friedrich Richter was appointed Thomaskantor in 1868. His work was closely interwoven with the various institutions of Leipzig's musical life. He was professor of harmony and composition at the conservatory, director of the Leipzig Sing-Akademie, organist at several churches and music director of the university.

The hymn "Heilig und hehre ist der Namen des Herrn" ("Holy and noble is the name of the Lord") for choir and orchestra was composed in 1840 on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the invention of the letterpress.

copy of compositions by former Thomaskantors 17 of 21Leipzig Bach Archive

A Bach expert becomes the Thomaskantor

Johannes Brahms had been the desired candidate to succeed Richter as Thomaskantor in 1879. After he declined, Wilhelm Rust, the organist at St. Thomas, took over the position between 1880 and 1892. Rust was regarded as the leading Bach expert of his time—about half of all volumes of the Edition of the Complete Works of Bach, which was undertaken between 1850 and 1899, were published by him.

a collection of works by five Thomaskantors from the 16th to 18th centuries

"O du Liebe meiner Liebe" ("Thou holiest love, whom most I love") 3 of 8Leipzig Bach Archive

Gustav Schreck, who conducted the choir from 1893 to 1918, continued work on the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach and the Thomaskantors of earlier centuries. The choir’s repertoire of Bach cantatas expanded, and the quality of the performances steadily improved through, for example, the purchase of historical instruments.

Schreck's arrangement of the sacred song "O du Liebe meiner Liebe" ("Thou holiest love, whom most I love") BWV 491 from the Schemellisches Gesangbuch (Schemelli's Hymnal) was composed the year after he took office. Schreck expanded the original composition for singer and basso continuo into a four-part choral movement in which each verse receives a different harmonization.

Bach's original manuscripts (2019)Leipzig Bach Archive

The autograph manuscripts of eleven cantors at St. Thomas presented here comprise only a fraction of the former music library of the THOMANERCHOR Leipzig. Due to fortunate circumstances, they survived the Second World War unscathed. However, a large part of the collection is considered to have been lost since 1945.

Today, large parts of this unique treasure of documents along with many other music manuscripts, prints and written references to the history of music in Leipzig and to the THOMANERCHOR Leipzig are on permanent loan to the Leipzig Bach Archive, where they are properly stored and conserved.

Credits: Story

Bach-Archiv Leipzig


Konzeption und Texte: Dr. Manuel Bärwald

Mit einem besonderen Dank für die Unterstützung durch / With a special thanks for the kindly support by Dr. Stefan Altner.

English translation by Edward Hamrock

Credits: All media
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