The members of the famous Thomaner boys’ choir in Leipzig have been practicing Mendelssohn all the time – even outside of official rehearsals, says cantor Gotthold Schwarz.
At the opening concert of the Bachfest Leipzig this past weekend, he conducted, among others, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s Choral Symphony Nr. 2, a work that was particularly popular with the Thomaner choir.
“Mendelssohn looked up to Bach and the connection between these two composers is strongly noticeable,” says Schwarz. The performance was rewarded with a hearty applause from the international audience.
The choir members themselves were relieved when the concert was over. “That was great,” said one of the younger singers. “I would have loved to have danced during the waltz part of the piece, but that’s not possible in a church.” Since 2017 marks 500 years since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, the Leipzig Bach Festival is focusing on music from the Reformation era. The festival taking place in Leipzig and surrounding towns from June 9-18 consists of 120 events with more than 3,000 participants.
“We’re becoming more international,” notes the festival’s executive director, Alexander Steinhilber. The annual event boasts attendance from 41 different countries. Most of the visitors from overseas are Americans and Japanese.
The Leipzig Bach Festival traditionally opens in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church where Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the most significant Baroque composers, served as cantor from 1723 to 1750. This year, the concert started with a Bach Toccata. “We opted for the Toccata in F major because it’s a strong kick-off,” explains the festival’s dramatic advisor, Michael Maul. He substituted the fugue which would normally follow with an organ version of the Luther choral, “We All Believe in One God.”
Maul sees a particular message in this choice: “Luther’s song text has a particular significance nowadays as we are witnessing religiously motivated wars and terrible terror attacks carried out in Allah’s name. The simple sentence ‘We all believe in one God’ could help pacify the situation, and that’s why we chose it.” Well known is that Luther translated the Bible into German in the mid 15th century. What’s less known is the fact that he was a passionate musician who played the lute and wrote his own chorals. “Luther’s Bible translation is the most widely adapted libretto,” says Bach expert Michael Maul.
The reformer felt that music as a sacred art was an ideal tool for spreading the message of the Bible. “Luther tried to encourage young people to sing to improve their understand so that they would better grasp and internalize the texts,” explains cantor Gotthold Schwarz.
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