The close connection beteween church reformer Martin Luther and Baroque composer JS Bach is being explored at this year’s Bachfest. The event opened with a work intended to bring peace to a world frought with terrorism.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.”
Johann Sebastian Bach and the music of the Reformation
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.”
Martin Luther – music lover and educator
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.
That’s why reformer Martin Luther arranged for music lessons to be given in schools in his region four times a week. “That formed the basis for the huge success of central German Baroque music,” points out Michael Maul from the Bach Archive Leipzig while mentioning famous composers like Heinrich Schütz, Georg Philipp Telemann and Georg Friedrich Handel who all originated in the region.
Bach with timpani and trumpets
Johann Sebastian Bach had a special preference for texts by Martin Luther. “You get the impression that he almost inhaled them and very effectively set them to music,” says Michael Maul. The perhaps best-known cantata is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which was played during the opening concert with timpani and trumpets. It was originally written by Bach with a less dramatic orchestration.
There are historical reasons for that. When the Protestant elector of Saxony wanted to become king of Poland in 1697, he had to convert to Catholicism. Reformation festivals continued to be allowed, but only on the condition that Catholics wouldn’t be jeered at, and that pompous instruments such as trumpets, trombones and timpani wouldn’t be used. Bach’s son, Wilhelm Friedeman, inserted them later into the score to make the sound richer.
Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Reformation music
Ever since Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy sparked a Bach renaissance in the 19th century, Bach festivals have been held in Leipzig. Particularly well known is Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, which the conductor and President of the Bach Archive Sir John Eliot Gardiner performed with the Gewandhaus Orchestra and his Monteverdi Choir. Gardiner also presented Reformation cantatas by Bach and Schütz.
Like every year, the Leipzig Bach Festival is accompanied by a rich supporting program including Bach adaptations by famous representatives of classical music and jazz. The program was kicked off with an outdoor performance by US organist Cameron Carpenter, who played his idiosyncratic Bach interpretations on a synthesizer organ specially constructed for him on Leipzig’s market square.
Looking ahead to the 2018 Leipzig Bachfest
Although this year’s Leipzig Bachfest only just started, there are already plans for next year’s event.
“Together with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, we developed the idea to perform the most outstanding Bach cantatas with the best musicians in one ‘cantata ring,'” explains Alexander Steinhilber. Over two days, 30 Bach cantatas will be performed in 10 concerts. In this way, the organizers tie in with last year’s and this year’s huge cantata success.
“We will simulate a complete church year as a cycle running from the first Advent until the 27th Sunday after Trinity Sunday.” That may well turn out to be an intense cantata marathon. But Alexander Steinhilber thinks that especially foreign visitors will be interested in such dense programs. “People come all the way to Leipzig in order to listen to Bach at original locations. That’s why the program should be full.”