The organ music mixed with the voices of the soloists, a radiant soprano and deep tenor. We stood transfixed in the red ribbed nave of St. Thomas Church, home of the St. Thomas Boys Choir*, founded over 800 years ago. The great composer Johann Sebastian Bach became the cantor, or music director, here in the 18th century. When we visited, we were surprised and thrilled to find the choir rehearsing for their weekly concert. Though the boys choir, at the rear of the balcony, was hard to see from where we stood at the back of the church, we could hear their high clear voices fusing into a beautiful melody.
* The St. Thomas Boys Choir was founded in the 13th century, at the same time as St. Thomas Church. The strict religious order that established the church required the clergy to pray and chant for many hours each day, but the monks found the routine taxing. Boys were hired to help with the chants and became the church’s first choir. By the 16th century, the St. Thomas boys were renowned. In the 18th century, Bach became their cantor, or music director, a position he held for 27 years, from 1723 until his death in 1750.
Today, there are almost 100 boys in the choir. They live in a boarding school near the church, where the older boys look after the younger boys. In his day, Bach was required to teach at the school as part of his job as the church choir director.
When their voices change, the boys stay at the school and continue to be part of the choir, but they take a break from performing until they can rejoin the choir as tenors. During these breaks, the boys sell tickets or CDs at the many concerts the choir performs annually, both at St. Thomas Church and around the world.
Overhead, in one of the church’s stained-glass windows, a portrait of Bach gazed out over the church. Luther, who had preached at St. Thomas Church in 1539 and visited Leipzig many times during the reformation, peered down from another window.
Though the area below the balcony at the front where the rehearsal was taking place was currently off limits, we could see Bach’s final resting place. A bronze plaque in the floor marked what were hoped to be the famous composer’s remains, although that’s not entirely certain.
Bach is known to us as a composer, but in his day, he was more well-known as an organist and keyboardist. And while many of his works are performed on the piano today, pianos didn’t even exist until just before Bach’s death. He wrote most of his compositions for the organ, harpsichord, or clavichord. So while he enjoys legendary status today, Bach’s greatness as a composer was not recognized during his lifetime.
When he died, the great musician was buried in an unmarked grave in an ordinary graveyard. After he became famous – thanks to Felix Mendelssohn in the 19th century – his followers tracked down what they believed were Bach’s remains and buried them under the floor at the front of St. Thomas Church.
We lingered for a while to enjoy the music and then ventured outside where Bach was commemorated once again by a huge bronze statue. Larger than life, Bach towered above us holding a rolled-up piece of sheet music he used to conduct, his pockets turned inside out to symbolize that he was so generous with his large family and his students that he never had enough money.
Bach was married twice and had 7 children with his first wife and 13 with his second. Sadly, only half of those 20 children lived into adulthood. The great composer shared his love of music with them, and several went on to become successful musicians.
To be continued…