The research project
The Thomanerchor, the St. Thomas Choir in Leipzig, is considered one of the most successful and oldest boys’ choirs in the world. The uncontested pinnacle of its now 800-year history was the 27 years (1723–1750) in which Johann Sebastian Bach led the choir as cantor. It was in Leipzig that Bach composed his more than 200 church cantatas, his two great Passions, and the Christmas Oratorio – and the Thomaner, his students at St. Thomas, wrote Western music history with the premiere of these works. Little is known about Bach himself. In addition to a small number of private letters and business documents there are a few contemporary reports on his work as a composer, musician and music teacher as well as on his personality. There is virtually no record of how his works were received by his contemporaries. It is therefore among the objectives of research on Bach to expand the available source material and to compensate the lack or loss of Bach’s private correspondence with other significant documents. In the framework of a long-term field research project, since 2002 the Bach Archive in Leipzig has been seeking to systematically retrieve materials from municipal and court archives as well as Central-German book and music collections focussing on unknown material on the Bach family of musicians, how music was made in their day, and the socio-cultural environment of musicians in the 17th and 18th centuries. A number of major successes have already been made in recent years thanks to the improved conditions of use and advances in the electronic cataloguing of the rich Central-German archive inventories, which were impossible or at least very difficult to access before Reunification. In 2011 the researchers discovered the matriculation register of St. Thomas School, long believed to have been lost, in the Leipzig municipal archive. It contains short curricula vitae written by all 650 Thomaner in the period between 1729 and 1800. Aim of the research project The aim of a research project headed by Prof. Christoph Wolff (until 31 December 2013) and Dr. Peter Wollny and coordinated by Dr. Michael Maul is, on the basis of the Alumnorum Thomanorum matriculation register, to systematically analyse the CVs of the altogether 325 St. Thomas students who attended the boarding school when Bach was cantor. The Thomaner were both the best acquainted with Bach’s methods of making and teaching music and the first copyists, interpreters and recipients of his works. Many of them themselves went on to work as musicians and applied what they had learned in Leipzig in their own area of activity. Their documentation is thus relevant to research on Bach in diverse ways. The paths of those students who started theology studies in Leipzig after leaving St. Thomas and later worked as ministers in the towns and villages of Saxony and Thuringia are also well documented. The files documenting who occupied pastoral posts frequently contain handwritten CVs, in which former Thomaner report on their time at school and their instruction. The project group follows clues in archives in around 300 places in Central Germany and has found numerous documents that shed light on life and the educational principles at St. Thomas School. Among the most important sources rediscovered during the research work is the friendship book of Johann Christian Heuckenrott, alumnus of St. Thomas and minister in Frankleben, whose 174 entries offer new insights into the humanistic and artistic education and the socio-cultural environment at St. Thomas School. The discovery of a Bach autograph in Weissenfels in the year in question was moreover considered a music-historical sensation. Indeed, the transcript, produced around 1740, of a mass by Italian composer Francesco Gasparini provides significant insights into Bach’s occupation with the so-called stile antico and helps us understand the stylistic reorientation of his work in the last decade of his life. A letter discovered in the parish archive of the central-Saxon town of Döbeln suggests that in the 1740s Bach withdrew as much as possible from his duties as cantor and director of church music and was at times substituted by one of his former pupils. In the context of the project, two dissertations are being researched at the Bach Archive whose authors are exploring, in different ways, the works of individual students of Bach at St. Thomas that have music-historical significance. Whereas Bernd Koska examines the diverse works of church music by these musicians, Manuel Bärwald explores in his dissertation, which has now been submitted, the significance of Bach’s Thomaner for the emergence of a civil concert culture in Leipzig in the 1740s/1750s. The overarching aim of the project group is moreover to compile as complete a record as possible of handwriting samples of all Bach’s Thomaner, as they enable conclusions to be drawn regarding the dating of many of the composer’s works.
Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Christoph WolffLocation
Prof. Dr. Peter Wollny