Thursday, November 16, 2017


Michael - Thursday

Last week I had the opportunity to appreciate not only a wonderful gala concert and most enjoyable dinner, but also briefly to visit a tradition of over 800 years. The St. Thomas Choir of Leipzig—or the Thomanerchor as they are named at home—are on a two week tour of the US, and last Saturday they appeared at Bethlehem in Pennsylvania for the said gala concert. I was able to go because of a kind invitation from my very good old friends, Nelson and Pat, who live in Bethlehem and have been generously hosting me for the last ten days.

Let me digress for a moment about Bethlehem. Bethlehem is a city of just 75,000 people, but it’s part of a group of other cities in the Lehigh Valley area totaling about ten times that. Much of the early immigration to the area came from Germany and some of that was of the Moravian faith. They brought a love of music and culture, and perhaps that helps to explain the surprising richness of classical music in the area.

Bethlehem boasts the oldest Bach Choir in the US, a musical gem celebrating its 120th anniversary this season. It has its own regular orchestra, but the choir itself consists of volunteers who are joined by soloists of the first rank. The Bach Choir is entirely supported by the music lovers of the area, and in addition to their own high-standard performances, occasionally it also arranges special performances by touring groups. The 2017 gala concert was such an occasion.

Church of St Thomas, Leipzig
Back to the Thomanerchor. Established in 1212, only fifty years after Leipzig itself, it’s one of the oldest continuing entities in Europe. 500 years in, Johann Sebastian Bach himself became the cantor (or choir master), a position he held for 27 years until his death in 1750. One of his sons—CPE Bach—was a member of the choir. JS Bach had a long association with St. Thomas, and, indeed, was buried there.

The modern choir consists of 106 boys between the ages of 9 and 18. Nowadays, although they specialize in music and the performing arts, they attend school with non-choir members. However, many of the traditions developed over the 800 years remain. They live, learn, and rehearse in the Alumnat and attend St. Thomas Secondary School just across the street. The school is connected with St. Thomas's Church, which is their main workplace. The Alumnat is divided into different dormitories where the senior boys take much of the responsibility for the younger ones, helping the small staff of permanent teachers. Each boy has a private area, but no TV or computers are allowed there. However, there are common and library areas which have internet facilities, books, and music. If it sounds a bit spartan, well, the choir was originally formed to provide religious choral music for the Augustinian monks in the monastery attached to the church. The city of Leipzig took it over after the Reformation. (That was a mere 500 years ago.)

JS Bach's statue outside the church
The 800 years have not been without their challenges. During the first few years, Martin Luther was very much in evidence, shaking up the church. In 1937, the choir was incorporated into the Hitler Youth. Faced with saving the institution, the cantor of the day decreed that henceforth the choir would only sing religious music—nothing secular that might open the door to involvement with the propaganda of the Third Reich—and he used their religious duties to try to delay as long as he could the boys’ military service.

2003 stamp celebrating the choir
These days the choir undertakes tours abroad, and about half the members and their current cantor, Gotthold Schwarz, participated in the program at Bethlehem. As for the concert itself, which included wonderful works by Bach and other Baroque composers, as well as Mendelsohn, to me it was sublime, unforgettable. But what do I know? The New York Times summed it up this way when writing about a Thomanerchor concert a few years ago: Surely this is what it must have been like to hear Bach lead the ensemble in one of his cantatas.”

Here is a link to a short video featuring the choir.

Pictures are from the Thomanerchor brochure and Wikipedia. 


  1. Thanks, Michael. My farm is about 45 minutes from Bethlehem (PA's) and it takes a visitor from South Africa to alert me to its cultural richness! Heck, until now, the most I thought of Bethlehem and music was its mention in Billy Joel's song about its neighbor, Allentown!

    "Well we're living here in Allentown
    And they're closing all the factories down
    Out in Bethlehem they're killing time
    Filling out forms… "

    1. There's a lot more than that going on here! Sorry I didn't know you were so close. We could have had lunch!