An American Bach Soloist abroad, part I: Derek Chester recalls his summer in the land of Bach

Singing in Bach’s Church: a Major Career Goal Accomplished by Derek Chester

ChesterDerekI have been a super Bach-fan since I was a boy. When I was a Fulbright Scholar and living in Germany in 2006-07, my wife Laura and I made our first Bach pilgrimage. With nothing but a copy of Christoph Wolff’s Bach: The Learned Musician as our guide, we hit Eisenach, Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, Weimar, ending up at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. As most of you know, the Thomaskirche is where Bach served as cantor from 1723 until his death in 1750. It is, of course, the ultimate Bach fan’s Mecca. When I first stepped foot in the doors, I was shaking and overwhelmed with emotion­—I was standing in the church where the majority of Bach’s sacred cantatas premiered as service music! At that moment it became one of my goals to sing a Bach cantata as service music there. This summer, I was able to check that off of my bucket list.

A few years back, church musician, pastor, and choral director Michael Costello hired me to sing arias in the St. Matthew Passion at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, just north of Chicago. Grace Lutheran is one of those fortunate congregations that boast a monthly Bach cantata series. Since 1979, the church has presented the sacred cantatas of Bach within the context of congregational worship, as they were originally intended, including hymn singing, scripture, and preaching, all tied into the themes of the cantata. Michael has done wonderful things with this volunteer church choir and does a fantastic job training them to perform Lutheran church music of the highest quality.

Last spring, Michael asked if I would be interested in joining the Bach Cantata Vespers Choir as a soloist and choir ringer for a 16-day tour of Germany, France, and Switzerland, including a performance at Bach’s own Thomaskirche in Leipzig. I was tremendously excited by the possibility. Unfortunately, the tour was in August and conflicted with many family and work related events. Further, I had also been engaged as the Evangelist in a one-voice-per-part St. Matthew Passion at the Staunton Music Festival … meaning I would have to:

  1. Miss my 10 year wedding anniversary
  2. Miss my son’s 7th birthday
  3. Be away from my wife/super-mom and 3 kids for 28 days straight
  4. Miss preplanning and meetings at my university job
  5. Miss my 10-month-old daughter’s first steps (of course, I couldn’t have known, but suspected I would miss).

It was a tough choice for me. Some of you might know that the life of a traveling musician/college professor can introduce strains on family life if not carefully managed. My wife and I talked it over carefully for some time and eventually decided that the opportunity was too good to pass up. We planned our anniversary trip early, worked it out so her parents could be with her to help with the kids for my entire period of travel, pushed forward my son’s birthday celebration, and cleared it with my university colleagues. I couldn’t stop or postpone the walking of the baby, though I teasingly asked my wife to gently push her down any time she started to take that first step.

At the Bach Memorial in the Thomaskirche Courtyard at 8am, just before our orchestra rehearsal

At the Bach Memorial in the Thomaskirche Courtyard at 8am, just before our orchestra rehearsal

I volunteered to join Grace Lutheran on their tour, and Michael sent me a packet of music including Bach Cantata 45 and a collection of motets by Schütz, Hammerschmidt, and Scheidt. We started in Zürich and ended in Hamburg with stops in Strasbourg (France), Nurnberg, Heidelberg, Erfurt, Eisleben, Eisenach (Bach’s birthplace, and home to the Bach Museum), Wolfenbüttel (home of Praetorius’s church), and my personal favorite, Leipzig, Bach’s home for 27 years.

In Bach’s day, life centered around the church. Leipzig’s head church, the Thomaskirche, was founded in the early 13th century along with a Latin school for boys, the Thomasschule, which also still exists. The students undergo a thorough, world-class education focused on music, arts, and languages. The church-school’s world famous boychoir, the Thomanerchor, which has existed since the school’s founding in 1212, provide the service music at the Thomaskirche during the school year. During the summer, the Thomaskirche invites choirs from around the world to perform, which is what brought our tour to Leipzig.

The tower dates back to 1537 but was reconstructed in 1702, reaching its current height of 223 feet.

The tower dates back to 1537 but was reconstructed in 1702, reaching its current height of 223 feet.

I was thrilled to return to the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, this time as a performer. It’s a strikingly beautiful space. Every Bach lover should see it and catch a service there. Until you book that trip, I’ll describe it as best I can and include some pictures (mostly taken with my iPhone). From the courtyard, you can see the famous memorial statue to Bach and the Late Gothic edifice and tower, the oldest parts of the church dating back to 1496. Inside, the ceilings seem amazingly high with beautiful, yet conservative ornamentation. Though I’m not sure it was the builder’s intent, the crimson paint on the ribs of the vaulted ceiling elicit an image of Christ’s blood covering the congregation.

The church is laid out in somewhat cross-like form with the top of the cross facing east. Towards the front of the nave is a pulpit where the sermon is delivered. The pews here face east, but in the rear of the church and the south and north transepts (the arms of the “cross”) they face inward. There is also an upper gallery seating area on both the south and north sides of the church. These are probably the best seats to watch music being performed in the choir loft, as long as you are not stuck behind one of the giant pillars. Bach’s remains (or at least what are believed to be his remains) were moved to the Thomaskirche in 1950 and buried in the chancel area in front of the altar. The choir loft is located in the rear of the church. It is spacious and can hold a rather large choir and orchestra. It houses a famous 19th-century Romantic organ by Wilhelm Sauer; an instrument which makes a tremendous sound, though not ideal for an authentic hearing of Bach’s works. But don’t worry, the north gallery houses the beautiful “Bach Organ,” built in 2000 for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. It is a replica of an organ Bach played in the Paulinerkirche, the University Church in Leipzig, beautifully adorned with the Bach crest (an emblem particularly admired by yours truly; it is tattooed on my right arm). The south side of the church boasts beautiful stained glass windows, most importantly the Bach Window, featuring Bach’s portrait, which faces the organ in the opposite gallery.

A westward look of the Thomaskirche interior featuring the choir loft and the organ by Wilhelm Sauer, built from 1885–89.

Looking westward toward the choir loft and Sauer organ.

An eastward view, showing the high altar and quite vaulted, ribbed ceiling.

The Thomaskirche interior, looking eastward toward the altar.

The south gallery.

The south gallery.

The famous “Bach Window” faces the “Bach Organ” on the opposite gallery.

The famous “Bach Window.”

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Chancel, altar, and Bach’s grave

Chancel, altar, and Bach’s grave

The Sauer organ above the choir loft.

The Sauer organ console.

The Sauer organ above the choir loft.

The Sauer organ above the choir loft.

The “Bach Organ” in the north gallery.

The “Bach Organ” console.

The “Bach Organ” in the north gallery.

The “Bach Organ” in the north gallery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read the continuation of Derek’s report about the performance of Cantata 45 in the Thomaskirche here.