St. Thomas Church, Leipzig: Luther, Bach and Mendelssohn

See for the source of the above photograph of St. Thomas.

Several church structures have stood at the site of St. Thomas Church, or Thomaskirche, as it is known in German.  In the early 13th century, an Augustinian order was established there, known as St. Thomas Monastery. It was at this present structure that Martin Luther preached on Pentecost Sunday, 1539. Upon Reformation, the structure became a Lutheran church. Less than 200 years later Johan Sebastian Bach served as its cantor, its choir director and its organist.  His service there is honored by a statue of him on the premises, and his remains are located there.

In 1212, a choir was established at the church. It’s boys choir is one of the most famous in Germany. The structure is served by two organs, one a creation of the Romantic era, and another created and installed in about 2000, which is a model of that which Bach, himself, played.

See  for the source of the above photograph of the statue honoring JS Bach.

In St. Thomas, April 11, 1727, Bach first presented his St. Matthew Passion on Good Friday; here Mozart played the organ in May 12, 1789; Napoleon used it as a munitions dump in 1806; it was used as a military hospital in the battle where Napoleon was defeated (“met his Waterloo”). It was here that the composer, Richard Wagner, was baptized and later studied piano and composition with its cantor.

During his lifetime, Johann Sebastian Bach was not known as an innovator, but a master of the old polyphonic style. If you are to compare his contemporaries, particularly in their instrumental compositions, while they retain much of the Baroque rhythmic vitality, ornamentation, cycle of fifths and yet prevailing Doctrine of Affections, the melodic lines have less individual character apart from other lines and are becoming more representative of the coming homophonic style. The polyphonic church music of the Renaissance had little harmonic direction to which the Baroque era gave harmony chordal direction, most notably in the cycle of fifths which provided a progressive variety of harmonic foci with a psychological effect of increased interest as it explored attention on scale degrees other than the tonic (the first note of the dominant key), and release upon return to the dominant key.  Bach was not ready to leave the riches of polyphony; he brings all the richness of polyphony (true individuality of each of the melodic lines) which yet combine in a resultant harmonic progression.  Although uniquely creative, he was not an innovator of style, but a perfector of it. Not so unusual at the time, numerology was important Bach and some music theoreticians, whether intended by Bach or not, are able to see importance at certain mathematical units of the music that he wrote, oftentimes, even, asserting something unique in the center.  Although he was very much respected for his craft both as a composer and as an organist, his music was not as well appreciated during his time later became.

Felix Mendelssohn rediscovered Bach in the mid-19th-century.  He is largely responsible for preserving Bach’s prodigious output in every medium of composition. Sometimes, it takes a genius to recognize the genius in another. Mendelssohn, as well as Mozart, were geniuses; but I know of no composer so prodigious and so ingenius in so broad an area, both choral and instrumental, as was Bach. Not only was Bach well known in his time as an organist, but his organ works are among the most demanding as well as the most familiar and popular yet today; for a number of years, as I understand it, he wrote a cantata every week for  performance at St. Thomas; not only did he write sacred cantatas, but also secular cantata’s, such as the Coffee Cantata; his instrumental works range from solo, unaccompanied violin and unaccompanied cello works to the Brandenburg concertos, from single instrument concertos to two or more solo harpsichord concertos (precursors of the piano in that the strings are plucked by a plectrum rather than struck with a felt-covered hammer, first known as a pianoforte because of its capacity for a wide range of volumes as compared to single levels of volume possible in the harpsichord); from The Well Tempered Clavier which included Two Part Inventions, which were polyphonic pieces for harpsichord, one for each of the keys to demonstrate how “well tempering” (which is slightly out of pure, mathematical tuning for anyone key, so that each of the keys will sound good as opposed to some keys sounding good but others sounding bad, a Baroque contribution that fit well with its circle of fifths which, if progressed to its ultimate limit will yield a key on every half-step of a chromatic octave.  Parenthetically, this is why piano tuners that do not rely upon an audio instrument to tell them when the pitches of various strings are in tune, but rather rely upon their ears, play two pitches at the same time and listen for a certain number of “beats” per interval of time, such beats resulting from some degree of conflict (out-of-tuneness or “Well Tempering”) so that the scale based upon each half-step of the octave will sound equally good (or, if you will, “equally bad”) to the Preludes and Fugues with more than two melodic parts, also demonstrating the unique qualities of the tempered tuning; from teaching pieces for his children and students, such as the various minuets to organ pieces for the most accomplished organists and harpsichord suites for the most accomplished harpsichordist, including every dance to be seen at a court social gathering. Some of my favorites are the unaccompanied violin and cello sonatas: whereas we expect to have on a harpsichord or a piano several strings can be struck at one time to constitute chords, we typically do not expect solo instruments to be capable of suggesting similar chords and chord progressions. If one listens carefully to them, not only can one hear double stops, as when the bow draws across two strings at the same time, but also triple stops which, together, will constitute a cord, but also, Bach combines within melodic structures harmonic progressions. I particularly enjoyed listening to Bach because, to me, it is like listening to a fine conversation among articulate, well-educated friends. You will find similar features with Handel’s and Telemann’s choral works, such as Messiah, but hints of it as one might see a magnificent structure receding into the rearview mirror.  The one problem with that analogy is that in fact, Handel, Telemann, and especially Vivaldi, were moving far ahead of Bach as he tarried to organize, sharpen and polish the ancient arts perhaps most exquisitely so in The Musical Offering. 

Why was Bach content refining the old arts? Although most composers of the Baroque era wrote for religious settings and purposes, many of them, perhaps most, were patronized by some rich member of the aristocracy, as heads of political units somewhat akin to Italian city states. Bach did seek such patronage, the solicitation of which resulted for our benefit (though not to that of Bach) in the Brandenburg Concertos.  The St. Matthew Passion, likewise, although performed in his church, may also have been written originally with a view to attracting patronage.  Although a brilliantly masterful piece, it is exceptionally long for a typical church service even of that day. Although it is clear that Bach would have liked a patronage, it did not restrict his output, which included a huge amount of secular music, at least music not specifically intended for a church atmosphere. Nonetheless, he is known for his habit of inscribing upon his music manuscripts, SDG–Soli Deo Gloria, loosely translated as” to the glory of God.”  A similar phrase which is attributed to him, is, in plain English, “to the glory of God and the edification of the soul.”  Whereas he sought comforts with the politically powerful, elite aristocracy, which could also provide some support and comfort to his prodigious offspring, it is clear that he loved the art of musical performance and composition and sought to elevate it to a level that had not before been attained.

Today, we do not recognize the passé view of Bach’s compositions, as both his compositions and that developed through the Rcoco to the Classical and later yet in the Romantic periods are all pretty much equally relegated to antiquated status or to the romanticized past. Today, it is perhaps easier to recognize the genius of Bach than it was for his contemporaries and even the young composers of his day, including his popular sons, are now hardly recognized.

For video of the church and the organ see ;

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