Hello, HGS family and friends! I am so excited to share my experiences with you as I travel to Leipzig, Germany, to sing in the St. Thomas Church, the musical home of composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Valparaiso University, my Alma Mater, developed a relationship with the St. Thomas Church—the Thomaskirche auf Deutsch—that began with the Chorale’s first trip to Germany in 2004. I was fortunate enough to tour Germany with the Chorale in 2010 and again in 2012, when the city of Leipzig signed an official Friendship Agreement with Valparaiso University. After graduating in 2013, I became a member of the Bach Choir at the Bach Institute at Valpo. This weekend, I will join members of the Chorale already in Leipzig to form an ensemble that will serve as the liturgical choir for the three services at the Thomaskirche next weekend.
Before we perform for the congregation, we will spend the week intensively rehearsing as part of a master class given by the conductor of the Valparaiso University Chorale, Dr. Christopher Cock. Some of you may have participated in master classes in musical ensembles or other academic endeavors, but in this case it means that six student conductors (some Masters students, some graduates) will get the opportunity to conduct an ensemble and be critiqued by a prestigious conductor like Dr. Cock. These six participants will not only get to conduct my choir but also the Leipzig Baroque Orchestra, a virtuoso chamber ensemble that performs using “period instruments,” or those from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the instruments they use, like the oboe d’more and the corno de caccia, are unique to the Baroque period and cannot be found in our orchestras and bands (though you might recognize their modern descendants, the oboe and French horn).
The repertoire we are performing spans several different musical eras and styles, presenting a difficult but exciting challenge. I will tell you a little more about the other pieces as we go along, but it is only fitting to start with the man whose musical impact on the city of Leipzig is enduring and immeasurable, Johann Sebastian Bach. The Bach Choir is performing two Bach pieces: BWV 118 O Jesu Christ, Mein Lebens Licht and BWV 180 Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele.
BWV stands for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or Bach Works Catalog. All of his music has a BWV number that categorizes the piece by its compositional type. Both of the works we are performing are listed as cantatas, or choral and/or orchestral works, often broken into several sections (or movements), that center around a musical theme. Bach used congregational hymn tunes to compose a new cantata EVERY WEEK (with a few exceptions) that he was organist and conductor of the Thomanerchor, the boy choir that sings for services at the Thomaskirche.
There are 249 known cantatas, all of which served a liturgical function. BWV 118, originally performed in 1736, translates to “O Jesus Christ, light of my life” and would likely have been used for funeral services. It is only about 10 minutes long. BWV 180, originally performed on October 22, 1734, translates to “adorn yourself, beloved soul” and was written for the 20th Sunday after the Feast of the Trinity. There are seven movements: an SATB chorus, a tenor aria, a bass aria, an alto aria, two soprano arias, and a final chorus of the main musical theme.
Performing these works with a period orchestra in the space in which they were written and original performed almost 300 years ago is a dream come true.
Time to keep practicing.