Once led by Bach, St. Thomas Choir of Leipzig comes to Duke

The St. Thomas Choir, led by Johann Sebastian Bach in the 18th century, comes to Duke Chapel Nov. 14.
The St. Thomas Choir, led by Johann Sebastian Bach in the 18th century, comes to Duke Chapel Nov. 14.

The St. Thomas Choir of Leipzig has been performing for 805 years. Originally part of St. Thomas Monastery, the Choir grew from a musical school that trained boys for religious singing at church services to an internationally famous musical group. The all-boys choir is a living legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach, who served as the leader of the choir from 1723 to 1750. Although many contemporary composers write for the choir, Bach’s pieces remain the center of the choir’s performances.

In November the choir is performing at Duke Chapel. Despite performing several times in the United States, it is the choir’s first time performing in Durham. 

“It’s unusual that such a large choir tours internationally with all of its singers—there are fifty young musicians in St. Thomas Choir,” Ariel Fielding, marketing director of Duke Performances, said.

“The choir is amongst the most exceptional choirs in the world, certainly the premier of children’s choir in the world,” Aaron Greenwald, executive director of Duke Performances, said. “Not only does the choir have an exceptional history, but it seems to have been able to maintain the enormously high quality of music.”

Aged between nine and 18 years old, all members of the choir, called “Thomaners,” live in a dormitory, called “alumnat,” and attend St. Thomas school. The younger members who have not gone through puberty tend to be sopranos. As they get older and their voices break, they are moved to positions that require lower voices. When they are not practicing together, the boys take individual voice lessons, learn instruments or play at the school gym like other children their age.

The program is centered on the works of Bach, but it also includes the works of other composers like Johann Schein, who led St. Thomas choir about a hundred years before Bach. 

“The program is fairly wide-ranging in terms of style, but the through line is that this is all sacred music,” Fielding said. “This is all music that the choir might sing in services at St. Thomas in Leipzig.”

Duke University Chapel Organist Christopher Jacobson will be playing couple of selections by Mendelssohn and a solo by Bach. His solos will complement the music that the choir sings. 

“The choir is going to be in the front of the Chapel, and the organ I will be playing is the one in the back,” Jacobson said. “The idea is to have a setup similar to their home church, St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.”

Having attended a boarding choir school from age nine to 14, Jacobson has a meaningful connection to such a performance. He recalled that his years at the choir school were parts of an incredible formative experience, because singing in the choir gave him the privilege to have professional musical exposure and to participate in high quality choral music at such an early age. Jacobson considered it an honor to be asked to play the organ for such a world-famous choir.

“A group of folks teaches you how to be a part of a team, how to be a part of something coming together to form something bigger than yourself, and to understand that people are counting on you and you are counting on them,” he said. 

St. Thomas Choir’s performance is a part of Duke Performances’ decade long Vocal Ensemble Series, in which it has invited many exceptional choirs.

“Duke Performances has for the last decades built a good reputation for being able to generate robust audience and for having exceptional venues like Duke Chapel and Baldwin Auditorium where the choirs can perform,” Greenwald said.

Durham’s high demand for vocal ensemble performances also made the rare opportunity possible. 

“Choral music is an interesting genre in that the amateur can perform at quite a high level and is a participatory performance genre,” Fielding said. “A lot of people in the audience for the St. Thomas Choir performance at Duke Chapel will have some experience [being choir members] themselves.”

The audience’s insight into the choir’s techniques and approaches to the pieces will help the audience appreciate the performance better. However, Fielding added that such expertise is not required to enjoy the show.

“Bach was one of the greatest composers of the whole time, and the choir is a direct descendant of him in terms of musical lineage,” Fielding said. 

Listening to the choir’s music as it resonates through the gothic chapel will be like bringing Bach back to the 21st century and promises to be a memorable experience.


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