As much as Leipzig has been celebrating its native son Wagner this week, it is J.S. Bach—who lived in Leipzig for the last 27 years of his life—whom they hold dearest to their hearts. Bach wrote thousands of works while he served as Thomaskantor at the Thomaskirche from 1723-1750, including the Mass in B minor, both the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, hundreds of cantatas, and numerous organ works.
The Thomaskirche still stands exactly where it has since 1212, on the eastern end of the old city center. If you visit, you'll find a large monument to Bach standing outside the east door; inside, you'll find Bach himself laying under a huge bronze slab in front of the altar. But, the Thomaskirche is no museum—it is a living memorial with three weekly services featuring Bach's music, performed by members of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Thomanerchor, who celebrated their 800th anniversary last year. Just as the Bayreuth Festpielhaus is a mandatory destination for any Wagner devotee, in order to truly appreciate Bach's music, you have to hear it performed in this church.
So on my way out of town yesterday, I stopped by the afternoon service, which was so packed by the time I arrived that I had to sit on the stone floor beneath the pulpit. There was no view to speak of, but the music soared through the high white nave. On this occasion, Wagner's music featured prominently, with Thomasorganist Ullrich Bohme playing Liszt's transcription of the "Pilgrim's Chorus" from Tannhauser, and the Thomanerchor singing "Da zu dir der Heiland kam" from Die Meistersinger, as well as Wagner's early motet, "Dein ist das Reich," written in 1832 while studying with Thomaskantor Theodor Weinlig.
The core of the service, though, was reserved for Bach's cantata Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott ("Praise be the Lord, my God," BWV 129) composed for Trinity Sunday, which is today. Written for orchestra, chorus, and three singers (soprano, alto and bass), the music—written early on in Bach's tenure in Leipzig—was pure perfection: three arias bookended by two joyous chorales, filled with trumpet fanfares. Even more magical was the fact that most of the congregation couldn't see the performers from their station up in the choir loft.
As is tradition, there was also a new motet on the program: Matthias Drude's (b. 1960) "Dreiklang," written in 2012 as a response to Bach's "Gelobet sei der Herr" and given its first performance here. The music, which was sung without pause, was generally tonal and accessible, with an exceedingly beautiful center section and a finale that approached the chromaticism of late Wagner.
The real surprise came after the service, when I went to the front of the nave to pay my respects at Bach's grave. I was there snapping pictures when suddenly, the entire Thomanerchor descended from the choir loft and took its place on the altar behind me. With nowhere to go, I found myself seated less than 20 feet from the choir as they sang two more Bach motets under their longtime director Georg Christoph Biller, apparently in honor of the graduating chorus members. Suffice it to say, I won't soon forget the wonder and awe I felt hearing Bach's music sung by his own choir at such close range, with Bach himself laying immediately to my left.