Thomasschule, Leipzig

The Thomasschule was a boarding school attached to Leipzig’s principal church, St. Thomas’s (the Thomaskirche).

 Bach, as Kantor, was its director. The pupils at the school were selected on
musical aptitude, and it was the Kantor’s responsibility to select them and train them as singers. Instrumental training was provided for the most able of them, and all had to learn Latin. Bach refused to teach Latin, so he had to pay for a Latin tutor out of his own salary.

The Kantor, had to provide all the music for the four principal churches in Leipzig, and any other music the City Council required. To aid in this, the council employed some professional musicians: four wind-players, three fiddlers and ‘an apprentice’.

Most of Bach’s instrumentalists were drawn from amongst the Collegium Musicum, students at the University or pupils at the school. The age-range of the school’s pupils was from 12 to 23. At that time boys’ voices ‘broke’ at about 17 or 18, so in fact Bach had a pool of very able, experienced singers at the school; and his band was of high standing, despite the stinginess of the ‘official’ provision.

The Thomasschule placed severe restrictions on Bach’s choice of musicians to perform his music. However, the Collegium Musicum was a pool of highly competent musicians, some of them virtuosos of their instrument. It was from the Collegium Musicum that Bach drew his musicians for the secular cantatas.

A piece of ‘trivia’ not trivial at the time: on the day after the performance of no.215 Bach’s virtuoso trumpeter and the leader of the Leipzig Stadtpfeifer (town wind-band), Gottfried Reiche, died as a result of his musical exertions. Such are the demands of the first trumpet part of the Christmas Oratorio.


Leipzig Collegium Musicum

A Collegium Musicum was a music society.

With the burgeoning of bourgeois culture, particularly in prosperous and vibrant centres such as Leipzig, there began a slow shift away from music being made exclusively for The Court or The Church. Art music was becoming accessible to a much wider public. An example of this is the Music Hall in Dublin where Messiah received its first performance. Collegia musica were a vital part of this development.

Collegia musica brought musicians together to make music, and were often purely amateur in status. In Hamburg, Georg Philipp Telemann set up a collegium musicum in his own home.  It was Telemann who founded the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, in 1702 (when he was also associated with St. Thomas’s for a time). This became the focal point for professional musicians, and it was an organisation of real standing within the city, informal and voluntary institution though it was. Bach’s becoming director of the Collegium does not seem to have brought him any financial rewards, but it did greatly widen his scope, compared to the restrictions placed on him by his ‘day-job’ at the Thomasschule.


Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

The music for the Christmas Oratorio was not originally written for the Church but for  the name-day of Friedrich August II, the new Elector of Saxony – 3rd August,1733.

Bach, in his position as Director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, began a series of celebratory secular cantatas to mark the occasion.

Three of these are lost, including 215a (for the Elector’s coronation as King of Poland on 19th February 1734), but cantata no. 213, written for the Elector’s heir, does remain, along with 214 (for the Electress) and 215 (for the Elector). The music is festive and virtuosic; most was performed al fresco to complement the fireworks!

The Christmas Oratorio is a parody work based on these secular cantatas. It consists of six cantatas, the first of which was performed on Christmas Day 1734, and the last at Epiphany 1735.

Telemann 1721-67

The plum job

His main positions were Kantor of the Johanneum Lateinschule and Musical Director of the five main churches of the city.

Hamburg Johanneum

He had been living in Hamburg for about 14 years when he wrote Allein Gott in die Höh sei Ehre , by which time he was securely embedded as a most prominent and influential figure in Hamburg society.


Gaensemarkt Theater

He was also director of the Gänsemarkt opera house, where he mounted performances of his own operas, and those of other composers, particularly Handel’s, to which he added some of his own numbers. He founded a collegium musicum in Hamburg, and also one in Leipzig. It was originally intended that the collegium would give one concert a week during the winter season, but the public demanded two. On top of this he published his own music, wrote poetry and was corresponding agent for the Eisenach court, collecting news from across northern Europe.

Apart from a natural workaholic tendency, some of his workload may have been driven by the need to service the massive gambling debts his 2nd wife incurred.