Few of the world's great boys choirs have the pedigree of St Thomas' in Leipzig. Neither war, nor plague or isolation from the outside world could silence its voices.
"I think that the first beat of the kettledrum and the beginning of the choir singing: "Jauchzet frohlocket," is something that always stays in your mind. When you sing Bach your body really vibrates, this rhythm just grips and enthuses you," says choirboy Oscar Didt. Oskar is a member of the latest generation at the 800-year-old institution, where once Johann Sebastian Bach himself was choirmaster, so he is central to their repertoire.
The Christmas Oratorio is one of Bach's masterpieces, composed in 1734. For 27 years he taught the St. Thomas church choir. In the early years the weekly discipline of writing a new cantata helped make him one of the most prolific geniuses in history. "His spirit lives on through his music and you can feel it. We are blessed that we have Johann Sebastian Bach as a constant source of inspiration," says Georg Christoph Biller, the 16th choirmaster since Bach.
Some 100 boys and young men aged between nine and 18 live under one roof in the boarding school. It is a tight-knit community and it is all about singing, even squeezing the first song of the day in before lunch. With such a heritage and pedigree, the choir sets very high standards. Tradition, discipline and team spirit are the pillars of this 800-year unbroken existence so growing up here means taking on responsibilities, too.
"What makes the Thomas Boys so special? Mainly something that is maybe not so obvious from the outside: there are strong relationships between the older and younger choir members. We have a unique education system where as well as the teachers, the older students take care of the younger ones, educating them, so their experiences can be passed on," says Oskar. The choir puts its heart and soul into continuing Bach's legacy. "When you sing his music you have to pronounce the text precisely and put a lot of effort into it. You can't sing it halfheartedly. You really have to embrace the music," says co-chorister Max Gläser.
Choirmaster Georg Christoph Biller says in a way Bach's qualities ensure his longevity. "I think what characterises Bach's music is that on the one hand there is a deep devoutness to it but on the other hand his music is completely universal. Bach's music can be seen as a bridge between different worlds, giving people a chance to connect."
John Eliot Gardiner's tour with the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists
Les Talens Lyriques – Festival de Saintes