The Carl-Philipp-Emanuel-Bach-Chor Hamburg can look back on a long and successful history under a series of different names (“St. Michaeliskirchenchor“, “Jugendchor St. Michaelis“, “St. Michaelis-Chor Hamburg“, “Carl-Philipp-Emanuel-Bach-Chor Hamburg“). This history goes all the way back to the era of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach himself, and was, up to 1998, closely connected with Hamburg’s St. Michaelis Church. Since 1998 the choir has been a free concert choir.
1. St. Michaeliskirchenchor
As long ago as the time of C.Ph.E.Bach – not least due to the increasingly poor quality of the municipal boys’ choir – choirs of adult singers, mostly assembled ad hoc for a particular occasion, sang in performances in St. Michaelis. In the 19th century, municipal choirs were formed – such as the Cäcilienverein and the Hamburger Singakademie - which took over this task. St. Michaelis only had its own church choir from 1912 onwards. Alfred Sittard, one of the most eminent German church musicians between the wars, founded this choir, which began its activities on the completion of the rebuilt church (the previous church had been destroyed in a fire in 1906).
The choir took the name “St. Michaeliskirchenchor”and was constituted as a registered society under German Law (eingetragener Verein – e.V.), a legal entity of its own. This legal construction – renewed in 1954 – was chosen for various reasons: the pragmatic motive behind it was to cater to the necessity to have an official promoter for the increasing number of church concerts now being given; the social motive aimed at attracting further members over and above the circle of those engaged in church activities to take over organisational responsibility. The construction as an e.V. has functioned very well over a period of decades. It was abolished in1998 by the Church Governors in a conflict situation.
Alfred Sittard, as his concert programmes reveal, felt a strong commitment to performing Bach’s works. But this preference left plenty of room for other, also contemporary compositions, e.g. the Grande Messe des Morts op.5 by Hector Berlioz, Verdi’ s Messa da Requiem, Liszt´s Graner Messe, the Hymne op.34 No.2 by Richard Strauss, Honegger’s King David and Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony. Sittard went to Berlin in 1933, where he took over the direction of the Berliner Staats- und Domchor. Hamburg had lost a great (church) musician.
His successor Friedrich Brinkmann, who was inaugurated in 1935, set quite different accents. “The works for large choral and orchestral forces which had predominated under Sittard, such as Bruckner, Berlioz, Liszt, Dvorak and Verdi, disappeared entirely from the programme, and even Bach’s Passions or Handel’s “Messiah” were only seldom performed” (E. Kleßmann). Brinkmann favoured a cappella music, especially the works of Heinrich Schütz and Johannes Brahms; the repertoire also included contemporary composers, e.g. Kurt Thomas, whom Brinkmann held in high esteem, and Wolfgang Fortner.
2. The Jugendchor St. Michaelis
After St. Michaelis was largely destroyed by bombing in 1945, performances of oratorios were out of the question until the church had been rebuilt. Brinkmann therefore from time to time gave performances with his choir, now called “Jugendchor St.Michaelis“, in the Musikhalle (today the Laeiszhalle). Besides the concerts and singing in church services, the choir had gained another task in the first few years after the war: the Nordwestdeutsche Rundfunk (NWDR) had a requirement for sacred music, mainly for its morning service broadcasts, and the choir provided this with many recordings of high quality.
When St. Michaelis was reconsecrated in 1952, only four years were left to Brinkmann to achieve what he wanted. This period saw performances of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the St. Matthew Passion. In 1957, Brinkmann’s health had deteriorated so severely that he was no longer able to conduct performances and was forced to leave his post.
His successor in 1958 was Friedrich Bihn, who had previously been organist at St. Jacobi in Hamburg, with its Arp-Schnitger organ. The transition did not go smoothly. Many members of the choir were not happy with the choice, since Bihn’s reputation as an excellent organist was undisputed, but he had little experience with choirs. They left the choir. In the course of time things settled down, however. Bihn founded a tradition which has continued to this day: the annual performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and the Christmas Oratorio, often in multiple performances. Like his predecessor Brinkmann he avoided large-scale symphonic works: the performance of Bruckner’s Te Deum must be seen here as the exception which proves the rule.
3. St. Michaelis-Chor Hamburg
A major turning point in the history of the choir came in 1974, when Günter Jena took over as choir director. The choir now no longer went under the name of “Jugendchor St. Michaelis”, but became “St. Michaelis-Chor Hamburg”. The choir quickly established an excellent reputation for artistic eminence. The performances in St. Michaelis, especially of the works of J.S. Bach, are often musical events of outstanding quality, which leave a lasting impact on cultural life in Hamburg– und beyond. The names of the singers and recitalists the choir works together with are a hallmark of the outstanding quality of the concerts and the series introduced by Günter Jena under the title “Musik und Dichtung”: they include Theo Adam, José Carreras, Ileana Cotrubas, Franz Grundheber, René Kollo, Christa Ludwig, Kurt Moll, Margaret Price and Peter Schreier as well as Elisabeth Flickenschildt, Heinz Rühmann and Gert Westphal. In particular the performances of the St. Matthew Passion – both as conventional concerts as well as in the ballet version choreographed by John Neumeier – make a deep and lasting impression on many audiences. The year 1985 must stand out as one of the high points in Jena’s period as choir director: together with the choir’s management board, he planned and organized more than 100 concerts and introductory talks in this extraordinary year, which marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of Bach, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti and the 400th of the birth of Heinrich Schütz. Recurring highlights were also the 41 “Musik und Dichtung” readings with Heinz Rühmann, which took place every Advent from 1977 till 1993 in St. Michaelis.
In view of the attractiveness of St. Michaelis as a concert venue, the choir only seldom undertook concert tours. In 1974 they sang Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Salle de Pleyel and the Theatre de la Ville in Paris. A guest performance of the same work with John Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet was given in 1987 at the Deutsche Staatsoper Unter den Linden as part of the celebrations to mark the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin. At the turn of the year 1995/96, the choir was a guest in Israel at the celebrations to mark the 3000th anniversary of the founding of Jerusalem (and gave performances of the Christmas Oratorio under the baton of Peter Schreier and of the Verdi Requiem conducted by David Shallon).
When Günter Jena retired from his post in 1998, it marked the end of what was probably the era of the greatest musical brilliance ever experienced by Hamburg’s principle church.
When it came to choosing Jena’s successor, an acrimonious conflict broke out which caused a stir throughout Germany. On the one hand opinions diverged as to the suitability of the candidate favoured by the Church Governors for one of the (potentially) most influential and prestigious posts which a church musician can aspire to in Germany. As if this dispute had not been fierce enough in itself, it was overlaid by a further conflict: the Church Governors were evidently no longer willing to have a registered society as a separate legal entity with the rights of participation that go with such a status as their choir. In the end, they exerted their authority as the “landlord” of St. Michaelis – with the result that the choir and almost all of its members left the “Michel” – in the view of many citizens of Hamburg the most impressive concert venue in the entire city.
4. Carl-Philipp-Emanuel-Bach-Chor Hamburg
Despite the uncertain future during this phase, the choir was able to count both on the firm commitment of its members and the competence which the management board of the society had gained over years of organizing concerts. They were now faced with the task of steering a course for the choir without a permanent choir director. It was a great stroke of luck in this situation that they succeeded in engaging Michael Schönheit, organist at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, as conductor for several years. Schönheit left his stamp on the choir, which now, after the exodus from St. Michaelis, gave itself the name of “Carl-Philipp-Emanuel-Bach-Chor Hamburg”, through his highly professional rehearsal technique, which led to a lasting improvement in the vocal abilities of the choir singers. On top of this, the choir director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Ekkehard Schreiber, took over the rehearsals to prepare the Carl-Philipp-Emanuel-Bach-Chor for the works in the new programme. The performances which resulted bore eloquent witness to the success of this collaboration – and also included guest appearances, e.g. at the Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and the Merseburger Orgeltage festivals.
Michael Schönheit was succeeded by Hansjörg Albrecht, artistic director of the Münchener Bach-Chor & Bach-Orchester. His activity as principal guest conductor of the choir began with a Christmas concert in December 2006. With his broad-based artistic competence and highly efficient rehearsals, Albrecht brought the choir to new levels of singing accomplishment as well as musical flexibility. Albrecht embodies a musical concept strongly reminiscent of Alfred Sittard’s: a glowing enthusiasm for the works of J.S. Bach (and other Baroque composers) while at the same time being open for the large-scale symphonic works up to and including the Modern era. His highly original ideas for programme designs, too, set a trend (incorporating a cappella music too). These put together works – some of them rarely heard - in combinations which illustrate fascinating relationships to each other.
The Carl-Philipp-Emanuel-Bach-Chor, as Hamburg’s prestigious concert choir, is regularly invited to take part in concerts organized by other promoters. Thus there have been cooperations with the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg (conductors: Gerd Albrecht und Ingo Metzmacher), the Hamburg Ballett of John Neumeier (in performances of “Dona nobis pacem” in the Hamburgische Staatsoper under the baton of Günter Jena), the Hamburger Symphoniker (conductors: Andrey Boreyko and Jeffrey Tate among others) as well as the Philharmonisches Orchester der Hansestadt Lübeck (conductor: Roman Brogli-Sacher).
The Carl-Philipp-Emanuel-Bach-Chor broke new ground when it appeared in opera performances in the Hamburg Color Line Arena (today the O2-World). In all, audiences of some 25,000 in each case heard “Aida”, “Carmen” and “Nabucco” conducted by Ralf Weikert. The choir was prepared by the former choir director of the Hamburgische Staatsoper, Jürgen Schulz. He also directs the rehearsals for the performances of Beethoven’s Ninth on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day which are a recurring feature at the turn of every year.
5. The registered society “Carl-Philipp-Emanuel-Bach-Chor Hamburg e.V.”The Carl-Philipp-Emanuel-Bach-Chor is constituted in the legal form of a registered society. The responsibility for the running of the choir’s activities is vested in its management board. This is elected by the general assembly of the members of the choir for a term of four years and consists of three board members. Further persons can be co-opted in various capacities. The choir has always run its affairs out of its own resources on an honorary basis. Further support, both financial and non-material (through ideas and contacts), comes from the Carl-Philipp-Emanuel-Bach-Gesellschaft zu Hamburg e.V.
Eckart Kleßmann, Der St. Michaelis-Chor
in: 50 Jahre St. Michaelis-Chor (1945 – 1995)