The Artistic Directors of the Munich Bach Choir

(from the very personal view of a choir member)

Karl Richter, Founder and Artistic Director from 1954 to 1981
– he made Munich a Bach city

At the time, I had presumably not yet heard a concert under his direction. I knew his name from my parents, who knew of him as an organist in Leipzig and enjoyed attending his concerts in Munich. Then, the summer of 1958: Herkulessaal der Residenz in Munich, a large orchestra on the stage, many microphones and a director's stool with a gothic-shaped back. On it sat a properly attired young man who spoke to the choir and orchestra in a distinct Saxon accent and often telephoned with the recording engineer. With his ensemble, consisting of the Munich Bach Choir, the Munich Bach Orchestra and well-known soloists, Karl Richer recorded Bach's St. Matthew's Passion for the first time. As a Munich choirboy, I was allowed to sing along with the cantus firmus in the beginning and ending chorales of the first movement, and was quite excited. Richter's approach was strict and concentrated, but he was very patient with the childrens' entrances. This legendary Archiv Produktion recording is still in the catalog; it shows Richter's dramatic, spontaneous musicality. The Bach Choir sounded very youthful. It was Karl Richter's first project with Deutsche Grammophon, and was followed by many important recordings to date (ending in the summer of 1979 with a second performance of the St. Matthew's Passion). Previously, Richter and his choir (still known as the Heinrich Schütz Kreis) had recorded the musical offerings of Heinrich Schütz, and for Teldec (as the Munich Bach Choir), Bach's cantatas and the Christmas Oratorio.

Karl Richter, born in Plauen in1926 as the son of a minister, was a singer in a church choir in Dresden in 1938, and continued his musical education in Dresden and later in Leipzig under Rudolf Mauersberger, Karl Straube and Günther Ramin. In 1946, Peter Schreier knew him as a prefect and assistant Mauersberger and wrote about him in an album cover in 1981: "With every work, he already engaged himself so intensively that he basically played or directed from memory... and not only did he play, he turned Bach's music into a great experience. We all knew at the time, what a great musician was developing here."

At a very young age, he became the organist at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. He came to Munich in 1951 and became a docent (and professor in 1956) at the Musikhochschule, organist and cantor at St. Markus and took over the Heinrich Schütz Kreis Choir that was based there. In May of 1954, at the recommendation of its director, the choir first became known as the Munich Bach Choir.
This was the beginning of a collective success story, formed by the Bach week in Ansbach (1956 to 1964), recordings and television productions, concert tours (Italy, Austria, Switzerland, England, Finland, Greece, USA, Canada, the Soviet Union and Japan) and by countless concerts in Munich. St. Markus, where evening performances were regularly held, in which Karl Richter also played great organ works and improvised on the organ, soon became too small. The Herkulessaal and primarily, the Kongreßsaal of the Deutsches Museum served as venues due to the lack of an appropriate concert church. These were attended by a large audience – people who casually referred to Karl Richter as Munich's Bach-Pope, who had "grown up" listening to Bach at the time. For many years, the concerts were regularly sold out. The exceptionally popular first part of the Christmas Oratorio was often performed on two successive evenings.

As a friend of mine asked me at the beginning of 1963 whether I would like to sing in the Bach Choir, I went to a rehearsal of the St. John's Passion in the Musikhochschule, accompanied by considerable stage fright. The acceptance ritual was short: I had to sing a chorale, my musical ear was tested with simple intervals and at the end, Karl Richter asked whether I owned a black suit. With that, I had passed. I was a member of a very renowned choir at that time. Two rehearsals a week, many concerts and additional recording dates – the time pressure was immense. But the identification of the choir members with the choir and their director was extremely high; the charisma of Karl Richter was irresistible. That allowed us to forget about the physical and psychological stress. Richter motivated us with his type of musicianship. Musical descriptions were implied with a few words or demonstrated on the piano. He hardly ever criticized a concert. However, criticism during the rehearsals or of individual choir members was often quite direct. But Richter could also shake off a tense rehearsal situation with a dry remark ("Did anyone get hurt?" / "Are you singing from the evening paper?").

As I remember it, Karl Richter was a concert musician who often spontaneously performed differently than he had rehearsed. That required a high amount of concentration for all those involved. Whether it was recordings or television productions, Richter had that effect – at least, that was my impression – often uninvolved, almost caught up within himself. He was aware of the upcoming trends regarding historical recordings, but was obviously not swayed by them. It's pointless to speculate how and with which orchestra he would perform the St. Matthew's Passion today.

Bach, Handel, and Schütz stood at the center of his work. The great choral works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bruckner, Dvorak and Verdi were also dear to him however. He would also direct symphonies from the classical and romantic periods or operas from Gluck and Wagner. He performed Bach's Mass in B-minor a good 90 times with the choir. That all sounds routine. For the choir and for the listeners – and in my view, this is what best distinguishes Karl Richter as a musician – it was always an exciting and fully musical experience.

Naturally, there were also crises, disagreements and variations in quality during the 30 years that he directed the Bach Choir and its forerunner. In the later years, however, Karl Richter was once again strongly involved with is choir; shortly before his death he took on the task of holding auditions for the planned trip to Japan in 1981. He died in a hotel in Munich on February 15, 1981. The choir members, for whom the Bach Choir was the central focus of their lives, couldn't believe it. For us, what Joachim Kaiser wrote in his obituary for the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" on February 17, applied above all: "Richter's art has enriched all of our lives." How would it continue? Could the choir survive without Karl Richter? The first great concert to follow, the St. John's Passion directed by Ekkehard Tietze, the memorial concert under Leonard Bernstein and the following trip to Japan with Günter Jena were signals for the future.

It was fortunate for the choir that a friend of Karl Richter's from his Leipzig period had taken over the rehearsals. Ekkehard Tietze (1914-1995) had directed the Thomaner Choir for a while and was then a church musician in Potsdam for a lengthy period. In 1979, he was able to relocate to Munich. Then, in February 1981, he helped the Bach Choir in critical times, conducted many rehearsals, directed concerts, was a critical listener at concerts of potential new directors and intensively prepared the choir for the difficult task of finding a new artistic director. Ekkehard Tietze certainly would not have dreamed that this search would first come to fruition at the end of 1984 and that he would still be retained as provisional artistic director until mid 1985. He viewed our decision to elect Hanns-Martin Schneidt very positively, because he was convinced that the choir definitely needed a multi-faceted musician with broad experience in dealing with choral and orchestral music.

Hanns-Martin Schneidt, Artistic Director from 1984 to 2001
– an important era

Above all, I knew that Hanns-Martin Schneidt, who was mentioned as a possible successor to Karl Richter by the 1982/83 Board of Directors of the choir (of which I was a member at that time), had recorded very important and highly praised original-instrument recordings with Archiv Produktion (primarily, the Psalms of David by Schütz and the Maria Vesper by Monteverdi, which I had bought as LPs and listened to often) and that he often appeared at the Bach Week in Ansbach. In 1982, a good year after Karl Richter's death, he came to the first rehearsal of Haydn's Creation at the Musikhochschule in Munich. He had agreed to direct the performance at the Basilica of Ottobeurn in July.

Born in 1930 in Kitzingen am Main as a minister's son like Karl Richter and like this choirboy, Hanns-Martin Schneidt was a member of the Thomaner Choir, the Leipzig-based competition to the Kreuzchor in Dresden, a student of Günther Ramin in Leipzig, and a student of Friedrich Högner, Kurt Eichhorn, Maria Hindemith-Landes, Li Stadelmann and Karl Höller in Munich, a composer, an organist and a cantor in Munich and was summoned to Berlin at nearly 25 years of age. There, he took over direction of the Kirchenmusikschule in Berlin-Spandau and founded a Bach ensemble at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche. In 1963, he became General Music Director of the city Wuppertal, later the musical director of the opera. Between 1971 and 1978, he was a professor of orchestral conducting in Hamburg. He directed numerous recordings for Archiv Produktion - in addition to Schütz and Monteverdi, also Vivaldi and especially Bach – with the Regensburger Domspatzen and Collegium St. Emmeram.

As Hanns-Martin Schneidt stepped up to the Bach Choir in 1982, we immediately felt that he knew exactly what he wanted. The rehearsals for Haydn's Creation were intense and very strenuous but also effective. We were amazed as he recreated the orchestral parts on the piano; we noticed how precise his directing was. He explained a lot – what the taciturn Karl Richter hardly had done. The concert in the wonderful basilica in Ottobeuern held up to what the rehearsals had promised. Soon it became clear that it would be worthwhile to explore the possibilities of arranging for him to come to Munich. Lengthy negotiations at many levels (primarily conducted by our first Member of the Board Heinrich Geierstanger) were always with the friendly pestering of the Munich press. In November 1984 the Board of Directors could finally present Hanns-Martin Schneidt to the press as the new artistic director, after the choir had long since approved him and Schneidt had successfully conducted several concerts in 1983 and 1984. "Schneidt would do well for the Bach Choir", as the Süddeutsche Zeitung declared on November 24, 1983 in a positive critique of the Brahms Requiem. The new "boss" finalized his move to Munich in 1985 after successfully completing Wagner's Ring in Wuppertal. He became a professor at the Musikhochschule, directed several external engagements with the Bavarian State Opera and conducted the majority of the Bach Choir rehearsals himself in the fall of 1985.

As someone who had experienced Karl Richter for nearly 18 years and had sung in the Bach Choir during the entire Schneidt era, please allow me to say what distinguished Hanns-Martin Schneidt during his time with the Bach Choir. For me, he was a "musician oriented" director – his tempos were flowing and rapid, he gladly worked on the details, his orchestras for Bach and Handel were smaller than those of Karl Richter. I particularly enjoyed singing Schütz with him. The rehearsals were very important to him – he often directed from the piano and took every piece seriously - whether it was the Christmas carol "Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen", a Schütz motet, Bach's St. Matthew Passion or Verdi's Requiem. He opened up new horizons for us – a wide spectrum including Leonhard Lechner, Claudio Monteverdi and Dietrich Buxtehude to Paul Hindemith, Ernst Pepping and Hugo Distler. The choir had previously never sung many great works by Berlioz, Bruckner, Mozart, Orff, Rossini or Verdi – Schneidt took command of these pieces and brought them closer to us. Naturally, Schütz, Bach and Handel still remained our mainstay, which he performed differently than his predecessor – something the press and audience did not always appreciate. The choir was younger, sounded clearer and less burdened with sopranos as before. And with the many new works, we became faster and more flexible at learning. Schneidt explained a lot, he gladly spoke of musical or theological contexts. His passion for explaining and music making was conveyed to us in many rehearsals.

I'm not surprised that in such lengthy periods of cooperation there were also periods of fatigue. The experienced choir singers knew that from Karl Richter's period. Often, the artistic director simply forgot that we were unpaid amateurs who came to the rehearsals after a strenuous day in order to make music. His suddenly announced decision to quit the direction of the choir to increase his involvement with his Bach Choir in Tokyo came as a surprise to nearly everyone. However the Schneidt era (1984/85 to 2001), which ended with the St. Mathew Passion was exciting and important for the Bach Choir. For Schneidt, it was more difficult to "exist" as a choir with the increasing competition in the demanding musical city of Munich than it had been for Karl Richter, who was able to make use of the post-war enthusiasm.

In spring of 2001, 20 years after Karl Richter's death, a new transition phase began for the Bach Choir once again – the choir had to launch a second search for an artistic director. Again a musician was found who, with great personal effort, helped the choir to be able to successfully perform in the coming years. Philipp Amelung, born in 1973, former soloist of the Tölzer Knabenchor, was an trained singer and voice teacher, conductor and experienced choir director. He conducted the rehearsals, handled the voice training himself, prepared the choir for concerts by guest directors and also helped the successor candidates with their work with us and additionally conducted several motet concerts himself. His period as the provisional artistic director of the Bach Choir ended in the summer of 2005. In February of 2005 the choir chose the native of Freiburg, Hansjörg Albrecht, as the new artistic director. Albrecht, who was invited at the recommendation of Peter Schreier in July of 2002 to direct the motet concert in honor of Bach's day of death and who directed several additional concerts since then, became the third artistic director of the Munich Bach Choir as of September 2005.

Klaus Stadler

(initially written as individual text for the anniversary program pamphlet of September 2004, revised and extended in November 2007)

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