“Where the Music Comes From”

A highlight of Penn State University Concert Choir’s tour of Germany was singing Bach’s music in the very places where it was written. Dr. Christopher Kiver, Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities, Penn State University, tells us more.
In May 2019, the Penn State University Concert Choir undertook a ten-day concert tour of eastern Germany. Arriving in Frankfurt, the choir visited Gotha, Eisenach, Römhild, Leipzig, Görlitz, Bautzen, and Berlin, performing music by German and American composers with a number of works composed by composers associated with some of these locations.
We presented three evening performances and two lunchtime concerts to large and appreciative audiences – one audience demanded five encores! In total, the audiences donated more than €5,000 to various charitable groups, helping with everything from building renovations to buying a minivans to help transport unhoused clients to job interviews.
We were fortunate the tour took in everything from medieval towns to the capital city. While we experienced wonderful tours, sight-seeing, opportunities to attend concerts and sample lots of fabulous German food, the highlight was taking a mini “pilgrimage” of towns associated with Johann Sebastian Bach.

Visiting the Bach Memorial at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany. Photo by Marianne Swienink-Havard
Beginning in Eisenach with the wonderful Bach museum (Bachhaus), based in the house where Bach spent his childhood years, the museum boasts autograph scores, books and bibles owned by Bach, and informative short movies. Visitors are treated to a fascinating demonstration and explanation of period keyboard instruments. While on a guided tour of the town, we gave an impromptu performance in the Georgenkirche of Bach’s motet Lobet den Herrn, standing around the composer’s baptismal font. While that was exciting, singing in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig was incredible. After giving a lunchtime performance there, we were honored to be invited to sing around the composer’s grave.

An impromptu sing around Bach’s baptismal font, at Georgenkirche in Eisenach. Photo by Marianne Swienink-Havard.
Reflecting on the tour, Lindsay Dudis, a sophomore voice major wrote, “It was amazing to see where the music came from and the beautiful landscapes and places which inspired it. Singing in the old churches was so amazing, voices seemed to echo not only through the walls, but through their history. The most touching part of tour for me was singing around Bach’s grave. It felt like going through the ultimate audition, but I felt so proud to be singing thank you to someone who fathered music. I, along with many others, cried in thanks.”

Singing around Bach’s grave while visiting the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany. Photo by Marianne Swienink-Havard.
Later that day we were fortunate enough to hear the resident choir (boys and men) of the church sing during a worship service. Closing my eyes, with beautiful sounds resonating around the sanctuary, I was most moved contemplating the history of the choir and imagining Bach himself leading the music.
In almost every town and city, it seemed every tour guide and many locals proudly claimed Bach as being their composer, that their community had a stronger claim on Bach than anyone else in Germany!  Such pride and knowledge of choral music carried over into our performances as every audience seemed to connect deeply to the music we performed – they weren’t coming to watch us because they knew of us or were supporting family or friends, they were coming to support the music.
At one concert, we sang Abschied vom Walde by Mendelssohn and announcing the title alone drew applause. The students saw that many in the audience were singing along, some with tears streaming down their cheeks. The length and warmth of applause was also unlike anything we have ever experienced in the United States, so it was especially pleasing for students to experience a remarkably different artistic culture.
Our tour will live long in the memory for all concerned.  Jared Kehler, a senior in Film and Video, wrote, “We were able to perform in some amazing venues, with intricate designs, amazing acoustics and, most importantly, enthusiastic audiences…I certainly will not forget about this fantastic experience!”
I have undertaken numerous tours as student and teacher, and this was by far the most rewarding, musically, culturally and socially.  Thanks to a well-planned itinerary, students now have an excellent understanding of the history and culture of this part of Germany.