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Christiane Bräutigam on Why Bach Still Matters

Christiane Bräutigam leads music in a church founded in 1702 by refugees in a city famous for its Bach heritage. She explains why J.S. Bach’s music and example are relevant for churches today.

Christiane Bräutigam is a conductor, organist, music teacher and director of choir and liturgical music at the Reformed Church of Leipzig, Saxony, Germany. She is a frequent performer at the annual Leipzig Bachfest, which honors Johann Sebastian Bach. In this edited conversation, Bräutigam talks about how Bach’s legacy lives on in churches working for peace.

Are there connections between the Reformed Church of Leipzig and Johann Sebastian Bach or other musicians?

Our church was started in 1702 by Huguenot refugees, French Protestants fleeing persecution. From 1723-1750, J.S. Bach was Thomaskantor at Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Lutheran Church). He provided music for four churches, including Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Lutheran Church). At that time, our congregation met in a building just beside St. Thomas. Our current church building is situated a short walk from St. Thomas and St. Nicholas and is about 70 meters [230 feet] from the house where Richard Wagner lived in his first years. There is also a direct and quite poetic line from Bach via Felix Mendelssohn to our church.

How so?

The music of J.S. Bach was not so much appreciated and played in the years after his death. In 1837, however, a Reformed Church pastor’s daughter, Cecile Jeanrenaud, married perhaps the most famous fan of J.S. Bach. This fan revived interest in Bach by conducting St. Matthew Passion in concert 100 years after it was first debuted. The fan was composer Felix Mendelssohn. He and Cecile settled in Leipzig, and all their children were baptized in our church.

Church music doesn’t have the prominence today in Calvinistic Reformed churches as it has in Lutheran worship, but the music of Bach and Mendelssohn and others still has a big place in our church. Their oratorios are played in our church concerts. We use their music in some worship services, including the mette (morning service) given every day of the annual Leipzig Bachfest.

What Bach stories do you tell to your university organ students?

I usually don´t tell stories, because the music is so interesting and captures almost all the attention. However, when I practiced with the choir for Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, I told them that Bach arranged the melody used for “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” in his St. Matthew Passion. He used that same melody, but with different words, for the first and last parts of his Christmas Oratorio. This is well known and makes theological sense. I also told them that the melody was being used already 150 years earlier for a simple folk song about unrequited love. The text of that love song was written as an akrostichon (acrostic). Collect the first letters of each verse, and you will find the name of a lady: MARIA. 

How can Bach’s music be a model for church worship today?

Bach’s music is not just a theoretic model. Even today it is a lived reality. In our city and other authentic Bach places, such as Weimar and Eisenach, there are worship services and special services that follow the liturgical order of Bach’s era. And, of course, the famous Leipzig Bachfest and other music festivals do his music in masses and morning worship services.

But even in normal Sunday morning worship, there is a time and place to hear the scripture readings transformed in music, sung by choirs or soloists. Sometimes the simple gospel reading can take as long as—imagine!—one complete cantata. This was the case at a recent Epiphany service at St. Thomas Lutheran in Leipzig. The entire Part 6 [about 23 minutes] of the Christmas Oratorio was sung and played, not as a concert, but as a reading in worship.

Like Bach, our church has a special interest in spiritual music, singing and urban musical life. Our experienced choir can sing anything from baroque to modern music. Bach inspired many composers to write music based on religious texts. For instance, the second movement of Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms hints at Bach’s The Musical Offering. Music by and inspired by Bach can be a part of (and maybe even a kind of) worship. You can also reflect on what the people and churches required and expected from church music and worship in Bach’s time compared to what you and your community expect from them.

Even in churches that rarely or never use Bach’s music, how can his example influence how we approach music in the church?

Look at the circumstances of Bach as Thomaskantor. His congregations had high expectations about the role of church music and the need for—and pleasure in—hearing music that preaches. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they had a regional music tradition that included reformation of music. And they created an economic base to realize these wishes, needs and expectations. Churches today can approach music in the same way.

What do you remember about your church’s role in bringing down the Berlin Wall in 1989?

At age 14, I took part in the peace prayers, first at St. Nicholas and then in our church, which was the second to open its doors for these prayers. Their example encouraged other churches to give people a somewhat safe place to meet, pray and protest. I loved this “all in one” ambiance of peace, calm and tension. I liked how what was happening confirmed the opposition that my family spoke about at home.

Our pastor at the time, Hans-Jürgen Sievers, told stories about Christian nonviolence and Martin Luther King Jr. He agreed to let a camera crew take photos and videos from our church tower, which gives an exquisite view of city landmarks. These films were broadcast on Western channels and are famous even today for the signal they gave the world. We felt euphoric about the possibility that churches could take part in bringing down the wall. At that time even people who believed in justice—but not in God—seemed to trust the churches. Looking back, we overestimated the political role of the congregations. We can’t know for sure whether the political change would have happened even without church involvement, but we believe that the churches and prayers made the revolution as peaceful as it was.

Are local churches still working for peace?

Yes, although it’s in a much smaller way. People in general don’t go out in the streets with the same power as they did in 1989. We do still sing some of those same songs in worship. Several churches still host peace prayers. Not as many people come as before the wall came down, but there are still many things to care about and pray for. Current peace prayers and demonstrations are mainly against racism and xenophobia. Our churches still offer a good and peaceful home and company for people who are discontent with the circumstances.

What is your role during the 2017 World Council of Reformed Churches (WCRC) meeting in Leipzig?

I will conduct the big psalms concert in Nikolaikirche. Our music will include Mendelssohn, Bernstein and contemporary pieces written especially for the 26th WCRC General Council. I am also part of a group preparing all worship services for the nine-day gathering.


Christiane Bräutigam presented at the 2017 Calvin Symposium on Worship. Leipzig will host the World Council of Reformed Churches Youth Gathering (June 23-28, 2017) and 26th General Council (June 29-July 10).