Bach at the Sem
Since its inaugural season in 1993, the American Kantorei, the performing group of Bach at the Sem, has presented to the communities of Concordia Seminary and St. Louis at large nearly 100 concerts of the music of premier Lutheran composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, as well as music of Schütz, Buxtehude, Mendelssohn and other Lutheran composers. Performances take place in the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus on the Seminary grounds. Annual seasons generally include three or four choral concerts – featuring major works, cantatas, and motets – and one concert focused primarily on organ works of Bach, as well as other composers.
In blessed memory: Music Director, the Rev. Maestro Robert R. Bergt (1930-2011)
In gratitude: Founders Richard and Phyllis Duesenberg, Robert and Lori Duesenberg for their generous and unstinting support of Bach at the Sem since its beginning.
History of Bach at the Sem
The American Kantorei, its pre-history and pre-cursor
The American Kantorei has its origin in the former Concordia Cantata Chorus associated with Concordia Seminary in Clayton, Mo. Following its beginning in 1955 with a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem, the Concordia Cantata Chorus soon developed into a well-known ensemble dedicated to the music of Bach, Handel, Buxtehude, Schein, Schütz, Praetorius, Monteverdi, Gabrieli, Hillert, Wienhorst, Willan, Britten, Vaughan Williams and others. Specializing in liturgical music for the worship services of the Seminary, the Chorus also performed in concerts and toured extensively. The high quality of performance resulted in invitations from the National Guild of Organists and its regional divisions, from the National Association of Musicologists, from the Bicentennial of Orders of Sisters of Mercy and the Precious Blood of Jesus in South and North America, and for week-long appearances at conventions and festivals in 1960 (Dallas), 1964 (San Antonio), and 1972 (Chicago and Kansas City). The Cantata Chorus also represented the U.S. at the 1966 International Heinrich Schütz Festival in Delft, Holland. The Dutch government issued the invitation and sponsored the trip financially. Several days were devoted to recording sessions of old and new music in the studios of the Christian Radio Broadcasting and Recording Studios in Hilversum. In connection with the Holland appearances, the Concordia Cantata Chorus sang concerts in London, St. John’s College, Cambridge, and five cities in Germany. The recordings made at Hilversum of music by Bach, Schütz, Schein, Gabrieli, Distler, Micheelsen, Bender, and Wienhorst were used for broadcast extensively in Northern Europe and South Africa.
The Original American Kantorei
The original American Kantorei was founded by its director, the Rev. Robert Bergt, in 1969, the first of its kind in the U.S. The name and founding of the American Kantorei was strongly influenced by the Westphälischen Kantorei in its tours of the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. Recordings by Cantate Schallplatten of the Hochschule für Kirchenmusik Herford of Westphalia, Germany, had also become popular in the U.S. and throughout Europe. The reappearance and resurgence of the Westphälischen Kantorei in Germany after World War II was spearheaded by the renowned tuba player and conductor Wilhelm Ehmann, assisted by the excellent mezzo soprano and vocal coach, Frauke Hassemann.
The American Kantorei was initially composed of 32 singers and 10 instrumentalists (a chamber orchestra), including eight professional principal singers to form the Favoritchöre necessary to perform works of composers like Bach and Schütz. The remaining 24 singers were serious voice students serving in roles to similar to apprentices. Thus, the Kantorei was, in effect, a school for singers, with teachers and students performing together. In 1969 the American Kantorei was the featured ensemble of the Centennial of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in North America in San Antonio. Later that year the group sang in concert for the American Musicological Society and, in 1972, for the national convention of the American Guild of Organists in Dallas.
The Reborn American Kantorei
Following a hiatus of some 20 years, the American Kantorei was resurrected in 1993 at the behest of its major sponsors, Robert and Lori Duesenberg and Richard and Phyllis Duesenberg. Maestro Bergt, following conducting and teaching appointments at SIU Carbondale and Valparaiso University, had been serving as the music director at the Musashino Academia Musicae in Tokyo. He was engaged initially to return periodically to conduct concerts, the preparation for which was done by assistant conductor, Dr. Jeral Becker, a member of the original Kantorei. The concerts soon became popularly known as Bach at the Sem. In 1995, Maestro Bergt, with his continuo-player wife, Joan, returned to the States and became the Artist-in-Residence at Concordia Seminary, his major responsibility being the planning and conducting of Bach at the Sem concerts, usually four or five a season.
From 1993 until Maestro Bergt’s death in July 2011, the American Kantorei performed all the major vocal/choral works of J.S. Bach, many of them several times: the Passions, Masses, oratorios, motets, and over 50 cantatas. Other composers have also been featured, including Buxtehude, Schütz, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven.
In addition to the choral and instrumental works, Bach at the Sem organist, Dennis Bergin, and several guest organists have performed over 90 organ works of J.S. Bach, as well as those of other composers.
Historical note on the performing group known as the “Kantorei” by Robert Bergt
Kantorei (pron. kahn – tor – eye) is a term originally applied to a music ensemble comprising musicians who both sang in a choir and also played one or more of the developing Renaissance and Baroque instruments: the string family of the violin, viola, gamba, violone; flutes (recorders, baroque flute, traverse flute); double reeds (oboe, oboes d’amore and da caccia); natural trumpets and horns; and percussion, especially the timpani, as well as timbrel, finger bells, etc. The Kantorei originated in the High (late) Renaissance (ca. Luther’s time and a little before) and into the early and middle Baroque periods in Germany, 1600-1675. Kantorei development took place in larger cities where an Academy (boys’ school, 1st grade through the 2nd year of college) was sponsored, such as at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig and the Kreuzkirche in Dresden, as well as in chapels of royal personages. A Schola Cantorum (School for/of Singers) was the counterpart of the Kantorei in Italian, Spanish, French and other Romance regions.
Both a cappella and orchestrally accompanied settings appeared, for example by the two Gabrielis at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Heinrich Schütz, a Saxon composer, studied with them and carried rich, dramatic, and well-informed music back to Saxony in his service at the Weisenfels Chapel, near Dresden. Other composers, such as Lotti, Vulpius, Schein, Buxtehude, and Praetorius provided music at the highest level for the church from the Middle Baroque Period (late 17th – early 18th century) to the end of the Late Baroque (Handel’s death in 1759).
Schools with Kantorei were usually associated with a university or church. It was the business of the Kantorei to provide suitable music for the services of the church and at events sponsored by the church, university, noblemen, and city council. The numbers of singers and musicians were usually small by today’s standards: 10-20 singers and a number of instrumentalists as required by the score and/or situation, ranging from a few to as many as 24 and more singers, the number of instruments depending on the acoustics and size of the church, hall, or room.