American Bach Society Biennial Conference Hosted by Sacred Music at Notre Dame

Author: Matt Haines


On 7-10 April 2016 Sacred Music at Notre Dame hosted the biennial meeting of the American Bach Society. The society, which began its life as the American Chapter of the International Bach Society before becoming its own independent entity, serves as the focus for Bach scholarship in the United States and Canada. Among its members are many of the leading Bach scholars in the world, including Christoph Wolff, former director of the Bach Archive in Leipzig. It was a great honor and privilege to host such an important organization.

The conference itself exceeded every expectation. The number of registrants, initially anticipated to be around 60, exceeded 90. The topic, Bach and the Confessional Landscape of His Time, was inspired both by Notre Dame’s own position as a leading Catholic institution and by the centrality of sacred music to its musical activities. Notre Dame’s own Mark Noll, whose expertise in the History Department focuses on the history of religion in the early modern era, delivered the keynote address, which he centered on a moment in 1738 when John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, visited Bach’s Leipzig, and which described various ways that music for the church can sometimes divide and at other times unify the body of believers.

Scholarly papers ranged widely across the topic. We learned about liturgical music by Bach and members of his circle. We heard ruminations on religious meaning in music, the role of number and perfection, and subtleties of language. We were also drawn into the lives of musicians in Bach’s time and what religion meant for them: town musicians with their confessional preferences, court musicians who could be found to convert from Catholic to Protestant and even back again. Even the role of dancing in daily life came under investigation.

The American Bach Society places a great deal of emphasis on concert performances, and the four programs that graced this conference served as a major highlight. All aspects of Sacred Music at Notre Dame were on offer: two organ recitals, one by Craig Cramer, the other by the six doctoral organ students, a concert featuring Pomerium, Alexander Blachly’s New-York-based vocal ensemble, and a closing performance by Concordia, the student-based vocal ensemble, which was led by doctoral conductor Caleb Wenzel with expert accompaniment by some of the leading period-instrument specialists in the world. From the organists we heard mostly Bach but also works by Bach’s teachers and mentors Dieterich Buxtehude and Georg Böhm as well as Bach’s student J. L. Krebs. Pomerium sang motets from the late sixteenth to the mid eighteenth centuries, many in arrangements done by Bach himself for performance in Leipzig. Concordia’s program offered music by Sebastian Knüpfer, one of Bach’s most important Leipzig predecessors, a composer far too little known today. Special guest Bruce Dickey, the reigning king of cornetto playing and a South Bend native, together with a group of top-flight brasses players treated the audience to spectacular playing both by themselves and with the full complement of singers and string players. Caleb himself made the editions, and it was likely the first time in the modern era that most of this music has been heard in performance.

Reaction from the conference attendees to the whole event was extremely enthusiastic. One heard over and over again the expression “setting the bar very high.” Students of the Sacred Music program also enthused about the many opportunities to mingle with and hear from leading musicologists, and to learn about and hear music by a composer whose works they all have themselves performed in myriad ways and in all kinds of contexts. All in all, it was an enriching experience of the sort that we hope to replicate again and again in the coming years.