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The Bach Choir Pretoria
1962 to 1997

The Bach Choir Pretoria was born from a dream. A dream fostered by Bruno Peyer, sensitive lover and practitioner of music, of establishing a classical choral culture in Pretoria. This was realised in 1962, and for the following 34 years the Bach Choir Pretoria was to enrich the music scene in Pretoria under the baton of its dynamic founder-conductor. Peyer was, sadly, not destined to see the choir's 35th anniversary. His death in January 1997 is deeply mourned.

Under its new conductor Aart Bosua, the Bach Choir is building further on the solid foundation laid by Peyer.

The name chosen for the Bach Choir Pretoria did not imply that only works of Bach were to be performed but rather that the choir would strive to achieve the same level of excellence as is typified by the compositions of this great master. The repertoire is aimed at the widest range possible of works both by known and lesser known composers, and representing the major style periods - from Gregorian chant, unaccompanied motets of the Italian and German masters to works from the great oratorio repertoire, Passion music, and masses of varying style, texture, and extent.

Larousse claims: "No account of JS Bach's artistic personality would be complete that did not stress his deep religious inspiration". This can be applied to the Bach Choir, too -- its mission, its modus operandi — firstly to fulfil the need of Pretoria's musical life by performing sacred music during religious festive periods, and secondly, to bring to the public a wide range of other choral works. The choir's Easter concerts have become an essential part of the Pretoria music calendar, with Bach's St John's Passion the most frequently performed.

With the first performance in April 1976, Telemann's St Luke's Passion was repeated three times afterwards, while his Passion according to St Matthew was performed by the choir for the first time in South Africa in March 1989. Reinhard Keiser's St Mark's Passion, performed in March 1987, also a South African first, received the following critique: "Bach Choir continued their praiseworthy pioneering project of presenting relatively unknown Baroque works with a musically alive production ...". The choir's performance of CPE Bach's Easter composition Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu in May 1979 was hailed with a "Bravissimo ... for the first staging in South Africa of this monumental triumph ... a stunningly beautiful synthesis of a work of tremendous magnitude and great depth". Both the 1983 and 1993 Easter concerts were dedicated to Passion music by composers Suriano, Liszt, Victoria, De Melle, and Michael Haydn. A new element was introduced in 1997, with the reading of Easter texts included in the programme. The performance of Bach's Weihnachts-Oratorium in 1997 was a highlight in the presentation of Christmas music.

The choir's repertoire increased steadily. Twenty-one major works, representing composers Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Telemann, had already been performed by its 15th anniversary. The 20th anniversary was commemorated with two Bach cantatas, as well as Haydn's Salve Reginaand Missa Sanct Nicolai, to observe the 250 years since his birth. The silver jubilee year had its climax with a performance of Handel's momentous oratorio Saul — "this performance of one of the great and most difficult oratorios has added another accolade to the Bach Choir's list of impressive achievements over a span of 25 years. They have served oratorio and the Pretoria public with distinction". Bach Choir commemorated its 30th anniversary with a performance of Bach's monumental B Minor Mass, generally acknowledged as one of the greatest and most challenging masterpieces of all time. "This, then, was not so much a performance of a mass as the celebration of a rite in which religious devotion and mysticism intermingled, a salient feature of this choir's performances". It was complemented by a further highlight, Haydn's magnificent oratorio Die Schöpfung, with the Transvaal Philharmonic Orchestra. On this occasion forces were joined with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Choir.

Tributes were paid to composers on special occasions. In 1971, 180 years after Mozart's death, this composer's Requiem and Vesperae Solennes de Confessore were performed. Twenty years later, a concert dedicated to the "Unknown Mozart" was to follow, as well as a performance of his Mass in C Minor. The "Young Mozart" was introduced to the public in 1994, by performing his Missae Breves in F and D Major. In 1988 Mozart's Requiem was coupled with a South African premiére of the Te Deum de Incoronazione, a composition of his supposed arch-rival Salieri.

In 1978, 150 years after Schubert's death, the choir performed his Mass no 2 in G Major, and gave a special Schubert concert. The Bach/Handel commemoration year, 1985, brought the St John Passion and Handel's oratorio Jephta, both performances highly acclaimed. With the latter, the choir entered a new era, that of moving to the State Theatre, accommodating an even larger audience. (Over the years several concerts were performed in the Johannesburg City Hall as well.) In 1993 the choir performed Handel's Messiahto commemorate 250 years of this ever popular oratorio. A century after the death of Anton Bruckner, two motets from his pen were included in the September 1996 concert.

But, Bach Choir brought even more premiéres to Pretoria and to South Africa. These included two major Handel oratorios, Jephta and Saul, the 1976 production of the latter being its first complete performance in South Africa. JS Bach's Magnificat, Johann Christian Bach's Gloria, Liszt's Via Crucis and Inno a Maria Vergine, and the Laudes Organi, a contemporary secular composition by Zoltán Kodály, are but a few others. Nobody was to know that the September 1996 South African premiére of the Gounod Requiem was to be the last work sung by the choir under the direction of Bruno Peyer (13-4-1926 — 14-1-1997).

Bach Choir performances were enhanced through the years by a wide range of professional South African soloists, many of whom were to become both nationally and internationally known. On a few occasions eminent soloists from abroad appeared with the choir.

The contribution of the Bach Choir to the Pretoria music scene during the 1980s was acknowledged as follows: "... it was left to the Pretoria Bach Choir ... to give the choral masterpieces an innings. Their Bach and Handel renditions will always serve as landmarks of choral singing ...". The choir entered the 1990s with the same zest. Accolades in the press rang: "St John Passion given cogent interpretation" (March 1990), "Messiah comes close to the heart of music" (October 1990), "Fascinating music from Bach Choir" (October 1991), "All credit to Peyer and his choirs for giving us the great choral works ..." (October 1992), "Highly polished singing" (October 1993), "Lovely sounds in welcome rendition" (March 1995 - JS Bach: Cantata BWV93, J Haydn Stabat Mater), "Nice sense of musical balance" (Easter concert 1996), and for the 1997 Easter concert: "Bach Choir concert refreshes the spirit ... The choir seems to have evolved an art form which matches in musical terms the poetic intensity of the vision of the various composers". The Bach Choir experienced setbacks, too: fluctuating membership numbers; the death of choir members; escalating expenses ... Yet, driven by the conviction that music belongs to the immortal treasures of culture, the choir persevered unremittingly in fulfilling the noble task it had set itself.

The choir-singer who, after the day's labour and burdens studies choir works zestfully in order to perform them, together with congenial company, to an appreciative audience, has been said to be a "phenomenon of the 19th century". In the Bach Choir this "phenomenon" is alive and well, conveying its audiences "on wings of song" towards a spiritual refuge from the turmoil of life -- music, in the words of JS Bach himself:

"The only part of this earth which 
we will find again in heaven."

Hermien Söhnge

Sources: Bach Choir Pretoria programmes 1962 to 1997, with accompanying press reviews.

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