Amarcord: when choirboys grow up

This a cappella quintet has had Bach on the brain since they met singing at St Thomas' Church Leipzig.

Just a few hundred metres away, Johann Sebastian Bach lies buried in St Thomas' Church. The five men around me grew up next to his tomb - quite literally. As choristers in St Thomas's Boy's Choir in Leipzig, they sang his music every week, just as the boys of his own choir had done in the same place three hundred years earlier. For St Thomas, even Bach is comparatively modern; the choir was founded in 1212. 

"We do remember our shared childhood," says bass Daniel Knauft. "People think, 'Oh, those neat little boys are so well-trained!' But even more important is the social life around it. As a child you take it for granted that you are singing Bach's music. I still know it by heart. But you also become an independent person at an early age. It's something you can really take with you for the rest of your life." 

The ensemble's name, Amarcord, is drawn from Fellini's Oscar-winning 1973 film of the same name. The film tells of Fellini's childhood in Fascist Rimini, including many schoolboy scenes. The word means "I remember" in the Romagnolo dialect. 

"It's more than a double meaning," explains bass Holger Krause. "We remember our childhood, we remember the tradition at the time of the music, the periods and epochs we have on our repertoire." 

Memory, at least for the older members of Amarcord, also means remembering the GDR, and the shadow of an oppressive regime. 

"Living in East Germany required conditioning," recalls Knauft. "You needed to know whom you could trust. I really had to be careful of what I said to whom. And then we had the privilege of a choir that was an island of relative freedom of speech and thought. That of course attracted children from families who needed that freedom. Even as a child I felt that atmosphere strongly. In the choir, I could breathe again."

The choir was allowed to tour to the West, but was also required to sing at key Party events. 

"The 40 years of the GDR are just footnotes in the choir's history, in a way," says Knauft. "But it was also a time when the choir's whole existence was at stake. They wanted to incorporate it into the communist youth organisation." 

"In the 17th century, there was the Thirty Years War," adds tenor Wolfram Lattke. "And we had the Nazis, the Third Reich, and they wanted to turn the choir into something else. This could have happened many times in the choirs' history." 

Amarcord was the first professional adult ensemble to come from the choir of St Thomas' after the Fall of the Wall, but they are part of a long tradition of groups born in famous choirs - from the UK's King's Singers to Germany's boy-band Die Prinzen - the latter also former St Thomas choristers. 

Unlike British university and church choirs, where boys sing until their voices break and the mature voice parts are sung by adults, boys at St Thomas sing on through the change of voice, guided by voice teachers and medical specialists, and filling the tenor and bass parts until they leave school at the age of 18. That makes for an even more intense grounding in music - the equivalent, say Amarcord's members, of two music degrees - so it is not surprising that many graduates go on to take study other subjects. 

Several of Amarcord's members now hold degrees in non-musical disciplines - Knauft is a qualified medical doctor, tenor Martin Lattke (brother to Wolfram) studied economics, Krause humanities. The group which they had founded as schoolboys remained a part-time occupation until the year 2000, when they resolved to turn fully professional. 

The pivotal moment was a meeting with music manager Tobias Rosental, himself a former St Thomas's chorister. 

"There was no pressure," says Knauft. "It was like finding another member of the group at the right time." 

With its vast range of unaccompanied vocal music, ranging from early Mediaeval through to cutting-edge contemporary, and its unique blend of precision, warmth, and humour, the ensemble won strings of awards, founded its own music festival in Leipzig, and rapidly climbed the international concert circuit rungs to become one of the best-known ambassadors for its home city. 

Amarcord's five members thoroughly enjoy touring together, insist that laughter is their most effective medicine for warding off ill health on the road, and appreciate the shared responsibility and self-discipline that they trace back to their choirboy years. They remain proud Leipzigers. The city, they say, has both its own musical sound - a particular warmth and blend related to the flourishing romantic period there - and its own unique civic cultural pride, a product of the city's longstanding rivalry with neighbouring Dresden. Dresden's Royal Court funded its orchestra and opera house; in Leipzig, it was the citizens themselves who organised and funded their cultural institutions. And it worked. 

"The people of Leipzig really understand that music belongs to life like eating, drinking, and sleeping," says Wolfram Lattke. 

"When I was younger, and realising how rich this city is culturally, it grew a special kind of pride inside me to see, oh, Schumann and Mendelssohn were here, and of course Bach," remembers Krause. "We can live here, we work here, we breathe air that is full of music - you feel it. We are citizens. It's also a responsibility - you do it because you MUST do it. You can and you must." 

When they are not singing, planning, or spending time with their families, Amarcord's members claim to like nothing more than to kick a soccer ball between them. 

"We function as a team, also," says Knauft. 

"We also have goals which we want to achieve," adds Krause. "And we remember the last game in the World Cup. Germany against Australia. Excuse us for beating you. But it was a very nice game." 

Amarcord remembers that when the boys of the St Thomas's choir used to play against their rivals in Dresden's Kreuzchor, it was the Dresdeners who usually won. 

"One important thing was said after every lost game," recalls Martin Lattke. "We said, we might have lost the game, but we can sing better! That was comforting."

Amarcord tours nationally with Musica Viva from July 17 – August 1. View event details here.

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Amarcord: when choirboys grow up
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