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A talk with the first ever intendant of Leipzig Bach Fest: Michael Maul

10.01.2020


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Dr. Michael Maul had shaken the music world in 2005 by his discovery of the now famous J.S. Bach aria “Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn’ihn” in Weimar's Anna Amalia Library. Since that time Michael Maul has cemented his position in the Bach scholarship with his numerous articles and books. For the last couple of years he's also been very active in management of Leipzig's Bach Festival, the meeting point of all the Bach lovers around the world for years. In May 2018 he was announced to become the first ever intendant of this important baroque music festival. I grabbed the chance to talk with him about Bach and the festival while I was visiting Leipzig last June. 

Mr. Maul, let’s start with that famous Bach cantata aria “Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn’ihn” which you have discovered in the archives 15 years ago. You have spoken about it many times before for sure but it will be first for our readers. I had presented that cantata aria in my radio program right after it was discovered by you and immediately recorded by conductor John Eliot Gardiner.
That recording was made just four weeks after the discovery. I was in London, in the studio. I enjoyed two wonderful days with John Eliot during the recording sessions. The discovery had happened on May 17th, 2005 and it changed my life. I had started to work for the Bach Arkhiv already when I was a student in Leipzig in 1999 and I had become a student assistant of Peter Wollny, who has been one of the main figures of Bach scholarship. He was always supporting me generously and he was always sending me to the archives expecting me to look for interesting old stuff and at the very early stage of my carreer, I had delved into dusty archives with full of old papers everywhere.

 


Do you still feel that excitement when you go and work in the archives?
Yes I do.

Is that a feeling that maybe you can still find something unexplored, undiscovered in the archives?
Indeed and it’s a challenge every time because in the end you never find what you had expected to find. Therefore, you also have to learn to cope with disappointment. But the good thing is, you always find something, whether it’s what you had expected or not. You also need to get that skill to be able to recognize at that particular moment that there’s something important lying in front of you. I have always cherished going to the archives for a very understandable reason, because I love Bach’s music. I love the music of all composers, but Bach has always impressed me more than any other. From the start I was aware that if I wanted to figure out more, I only had one chance and that was to dig into the archives, to investigate things which are left from that period and these are all there in the archives. That’s a huge world where you can easily get lost.
I love Bach’s music since it gives me enough power and patience to sit for hours during the day in the archives, turning page by page and studying materials. So when I finished my studies at the university in 2001 I was given a mission: “go as much as you can to the archives and find something related to Bach”. That’s what I did and starting in 2002, I spent 2 or 3 days in a week, in the archives of central Germany. Meanwhile I had the idea that we systematically needed to check out the archives of all those central German towns, because Bach scholarship has already existed for 150 years. All these Bach scholars went to the places where Bach worked and they didn’t leave a page unturned so we couldn’t expect any big discoveries.

Do you still believe that there may be undiscovered gems somewhere?
Yes there still must be because we know that there were so many people around Bach and those people knew many things about him like the way he performed, he rehearsed and many other things. When he was a cantor in Leipzig for 27 years he had about 350 students in his choir and they all knew who Bach was, what kind of a person he was, his character etc. Many of those students became church musicians later on. They worked in rather obscure places and when they died they all left materials and I was hoping to trace these people. They could lead you to materials about themselves and about Bach. After doing this research for three years that big moment came. I had visited Weimar. Everything had already been discovered and that’s why I didn’t expect such a big discovery. I went to Anna Amalia Library which is a big library and which had a devastating fire six months earlier, so nobody expected that I could find a significant Bach work there anymore. But I had realized something beforehand and had made my strategy: at such famous places I was following the directories. “Can I find a connection here which for a certain reason was never systematically observed by scholars before because of the reason that they thought it’s not relevant for their topic?


What I realized in Anna Amalia that they had a big collection of so called occasional prints, poems written by certain members of the Weimar dukedom. Whenever the duke has his birthday or his nameday etc. these people provided such poems printed in papers from 2 to 8 pages. Only from the period of Wilhelm Ernst who was the monarch during Bach’s time, we have around one thousand such occasions but nobody is interested because experts of German literature who are more focused on Schiller and Goethe considered these kind of poems rubbish. The musicologists on the other hand were more interested going systematically through the music collection but they were not interested in these occasional papers. I hoped to find an unknown printed text of a Bach cantata performed by the hofkapelle when the duke had his birthday. Maybe through these occational papers I could reach a text of a lost piece by Bach. These pieces have usually very long and very flourished titles and you actually have no idea of what lies behind the title. So I tried to convince the librarians to bring me the entire collection. The other option was going through the online catalogue and deciding by the title of prints but it was risky because you might easily miss the important thing. I am very good in convincing people to do something and I asked again and again. Libraries have rules but at the end I managed to see the entire collection in print. That was May 17th and I had spent the whole day turning page by page. Actually it was boring because it was all rubbish. I was getting more and more tired. It was 6.30 PM and the library would close half an hour later and suddenly I came across an occasional print with a title totally uninteresting for Bach scholars. The title was only saying that a church super-intendant of a small town in Saxe-Weimar had written a congratulatory poem in 1713 on the occasion of Duke Wilhelm Ernst’s birthday. The poem’s motto was the Duke’s. It was in Latin: “Everything with God and nothing without Him”. This church super-intendant named Johann Anton Mylius provided a poem with 12 stanzas and all the stanzas were starting with the German version of the motto “Alles mit God und nichts ohn Ihn”. It was eight pages in total with only six pages of printed text. At first sight it didn’t say anything special to a Bach scholar. But luckily enough when I turned all the pages, I realized that there was a hand written score, a setting of the text at the back. Aria, soprano solo, ritornello etc. But the name of the composer of the setting didn’t show up. When I turned the page and saw the specific soprano clef with a certain ornamentation, I said to myself “My God, that just looks like Bach!” My heart was bumping crazily, I had got goosebumps. But on the other hand I had to be cautious because I was only 27. If I announced that I found a new Bach autograph but if it turns out that it’s not by him that would be embarrassing, a bad reputation for a young scholar. So I went out and took a walk around the library and tried to get calm. I was trying to find a similarity to Bach in my head in order to convince myself. But I had no time left for thinking because the library would be closed in a few minutes. I ordered the digital copy of the manuscript because here in the Bach Arkhiv we have digital copies of all existing Bach autographs specifically from the Weimar period. Funnily enough, the day after, we would go to a family vacation, to the island of Corfu and we would stay there for two weeks and I remember very well that every day during the sunset I was looking towards the sea with a glass of wine in my hand.

With a silly smile on your face?
Yes and I was especially thinking about the possibility of this piece’s being a genuine Bach work which stayed unknown for centuries. Two weeks later I came back to the archive. I was sitting in my office with Peter Wollny who was the only person I had talked about this manuscript. Then the librarian came into the room with an envelope. I opened it and finally I had the digital copies in my hand after two weeks time.



You have to wait for two weeks?

There was no alternative, because I was in Greece. Peter Wollny was standing next to me and I opened the mail. He saw the copies and he said to me ''congratulations!'' It was totally clear that this was a genuine Bach work. That night we opened a very expensive bottle of champagne, because the last unknown vocal work by Bach was discovered in 1930s. In 1970s the cannon from the Goldberg was discovered which is not a vocal piece. But this aria was totally unknown and of course it was a big sensation and suddenly I became famous. In 2005 I had already published 3-4 articles in the Bach yearbook and I was already considered as a rising star in the Bach scholarship. But suddenly it was a big news in the entire world. Later on I discovered in the same library some organ pieces which Bach made copies from the works of Buxtehude, Reincken in the ages of 13-14. These were in fact much more important discoveries than the aria in terms of Bach scholarship. After these discoveries, Christoph Wolf managed to convince the city of Leipzig to create a new position in the Bach Arkhiv, this would be a permanent position in the research department. It worked. It was totally clear that I would get this job. I began to work as a member of the research department. As you know, to get a permanent position is very seldom in our field. To my surprise my career evolved in two different paths for the last couple of years. Now I am a Bach scholar and the artistic director of Leipzig Bach Fest.

How was the artistic directorship of Leipzig Bach Fest before you became the director?
Before I became the artistic director of the festival we had the tradition that one member of the research department in Bach Arkhiv whom we call the “dramaturg” of the festival was in charge of making proposals to the artistic committee. But this dramaturg didn’t have the power to decide which groups and artists would be invited to the festival. The artistic committee of the festival was a board of four people. They all had different opinions, different ideas which was reflected in the previous programs as you know. In 2014 when John Eliot Gardiner became the president of Bach Arkhiv he also became the artistic director of the festival. This surprise move has happened after a lunch between him and the mayor of the city. As a result of this the former committee dissapeared. The former dramaturg had already retired and I was asked to stand for him. John Eliot didn’t have enough time to make programs for festival and we were already close friends since the year of 2002 when he was writing his biography on Bach. A year before that he was searching for a young guy in Leipzig who would do research for him and I was recommended to him. So in 2015 when he became the official artistic director of the festival I began to help him as the dramaturg.

Starting from 2016-17 I was more or less alone in doing the whole programming of the festival. 2018 was the first festival which was based on my original ideas. We had a crisis in 2016-2017 because the city of Leipzig had plans to stop the Bach Festival and turn it into a general classical music festival. But we believed that this would be a very bad idea because we would become competitor with the big classical music festivals with huge budgets.

In May 2018 they decided to choose me as the intendant of the festival. I am the first intendant in the history of Bach Festival. I have a desire to share my ideas and my love of Bach with the entire Bach world. In 2019 we had guests from all over the world, more than any other year. We had sold tickets in 44 countries until the end of May. This is a very international music festival and actually I am not sure if other classical music festivals in Germany have a situation like Leipzig because almost 40 percent of our visitors are not from Germany. This is a festival for the international Bach tourists.

How are your relations with Turkish Airlines?
Turkish Airlines has been supporting us for seven years. Turkish Airlines is more cooperative with us then Lufthansa. I sent them a letter saying, “Lufthansa, we are planning to organize the biggest party for the most well known German composer. I guess the most important German airline should support this.” But at the end we are still working with Turkish Airline.

Serhan Bali
Leipzig

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