Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 April 2019
Michael Maul is one of the new generation of brilliant Bach scholars at the Leipzig Bach-Archiv, scholars who are transforming our view of Bach through their rediscovery over the last few years of source materials that were hitherto unknown or long thought to have been lost. His timely new book on the history of Leipzig's St. Thomas School and its famous choir is being published in the year  of the school's 800th anniversary. Maul provides a scrupulously researched, highly readable, and exciting study that yields a welcome corrective to the standard account of the school's musical achievements, which were said to have unfolded in a serene teleological progress, with the period of Bach's cantorate as its glorious summit, followed by a plateau of nineteenth- and twentiethcentury consolidation. Maul offers a far less edifying, less rose-tinted portrait of the school. His more nuanced chronology of the development of the St. Thomas School choir, from its medieval beginnings on through the visionary accomplishments of Seth Calvisius and into the late seventeenth century and beyond, makes it comprehensible how municipal and clerical interventions in the running of the school's affairs and in promulgating multiple revisions of the school's regulations, which originally had the effect of ensuring the quality of the choir, soon came to stifle its musical resources and to curb the authority of its cantor.
Bach's growing dissatisfaction with his lot is of course on record and well known. What Maul has uncovered is the degree to which the town council deliberately concealed from him at the time of his appointment the full extent of their proposed financial cuts and other steps to restrict his room to manoeuvre, all of which make Bach's musical achievements in his first three years – just think of the Passions and cantatas! – all the more remarkable, and explain how it came about that later on Bach never recovered his earlier productivity in the field of church music.
This is an important book with many scholarly insights in terms of the social and political history surrounding the St. Thomas choir and cantorate. But Maul's observations also have wide-ranging ramifications for the musicologist and practitioner in disputed areas of historical performance practice.