There has been choral music in the cathedral since the 10th century. Liturgical singing was already an integral part of daily divine service in the Abbey of St Maurice, founded by Otto the Great in 937, as well as in the first cathedral, which was raised to the status of an Archepiscopacy in 968. The choirs were made up of boy choristers and clergy (monks). In the cathedral school, founded contemporaneously, music, as one of the 7 liberal arts, was an important part of the curriculum. Amongst the important visitors who heard the music in the cathedral were Walther von der Vogelweide, Nicolas of Cusa and Ulrich von Hutten.
The cathedral chapter joined the reformation only in 1567; after this, music played a different role in the liturgy. In 1618, Samuel Scheidt, Michael Praetorius and Heinrich Schütz were invited to advise the chapter on the institution of a modern musical organisation for the cathedral. A small instrumental group was founded and a more contemporary musical style introduced.
The devastation of the city during the Thirty Years War in 1631 was a heavy blow for the cathedral school and for the music in the cathedral. The aftereffects were felt for many years. The school was refounded in 1676, and 10 years later the choir was reorganised as the “chorus symphoniacus. In 1693 the school could boast one of its most talented pupils, Georg Philipp Telemann.
Napoleon dissolved the chapter in 1810, and once again the choral music in the cathedral fell silent. But in 1818, shortly after the end of the Wars of Liberation, Karl Friedrich Zelter, conductor of the Berliner Singverein, succeeded in resuscitating the cathedral choir and organising a secure financial basis for it: by act of parliament King Frederick William III of Prussia granted the sum of 600 Taler per annum from the proceeds of the secularised and nationalised lands previously belonging to the chapter.
Choirmasters in the 20th century were Bernhard Engelke, Bernhard Henking, Hans Chemin-Petit, Gerhard Bremsteller, Günther Hoff, and Barry Jordan. Bremsteller was appointed in 1942, succeeded in keeping the choir alive during the war and immediately afterwards, was immensely active in the post-war years in building it up again, and fought a hard battle against the difficulties created by the Russian occupation and the founding of the German democratic Republic. He led the choir on many tours in both parts of Germany and abroad until the building of the wall in 1961 made further tours impossible. He was conductor of the choir for 25 years.
Günther Hoff, too, spent nearly 25 years at the helm. He succeeded in taking the choir to the “Cathedral Choir Festival” in Utrecht in Holland in 1988, the first time the choir had been able to leave the GDR in 27 years, at a time, when the fall of the wall was not even dreamed of.
Barry Jordan has led the choir since 1994. He has been instrumental in building up good relations with orchestras and instrumental ensembles in the region, as well as developing a strong tradition of good a capella singing. The choir has toured extensively in Germany and has visited Belgium, England and Italy. He has also restructured the choir, developing an emphasis on work with youthful singers. A tour to Alsace will take place in May 2006.