“In Johann Sebastian Bach I see the ultimate personification of everything which lends meaning, purpose, vigour and gladness to human life. He is for me the supreme symbol of vital and ceaseless energy.” (Günther Ramin)
The remark might stand as a maxim encompassing the life’s work of universal musician Günther Ramin, who devoted his entire life to Leipzig and to Thomaskirche, where Bach spent so much of his own life.
The son of a parson, the distinguished German organist, conductor, composer and pedagogue Günther (Werner Hans) Ramin was accepted at twelve years of age as pupil and chorister by the then Thomaskantor, Gustav Schreck. While never at ease with the classical grammar-school approach there, he nonetheless composed songs and pieces for the piano and for the organ, which were amazingly well appreciated by most of his teachers. Karl Straube, then organist at the Thomaskirche and Ramin’s organ teacher, arranged for him to leave the school at Easter 1914, at the age of fifteen-and-a-half, so that he might apply himself solely to the study of church music.
Very soon Ramin was permitted to stand for his organ teacher at normal service and for motet performances. In addition, when Straube was absent for longer periods he places the training of the choirs of the Thomaskirche and the Bach Society in Ramin’s hands. Ramin was conscripted by the militia in the autumn of 1916. Notwithstanding this hindrance, he completed his final examinations at the conservatory with distinction in January 1917. The following autumn found him as a trainee camp in France. There he soon managed to play the organ at the church in Guise for regimental services, and was even commissioned by the commanding general to organize a church concert there. Later, he took part in theatrical productions at the front.
Straube wrote to the twenty-year-old Ramin at the front on May 30, 1918 to inform him that he had been chosen as organist at the Thomaskirche quite without his having applied or auditioned for the position. He was to hold for twenty-two years until the outbreak of the Second World War. During this time he undertook extensive tours, playing the organ all over Europe, in Russia (1932) and in North America (1933).
In 1923 Günther Ramin assumed the direction of the Lehregesangverein (teachers’ choral society) in Leipzig, which included giving concert performances of works with large orchestra. The experience soon awakened in him a passion for conducting, and he took great pleasure in conducting four symphony concerts at Leipzig’s Albert Hall in 1929/1930. Because of this liking for working with large choirs and orchestras, between the years 1933 and 1938 he performed the Bach Passions (BWV 244 & BWV 245) and B minor Mass (BWV 232), the Verdi Requiem and various modern works with the Gewandhaus choir. In 1935 he assumed the direction of the Philharmonic choir of Berlin, and Ramin’s choral concerts together with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought him much acclaim.
Günther Ramin’s long years of experience in the training of choirs stood him in good stead when, on January 1, 1940, the Leipzig City Council appointed him Kantor at the Thomaskirche. Now Ramin’s attention came to focus on J.S. Bach’s cantatas. Whereas Straube has formerly performed almost the entire cycle of surviving cantatas, Ramin proceeded differently – at least in his first year of office. About two weeks in advance of the church calendar, he would with great enthusiasm play through the appropriate cantatas from the scores in the Main Bach Edition (which still used the original clefs), and was always pleased to have his wife and his son there as an audience, and to hear their opinion. He selected the best of the cantatas and let them help in the early days in making the orchestral parts and in removing most of the existing phrase markings.
The cantatas that were recorded are all radio transcriptions. It was seldom possible for Ramin to rehearse the works together with the orchestra. Whenever a cantata was recorded at the Gewandhaus, its performance at the Thomaskirche at the beginning of the Sunday service had to serve as the final rehearsal. This procedure would not meet today’s perfectionist standards, but had the great advantage of infectious spontaneity.
Composer Wilhelm Weismann wrote in 1956 of Ramin: “He innately possessed a quality akin to eternal youth, a quality which was enthralling and radiant and which time and time again reached breathtaking proportions through his vehemence and élan, something quite un-academic, goaded on by his natural penchant for improvisations!” It is this quality which makes Ramin’s interpretations exemplary even today, whether he is playing the organ or the harpsichord, or conducting the cantatas or passions. Ramin directed music at the Thomaskirche for sixteen years, always swimming against the tide of contemporary tastes, fighting the Nazis to uphold Christian mission of the Thomaskirche’s musical tradition and fighting the SED (the socialistic post-war governing party), which in the end had to concede that the choir would only continue to be a source of foreign revenue if it were allowed to pursue the Bach tradition.
‘Die Grossen der Welt’, a dictionary of great personalities, makes this comment: “The widespread acclaim accorded to Ramin, the Thomaskantor and world-famous organist, derives from the fact that, despite having received splendid alternative offers following the collapse of the 1946, Ramin remained loyal to Leipzig and invested tremendous amount of effort in restoring the choir of the Thomaskirche to its former glory.”
Despite entry restrictions for West Germany citizens, during the last ten years of Ramin’s life the choir of the Thomaskirche achieved its greatest heights, especially during the Leipzig Trade Fair and during the Neue Bachgesellschaft Festivals in Leipzig. Peter Schreier recalls the 200th Bach Centenary celebrations: “The bi-centenary in 1950 saw the first performance given by the combined choirs of Kreuzkirche and the Thomaskirche – the B minor Mass (BWV 232). The event impressed itself indelibly on my memory… Just a boy at the time, I was enormously taken with the way Ramin drove us on during the performance, sometimes even stamping his foot. He had such a powerful aura, such a compelling presence, that we had no choice but to comply with his wishes.”
Ramin took two concert tours with his choristers – to Russia in 1953, and to South America in 1955. In February 1956, at the very pinnacle of his career, he suffered a sudden brain haemorrhage and died only a few days later. Albert Schweitzer wrote: “His death means a great loss to J.S. Bach scholarship… I admired him for the way in which he persisted in promoting the heritage of Bach and the choral tradition of the Leipzig Thomaskirche in the face of tremendous odds, and for the success of endeavours and the universal acknowledgement they assured.”