The choir of the Thomaskirche looks back proudly on nearly 800 years of tradition. The Thomaskirche was established as a choral foundation in Leipzig in 1212 by members of the Augustine order. The Thomasschule probably came into existence directly afterwards; the first documentary reference to it dates back to the year 1254. The school was chiefly intended to train boys for liturgical singing and as servers. Over the centuries, the number of pupils gradually swelled; in the early period there were probably about twelve choristers, while directly before the Reformation there were twenty-four. In Bach’s time approximately 50 trained choristers were available (but generally had to be shared among four churches), while today the choir has about 100 members.
When the Reformation reached Leipzig in 1539, the school was secularized and its administration passed into the hands of the city. This resulted in a good deal of conflict, since the Thomaskantors were now municipal employees and the direction of church music in Leipzig was only one of the many responsibilities resting on their shoulders. First and foremost, they were teachers at the Thomasschule (having to give instructions not only in music, but in Latin as well); supported by the choir, the Thomaskantor as municipal ‘Director Chori Musici’ also had to provide suitable musical background to weddings, funerals, academic celebrations, inaugurations and other solemn occasions in the city. For Kantors like J.S. Bach, who saw themselves primarily as creative artists and church musicians, upholding the teaching schedule was a heavy burden and constantly led to arguments with the municipal authorities. Only in the course of the 19th century were both the Thomaskantors and the choir released from their additional obligations. This was the period in which the choir of the Thomaskirche became backbone of the Bach revival.
In the 20th century, now highly acclaimed internationally through its concert tours, the choir was placed under considerable pressure, first by the Nazi dictatorship and then by the communist regime succeeding it, both of whom wanted to exploit it for their own purposes. However, notwithstanding all manner of state interference, the Thomaskantors holding office at this time - Karl Straube, Günther Ramin, Kurt Thomas, Erhard Mauersberger and Hans-Joachim Rotzsch - were able to uphold the fundamental ecclesiastical function of the choir and to maintain the continuity of the Bach tradition into our time.