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Kurt Thomas (Conductor, Thomaskantor, Composer)

Born: May 25, 1904 - Tönning, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany
Died: March 31, 1973 - Bad Oeynhausen, Germany

The prominent German choral conductor, pedagogue, and composer, (Georg Hugo) Kurt Thomas, passed his school years at Lennep in Rhineland and received some musical instruction from Hermann Inderan at Barmen. He entered the Leipzig Konservatorium in 1922, where he studied the piano with Robert Teichmüller, theory with Max Ludwig and composition with Hermann Grabner. Whilst in Leipzig, Thomas came into contact with Karl Straube, who was Thomaskantor at the time and who became the young student’s mentor and gave him constant help and advice. After Leipzig, he went on to study composition with Arnold Mendelssohn in Darmstadt.

Kurt Thomas' first significant successes were as a composer: in 1927 he came first in a competition and was awarded the newly-created Prussian ‘Beethoven Prize’ for his Mass and St Mark Passion. Rapidly he became one of the leading figures in the church-music revival movement in progress during the 1920’s. He was a composer of quite exceptional promise and has already written several notable works. His a cappella Mass in A minor for solo voices and two choirs, composed when he was 19, is a work of singular beauty and of remarkable maturity and sureness of touch. While intensely modern and individual in technique and idiom, it was by no means extravagant or revolutionary. It was performed twice at the Leipzig Thomaskirche and in other towns, and has always produced a profound impression, notably at the 55th Festival of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein held in 1925 at Kiel, when the critics from all over Germany showed a rare unanimity in declaring it to be the outstanding feature of the Festival. His pianoforte trio, performed in 1925 at a concert of the International Society for Contemporary Music, is also a fine and admirably written work, sometimes a little ruthless in its dissonances but full of real substance and vigorous life.

Kurt Thomas taught theory and composition at the Leipzig Konservatorium from 1925 to 1934, and was conductor of the choir at the Institute of Church Music in Leipzig from 1928 to 1934. In 1934 he became professor for choral conducting in Berlin, a post he held until 1939. The first of three volumes of his handbook of choral conducting was published in 1935; reprinted several times, it has remained a standard work to this day. From 1939 to 1945 he headed the newly-founded ‘Musisches Gymnasium’ in Frankfurt am Main. In Frankfurt he was also Kantor of the Dreikönigskirche from 1945 to 1956.

In 1947 Kurt Thomas began lecturing in choral conducting at the North German Music Academy in Detmold (what is today the Detmold Musikhochschule), a post he held until 1955. His numerous concert tours with various choirs in the ensuing years enhanced his reputation as a choir director of outstanding ability. It was therefore not surprising that he was offered the post of Thomaskantor following Günther Ramin’s sudden death in 1956. Thomas represented a return to the old tradition – interrupted by Karl Straube and Günther Ramin - of Thomaskantors who were also composers.

The first concerts conducted by the new Thomaskantor were enough to make the differences between him and his predecessor clear. Unlike Günther Ramin, whose interpretations frequently had an improvisatory quality, Thomas set great store by comprehensive and accurate rehearsals. In contrasts to Günther Ramin’s somewhat Romantic approach to Bach, he pursued a style characterised more by historical authencity, which demanded a good deal of rethinking from his Thomaskirche choristers and consequently required a period of adjustment. Once they had found their bearings, they and their new conductor were hugely successful, both in Leipzig and on tour.

But Kurt Thomas fell soon with the GDR cultural approach, who were hampering and even refusing permission for concert tours in the West. At the same time, socialist arts policies were aimed at gaining more control over the church and Thomas was forced to waste ever more time on frustrating (and frequently futile) negotiations with functionaries of the ruling Socialist Unity Party, Finally, at the end of 1960, he provocatively made his remaining in office contingent upon obtaining approval for a concert tour to East Germany. This not being forthcoming, he decided to remain in the Federal Republic of Germany (where he happened to be at the time). In West Germany, he first resumed his post with the Frankfurt am Main Dreikönigskirche, and also took over the direction of the Cologne Bachverein and the Frankfurt Kantorei. In 1966 (or 1969) began teaching choral conducting at what is today the Lübeck Musikhochschule.

Publications: The important manual Lehrbuch der Chorleitung (3 volumes, Leipzig, 1935-1948).
Compositions: Many choral works, including a Mass (1925), Passionmusik nach den Evangelisten Markus, Weihnachts-Oratorium, Auferstebungs-Oratorium, cantatas, Psalms, and motets; several orchestral works, including a Piano Concerto; chamber music, organ pieces, and songs.

Source: Liner notes to 8-CD Set Leipzig Classics 001812-2BC (Bach Made in German Vol. II, 1999); Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1952 Edition, by Hugh Butler); Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (April 2001, May 2005); Matthias Hansen (Photo 10, February 2012)

Kurt Thomas: Short Biography | Frankfurter Kantorei | Kantorei der Dreikönigskirche Frankfurt | Collegium Musicum Wilhelm Isselmann
Part 1 | Part 2 | BWV 232 - Kurt Thomas | BWV 248 - Kurt Thomas
Thomaskantors: Thomanerchor Leipzig | Gewandhausorchester Leipzig | General Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2
Cantate Label:
Recordings | General Discussions
Table of recordings by BWV Number

Use of Chorale Melodies in his works


Chorale Melody


Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort: zum Reformationsfest, for mixed choir a cappella (kleine geistliche Chormusik; Werk 25 Nr. 13) (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel)

Erhalt uns, Herr bei deinem Wort

Links to other Sites

Thomas, Kurt (Leipzig Lexikon) [German]

Kurt Thomas (Official Website) [German]

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