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History in the Re-Making: MSM Professor Revives Historical Mass

Jeffrey Sposato partners with Mendelssohn’s conservatory to bring 200-year-old music to life.

October 31, 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses,” the list of questions and complaints about the Roman Catholic Church that he famously — at least according to popular legend — nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. While the actual event may not have been quite so dramatic, the moment sparked the start of the Protestant Reformation and is still celebrated in Germany and around the world each October.

This year, the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig was in for a very special treat. Moores School of Music musicology professor Jeffrey Sposato partnered with Hochschule für Musik und Theater to bring the music performed on the 300th anniversary — in that very church — to life.

The performance, conducted by Hochschule student Thomas Stadler, featured a mass by Vincenzo Righini, a lesser-known Italian composer and contemporary of Mozart, an a cappella piece by the St. Nicholas’s 1817 music director Johann Gottfried Schicht, and all of the original hymns.

It was the first time many of the churchgoers had ever heard the 200-year-old music, which used to be a popular part of life in Leipzig but faded from the public sphere over the past century. “A lot of people came up to me after the mass and told me how much they loved the music,” he recalls, adding that they also connected to the historical element. “This was a celebration of a historical event, and they were quite moved by the performance of historically significant music.”

Sposato discovered the music while researching his upcoming book “Leipzig After Bach: Church and Concert Life in a German City,” which is slated for release by Oxford University Press in May of 2018. He had also previously worked on a historical recreation performance highlighting music in Leipzig during the Napoleonic period, which gave him the idea for this performance. “I really enjoy this kind of work. As a musicologist, bringing the music out of some archive to an audience is incredibly rewarding. So when I found this music and realized that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation was coming up, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to do something like this again.”

Over the summer, he and MSM student Eric Heumann (M.M. Composition ’18) tirelessly transcribed the original manuscripts, transforming the 19th-century scores into modern notation. Meanwhile in Leipzig, Stadler organized a student chorus and orchestra for the performance, preparing them for rehearsals as soon as the revised score was ready. In just a few short months, the performance was ready for a live audience, right on time for the anniversary.

“It was beyond my wildest dreams,” admits Sposato. “I’m thrilled this came together in such an incredible performance. It’s one of the highlights of my career.”

This fall, Sposato is partnering with the Bach Society to bring the music to Houston for its U.S. premiere.