Bach Choir of Bethlehem

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The Bach Choir of Bethlehem is the oldest Bach choir in the United States. Dating back to 1712, according to the choir's archives, it was formally founded in 1898 by Central Moravian Church organist John Frederick Wolle,[1] and was established at roughly the same time as Bethlehem Steel, which first began operations in 1899.[2]

The Bach Choir of Bethlehem
The choir at the Bethlehem Bach Festival, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1917
OriginFirst organized to study Bach's Mass in B Minor
FounderJohn Frederick Wolle, an organist at Central Moravian Church, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
GenreBaroque and classical music
PresidentHarold G. Black
Music directorDr. Christopher Jackson
Choir admissionBy audition
Headquarters440 Heckewelder Place
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, U.S., 18018
(610) 866-4382
InfluencesJohann Sebastian Bach and the composers who influenced him and were influenced by him

Based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the choir has toured internationally, performing at the Royal Albert Hall, the Thomaskirche in Leipzig (where Johann Sebastian Bach was a cantor), and the Herkulessaal in the Munich Residenz (Munich's Royal Residence). It has also performed at such American venues as Carnegie Hall and The Kennedy Center, has recorded with the BBC Proms and on the Dorian and Analekta labels,[3] and hosts the world's longest-running Bach festival.[4]



Founded in 1898 by Central Moravian Church organist John Frederick Wolle, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem brought musicians together from the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania area to study the Mass in B Minor written by Johann Sebastian Bach. This choir is credited with having given the American premiere of Bach's complete Mass on March 27, 1900 (although there is evidence that parts of the Mass had been performed in the United States as early as 1870).[5] Following that premiere performance, the choir then also delivered the first complete performance in America of Bach's Christmas Oratorio in 1901.

In 1914, the Bach Choir's conductor, J. Frederick Wolle, was described by the Harrisburg Telegraph as "the foremost present-day student of Bach" in its coverage of the ensemble's performance at Bethlehem's ninth Bach festival.[6]

Members of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem photographed prior to their November 1922 performance at the Philadelphia Academy of Music

In 1921, Philadelphia's Evening Public Ledger described the ensemble as a "famous organization," and noted that its members would perform at that city's Academy of Music on November 6.[7]

Bruce Carey and William Ifor Jones conducted the ensemble from 1933-1938 and 1939-1969, respectively. Alfred Mann, noted German-American musicologist, assumed leadership of the choir in 1970.[8] Greg Funfgeld, a 1976 graduate of Westminster Choir College, was the conductor from 1983 - 2021. Under his leadership, the choir expanded its concertizing from annual performances at the Bethlehem Bach Festival to a year-round series of 31 concerts, released numerous recordings, and has been involved with the production of two films (the PBS documentary, Make a Joyful Noise, and the internationally distributed Classical Kids’ DVD, Mr. Bach Comes to Call. Funfgeld also initiated and expanded the choir's educational outreach initiatives, including Bach to School and Bach at Noon, which were awarded National Endowment for the Arts grants from 2011 to 2017 and a 2012 international award from the J. S. Bach-Stiftung foundation in Switzerland.[9]

In 2007, The Bethlehem and Baldwin Wallace University (BW Bach Festival), the oldest collegiate Bach festival in the nation as well as the second-oldest Bach festival in the nation), performed together for BW's 75th anniversary of the festival.[10] These two groups have worked together to celebrate the milestones of their festivals. Riemenschneider, founder of the BW festival, was inspired by a 1931 trip to the Bethlehem Bach Festival.[11][12][13]

In May 2019, the choir announced that both its artistic and executive directors would retire within two years. [14] The COVID-19 pandemic delayed their plans, leading Bridget George to retire as Executive Director in June 2021, to be succeeded by Leela Breithaupt. [15] Greg Funfgeld stayed on as Artistic Director and Conductor for one more year, retiring in June 2022 after 39 years of service. [16] Dr. Christopher Jackson was announced as the Choir's seventh Artistic Director and Conductor on May 26, 2022. [17]

Selected discography



  1. ^ "Choir History and Archives," in "About the Choir." Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: The Bach Choir of Bethlehem (website), retrieved online February 15, 2019.
  2. ^ James, Renee A. "Ars longa, vita brevis in Bethlehem." Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: PennLive, April 29, 2019.
  3. ^ "Choir Leadership", in "About the Choir." Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: The Bach Choir of Bethlehem, retrieved online February 15, 2019.
  4. ^ James, "Ars longa, vita brevis in Bethlehem," PennLive.
  5. ^ Butt, John (1991). Bach: Mass in B Minor. Cambridge Music Handbooks. Cambridge University Press. p. 31. ISBN 978-0-521-38716-3.
  6. ^ "Ninth Bach Festival in May at Bethlehem." Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Harrisburg Telegraph, February 21, 1914.
  7. ^ "Bach Choir Here for Concert Today: 400 of Famous Organization From Bethlehem to Sing at Academy This Afternoon." Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Evening Public Ledger, November 5, 1921.
  8. ^ Ericson, Raymond (January 18, 1970). "A Mann for Bach at Bethlehem". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 September 2022.
  9. ^ "Greg Funfgeld, Artistic Director & Conductor," in "Choir Leadership," in "About the Choir." Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: The Bach Choir of Bethlehem (website), retrieved online February 15, 2019.
  10. ^ OESTREICH (May 7, 2007). "Bach's Captains and Foot Soldiers of Musical Industry". NY times. Retrieved 20 February 2012.
  11. ^ "Oldest Bach Festivals Combine for Anniversary Celebration". PR newswire. July 2007. Retrieved 20 February 2012.
  12. ^ "The Bach Choir of Bethlehem". The Bach Choir of Bethlehem history. Archived from the original on 1 March 2012. Retrieved 20 February 2012.
  13. ^ Gehman (Jul 9, 2006). "America's oldest Bach choirs joining to make history [SECOND Edition]". Morning Call - Allentown, Pa. Archived from the original on 28 September 2018. Retrieved 20 February 2012.
  14. ^ Larimer, Craig. "Bach Choir of Bethlehem announces retirements of conductor and executive director." Allentown, Pennsylvania: Morning Call, May 22, 2019.
  15. ^ "THE BACH CHOIR OF BETHLEHEM ANNOUNCES New Executive Director, Leela Breithaupt" Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Genovese Vanderhoof & Associates, June 16, 2021.
  16. ^ Calhoun, Chantelle "Bach Choir of Bethlehem conductor saying goodbye after 39 seasons of service" Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: WFMZ, April 12, 2022.
  17. ^ "Bethlehem’s Bach Choir announces new artistic director and conductor to lead music program" Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Morning Call, May 26, 2022.