For Johann Sebastian Bach, February 15, 1981 was no doubt one of the
darkest days of his afterlife: on this day he lost one of his greatest
champions in the 20th century, Karl Richter. Over the course of his long
career as conductor, organist and harpsichordist, Richter had become
synonymous with Bach. He founded the Munich Bach Choir and the Munich Bach
Orchestra. He helped trigger the Bach revival in the 1950s. He was the
spirit behind the Ansbach Bach Festival. He turned his adopted city of
Munich into a Bach center. And he recorded all the major choral and
orchestral works of Bach, including more than 100 cantatas.
Richter was born on October 15, 1926 in Plauen, Thuringia, the Bach
family's native region. After his years as a choirboy at Dresden's
Kreuzkirche ("I sang in virtually all the cantatas and passions"), he
studied in Leipzig with the St. Thomas cantors Günther Ramin and Karl
Straube and was appointed organist at the Thomaskirche in 1949. He moved to
Munich in 1951 and founded his choral and orchestral ensembles shortly
Karl Richter absorbed the Bach tradition from the source, in the cities
where the composer had lived and worked. Although he saw several dramatic
shifts in Baroque performance practice during his lifetime, he remained
true to his own style, which was considered revolutionary in the 1950s and
60s. This was a "de-romanticized" Bach which featured a reduced body of
performers more in keeping with the composer's original forces. Richter's
style also accented a cool, brisk, almost abstract attitude toward the
music, which eschewed exaggerated dynamics and rubato.
In later years, Richter's approach was itself ironically labeled "romantic"
and old-fashioned by a new generation of Bach scholars, who applied even
stricter criteria to what they considered "authentic" Baroque performance
practice. One of the major causes of dissent was the use of genuine or
reconstructed period instruments. Richter commented on this in 1976: "Who
says that Bach wouldn't have used modern instruments if he had had them? It
might be informative and revealing to play Bach on historical instruments,
but for me, it's only a modish phenomenon that will fade away."