Great wealth amassed in the city of Leipzig towards the end of the 15th century made it possible to rebuild or at least expand the city’s churches. Thus, the old church nave was demolished in 1482 and rebuilt in the form mostly still in existence today. Subsequently the church was re-consecrated on April 10, 1496. Over the course of the centuries it saw several extensions and renovations. The outer shape of the church was determined largely by 19th-century renovations. After the church passed from the holdings of the city council to self-administration in 1869, historicizing renovation work on the outside façade was carried out over approximately 30 years.
Johann Sebastian Bach was presumably the most famous of all of St. Thomas cantors. On May 30, 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach’s initial cantata was performed, but this took place at St. Nikolai. Two days later, on June 1, 1723, he was inducted as St. Thomas cantor, a position he held until his death in 1750. During these 27 years he mainly played the organ, but also performed extensively with the Choir of St. Thomas. For Sunday services, the cantor of St. Thomas composed a new cantata every week. During his time in Leipzig, Bach was responsible both for the churches of St. Nikolai and St. Thomas.
Many of Johann Sebastian Bach’s works were written, arranged, revised, premiered and performed in this city. For example, during his tenure in Leipzig he wrote two of his greatest works, the St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion. In 1729 St. Thomas saw the first-ever performance of the St. Matthew Passion.
Furthermore, a multitude of motets and plethora of church cantatas were performed during Sunday services at the city’s two main churches, St. Nikolai and St. Thomas.
Presumably the librettist for many of his vocal works, Christian Friedrich Henrici aka Picander, was one of the most frequent visitors of St. Thomas. However, the Bach household was always a beehive of activity: apart from Bach’s large family, there was a continuous coming and going of his students and other musicians.
After his death, Johann Sebastian Bach was buried at the cemetery of St. Johannis on July 28, 1750. Following the air raids on Leipzig on December 4, 1943, this was destroyed by fire. The coffin with Bach’s presumed remains, however, was left untouched and retrieved on February 19, 1949. After discussions about the place and design of a new gravesite, the decision was made to bury Bach in the sanctuary of St. Thomas. On July 28, 1949 the remains were transferred to St. Thomas. Several modern musicologists, however, doubt the identity of the bones, demanding a DNA comparison with the remains of his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, whose identity is certain. So far, this has not taken place.
In the mid-19th century, the tower of St. Thomas received its current form. The octagonal shape of the tower, 60 metres in height, dates back to the 14th century. The inside of the tower features four bells, including the oldest, “Gloriosa”, dated 1477. Before visitors can enjoy the view of the steep roof and Leipzig’s centre from above, they pass through the tower keeper’s apartment, which spans three floors and features pretty alcoves for beds and a historical privy. From 1533 to 1917, this was the home of the warden who rang the hour bell and raised the alarm when fires erupted in the city.
The weekly motet performances on Fridays and Saturdays are a musical institution. In 1992 Georg Christoph Biller began a cyclical performance of the complete Bach cantatas in chronological order on the appropriate Sunday of the church year, featuring the Thomanerchor (Choir of St. Thomas) and the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Performances of Bach’s motets, his Passions and the Christmas Oratorio by the Choir of St. Thomas and the Gewandhaus Orchestra regularly draw thousands of visitors to St. Thomas.