In a joint interdisciplinary research project between The Liszt School of Music Weimar and the Bauhaus-University Weimar, architects, engineers and musicians, using a computer model, have spatially and acoustically reconstructed the Palace Church at Weimar’s Wilhelmsburg.
Originally, Bach’s music was performed in an attic room high above the sanctuary, and this sound energy made its way down into the marble-walled nave via a large, rectangular opening in the ceiling. Worshippers described the resulting experience as being “heavenly.” During a fire in 1774, however, the sanctuary and its musicians’ gallery, including the organ that Bach had played from 1708 to 1717, were completely destroyed.
Today, historic building plans, the outer walls of the church and a painting depicting the interior are all that remind us of the Palace Church, but from these architect Florian Scharfe has been able to generate an interactive model of the entire church. Cyber-visitors can visit Bach´s former workplace in the musicians’ gallery and consider how space limitations forced choristers and orchestral musicians to stand shoulder-to-shoulder around a narrow walkway, while facing each other across the opening in the ceiling, during cantata performances.
Computer-assisted calculations by engineer Jörg Arnold indicate that acoustical conditions within the musicians’ gallery itself were not very reverberant and would have enhanced the accurate performance of Bach’s polyphony. Below, in the open volume above the pews and at Duke Wilhelm Ernst’s middle-level balcony at the rear of the church, listeners would have enjoyed a resonance more typical for a church, yet the finest details of the musicians’ performance would have remained audible. The sound quality at the side galleries, however, would have been much less distinct.
Because Bach created a large part of his most important organ works and cantatas for this architecturally unique space, the Palace Church is of special interest to musicians who wish to inform their own interpretations with an understanding of the specific details of Bach’s performance conditions. This seems especially appropriate as the text and musical language of Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (BWV 182), the first of the cantatas that Bach composed during his Weimar period, draws a parallel between its introductory theological theme and the lofty architecture of the Palace Church.