ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

For more than a hundred years, music lovers have descended on a small eastern Pennsylvanian city for the nation's oldest festival devoted to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

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SIEGEL: This is the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where the festival is taking place through this weekend. The Pennsylvania steel town might seem an unlikely place for such an event but Joel Rose of member station WHYY tells us Bach's roots run two centuries deep in the Lehigh Valley.

JOEL ROSE: Bethlehem is a long way from Leipzig, the German city where Bach worked for the last 27 years of his life and where he wrote the "Mass in B Minor."

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ROSE: Yet perhaps more than any American city, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania has been Bach's home in the New World. When the composer died in 1750, the town had already been settled by the Moravians, Protestant missionaries from Central Europe.

Mr. PAUL LARSON (Archivist, Bach Choir of Bethlehem; Former Chair, Music Department, Moravian College): They believed that God spoke through music.

NEIGHMOND: Paul Larson is the archivist of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, and former chair of the Music Department at Moravian College.

Mr. LARSON: When the Moravians came and built Bethlehem, they built it on the North German model that Bach lived in. So the town was built like a German town. It had an orchestra. There wasn't a big distance between early Bethlehem and Bach. Bach would have felt right at home.

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ROSE: Way back in 1823, Larson says a Bethlehem musician has gotten his hands on the first printed edition of one of Bach's cantatas and studiously copied it, apparently for a performance here. That copy is the earliest evidence of Bach's music anywhere in America.

It came in a time when Bach was largely forgotten except by other composers. It wasn't until six years after that Bethlehem copy that Felix Mendelssohn sparked a revival of interest in Bach's choral music in Europe.

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Mr. LARSON: The small works people didn't know what to do about that so they had fallen totally into disuse, really. So one of the great contributions that the Moravians made was to take Bach's choral works - small choral works - and put them in a setting where their spiritual message was delivered.

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ROSE: Larson says from the beginning the Bach Choir of Bethlehem wanted to share that music with a wider audience.

Mr. LARSON: The idea that Bach was for everybody. We didn't go out to missionize and force Bach down the necks of people. We made it available. And if they were interested, they came. So that was a very Moravian kind of view.

ROSE: The Moravian mission to spread Bach's music may have started out low key but it didn't stay that way. In 1900, the two-year-old Bach Choir of Bethlehem gave the first full performance of the "Mass in B Minor" anywhere in America. The concert made national news with critics coming from New York City, Philadelphia and Washington. And the choir itself became a big deal, finding financial support from the captains of rail and steel headquartered in Bethlehem. The choir performed at Carnegie Hall, visited the White House and appeared on NBC's "Bell Telephone Hour in 1968."

Unidentified Man: Here in stately Packer Memorial Chapel on the campus of Lehigh University, Dr. Ifor Jones is conducting the choir in the Bach: Cantata No. 172.

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ROSE: Except for the soloist, the 100 choir members are not paid for the many hours they spend on stage or in rehearsal. Alto Eve Campbell has been in the choir for 35 years. She says Bach's music offers its own rewards.

Ms. EVE CAMPBELL (Member, Bach Choir of Bethlehem): He obviously had a deep faith himself and he called on that and it came out in his music. So it's there to help us when we have times in our life where we need comfort or you just want to burst for joy. It's all there for me, it really is.

ROSE: The festival can be a spiritual matter for the audience as well. Until 1980s, the house did not applaud at the end of concerts, says historian, Paul Larson.

Mr. LARSON: In fact, there are still people who attend the festival who will not applaud. They leave immediately at the end of the "Mass." The original idea was this is a sacred service, and you don't applaud at church.

ROSE: Now the audience is allowed to clap but only after the conductor has stepped down from the podium. It's one of the few concessions to time and fashion at a festival that's changed little since 1900. The choir still sings the "B Minor Mass" on the second day of the festival after rehearsing it all year.

Unidentified Man #2: "Sanctus."

Unidentified Man #3: Choir, you okay? Do you need another minute to rest? No?

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ROSE: Director Greg Funfgeld says Bach returned to some of the cantatas he'd written earlier in his life, and assembled them into what some consider his greatest choral work - the "B Minor Mass."

Mr. GREG FUNFGELD (Conductor, Bach Choir of Bethlehem): What he was trying to show and this was towards the end of his life is a summation of everything that he had learned about harmony, counterpoint, fugal writing and it was kind of his last will and testament.

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Mr. FUNFGELD: When Bach died his library was catalogued. He had more theological books than anything - collections of sermons, interpretations of the Bible. The spiritual part of it was very important. And he understood it and he shows it in the way he writes the music.

ROSE: It's an indication of just how much sacred music Bach wrote that even after a hundred festivals in Bethlehem, the Bach Choir still hasn't performed all of it. And Funfgeld says there are a few cantatas the choir has never sung. He expects to get to those in the coming years.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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SIEGEL: You can hear the Bach Choir of Bethlehem sing excerpts from the "B Minor Mass" and hear a recording of the choir in concert at npr.org.

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