Music that Moves

Johann Sebastian Bach once said that the ultimate goal of music should be “the refreshment of the soul.” It’s a wonderful illustration of the impact that music can have—across time and space, it is an artform that is capable of speaking to every part of the human experience. St. Louis is lucky to be home to many wonderful cultural institutions that celebrate the arts, and among them is the Bach Society of Saint Louis. Since 1941, the nonprofit has celebrated not only the works of Bach but the power of all music. One of its major annual events is the St. Louis Bach Festival, which brings the joy of music to St. Louis each spring.

The Bach Society of Saint Louis is the region’s oldest continuous chorus. It was founded by William B. Heyne, who served as conductor for more than three decades. “The society began solely performing the music of Bach, but after Heyne’s retirement, subsequent conductors started to bring in the works of other composers, but we continue to spotlight Bach’s works at least once each season,” music director and conductor Dennis Sparger explains. “Why Bach? Most people who study music will tell you he is the best. Scholars have long pointed to the way that his music brings comfort, hope and joy.”

The St. Louis Bach Festival’s origins date back to 1941 when the Bach Society offered a performance of the composer’s Mass in B minor. The next year, another performance of the mass was held with an additional concert of three of Bach’s cantatas. “Three years later, recitals for piano and organ were added to the schedule as well as a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion,” Sparger says. “That’s how the format continued for a long time.”

The festival was eventually paused in the 1990s, but it was revived with the arrival of the Bach Society’s new executive director, Melissa Payton in the mid 2010s. “I came in guns a-blazing, ready to reinvigorate the St. Louis Bach Festival,” she notes. “Many people consider Bach to be the greatest composer of all time, and we are the only organization in St. Louis dedicated to preserving his music and bringing it to a wider audience. I wanted to find creative ways to further that mission.”

In 2017, the St. Louis Bach Festival relaunched. Payton notes that around 10 events were planned in collaboration with different local organizations. “It was a bear to pull off but ended up being such a success,” she says. “It was so fun to see that vision come to life while taking advantage of all the creativity there is in St. Louis. We performed around the city and got to reach new audiences that may not be familiar with the traditional concerts we perform during our regular season.” Since the return of the festival, the Bach Society has collaborated with organizations like Cinema St. Louis, The Sheldon, Big Muddy Dance Company, Saint Louis Art Museum and Union Avenue Opera.

“Our goal with the festival is to bring music to the community—people don’t have to come to us,” Sparger says. “Planning begins a year in advance after we map out what the major concerts of our next season will be.” While the Bach Society endeavors to offer innovative programming with each festival, there are some concerts that have become staples. This includes the Young Artist Showcase and the Community Spring Sing, which invites members of local choirs and others to sing along with the orchestra. “It’s such a fantastic opportunity, especially for singers who may not have the chance to perform any more or for students in high school or college,” Payton notes. “You get to have the amazing, exciting experience of singing along with a live orchestra.”

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit

st. louis bach festival schedule of events

Bach at the Bistro: A Night at the Movies
Jazz St. Louis | 6 p.m.

Brandenburg Concertos
Salem United Methodist | 3 p.m.

Free Education Concert
First Baptist Church, Ferguson | 10 a.m.

Young Artist Showcase
Second Presbyterian Church | 4 p.m.

Community Spring Sing
The Church of Our Lady of the Snows | 11 a.m.

The Heart of Bach: Choral Motets and Organ Chorales
Peace Lutheran Church | 3 p.m.

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