Celebrating Vox Luminis' 600th Performance: An Interview with Lionel Meunier

With their UChicago Presents concert at the Logan Center on October 30, the acclaimed Belgian early music ensemble Vox Luminis completed its 600th live performance. To celebrate the occasion, UChicago Presents interviewed the ensemble's director, Lionel Meunier, who discussed the inspiration behind his program “The Arnstadt Connection,” the acoustics of Bach family churches, and his advice to students of early music among other topics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Can you give us some background on Vox Luminis? You’re a Belgian early music group, but in many ways you’re a pretty international ensemble.

I created Vox Luminis eighteen-and-a-half years ago. The group was really developed in the Hague, in Holland, in the conservatory.

It's actually quite funny. We are bringing on tour, for the first time, our string band, and we just noticed that each of them has also studied in the Hague. So even at the moment, there is a mix of the Hague, Amsterdam, France, and Basel in Switzerland. There are three students from Basel on this tour, but the instrumental group is from the Hague where it all started, which is very nice. Many of us live in the Benelux: in Belgium, Holland, and also Germany, and France. And also Switzerland. I think we have thirteen nationalities on this tour.

It's a very nice melting pot. That’s a word that I love to hear in America, when I think about New York, and the idea of “melting pots.” I think it's very enriching, and it also shows the philosophy of sound I had in my mind when I created the ensemble, which was about getting voices that are very different, but that can create a very rich sound.

I realized that the more you take people from different countries, the richer and the more different the voices are, and we try to make that work. So my colleague, for example, he's a German bass, but then for the tenors you have singers from Australia and Portugal.


That's really interesting. How do you think about this question of blending different voices together with Vox Luminis?

There was one experience in my life that shaped my opinion on this, the way I think, and this is connected to Chicago, surprisingly.

I came to Chicago for the first time from Europe twenty years ago plus two months. That was late July 2002, where I traveled to there to sing with the World Youth Choir, who had a residency in Chicago.

We were on campus, staying there. It was a group from all over the world. They had something like fifteen nationalities, and I got fascinated by the way that so many different voices coming from all over the world could create such a rich sound working together. That was really something that changed my life.

I came back, of course, to Europe because it was a one-month-long project. We sang at the World Choral Symposium in Minneapolis, but in fact, about a year later, due to a project I did with that group, singing some early music, I decided to create Vox Luminis, not to try to imitate this group, but clearly inspired by this international feeling in my mind, which also suits Belgium.

As you might know, we have an office in Brussels, one office in Namur, which is where I live, and Brussels is the European city that represents Europe because of the European Commission, the European Council. Everything is based there. So you see, Brussels is also a very international city. In a way, we match this city very well.


Can you tell us a bit more about the program you’re bringing to UChicago Presents, “The Arnstadt Connection”?

We once had a residency for a festival from a couple of years ago where I developed most of this program. When I sang the Christ Lag In Todesbanden, the BWV 4, the one at the end of the program of the concert in Chicago on Sunday, I always wondered where he wrote it.

The more I sang it, the more I thought that it sounded like the very early Bach. I said to myself, "This is something that in my view is very close to the Bach family, and to Buxtehude." So I love to think that either he started the writing when he came back from the trip to Lübeck visiting Buxtehude, when he came back to Arnstadt, or that he wrote it to apply for his next position, which was in Mühlhausen. In Arnstadt, he was not allowed to write cantatas. He was only an organist.

But Johann Christoph and Johann Michael were from Arnstadt, and he married there. The first wife of Johann Sebastian Bach was the daughter of Johann Michael Bach, so two Bachs married each other. So you see, the connection is even on a deeper level.

When I started to build the program, I realized we also had some cantatas by Heinrich Bach. Heinrich was the father of Johann Michael and Johann Christoph, so this means he was J.S. Bach’s grandfather-in-law. Heinrich started what we call the Arnstadt Line. We found a cantata which we do for the program, also called Geistliches Konzert or sacred concerto, for five voices. So this is how we start the concerts, with Ich danke dir Gott.

I can also tell you the encore is another piece like Buxtehude, and one thing that’s interesting is that the audience often talks about Buxtehude when they are out of the concert.


Yeah. That's wonderful. I know Vox Luminis has one of their Gramophone awards for the Buxtehude recording. So people seem to really respond to your interpretations of him.

I would say this is really our DNA, this is really what we love to do most. I think when we get people telling us they love Buxtehude when we did it, or even the Bach family, then we have a big smile on our face, and we think, "This is so great, we also get the chance to perform this music, and not just to play Johann Sebastian Bach, which we also love."

But that’s interesting. We got our main Gramophones with Buxtehude and Schütz, and not with Bach, not with Handel or something that like that. So this is really what makes us special.

It takes a lot of effort to convince people because these names don’t always attract the largest audiences, but that is who we are. So, you see, we are so happy to come to Chicago to offer this program. It's a joy to us.


You’ve had an opportunity to play in Arnstadt right? Did you get the chance to play Bach’s organ there?

Yes, let me give a little context on that. A lot of the music we play is from the Alt-Bachisches Archiv in Arnstadt. But not all the pieces were from the same church, if you want to hear a little story about that.

The high church, the highest church in Arnstadt, was the main one which is called the Oberkirche. This was the church where all the members of the Bach family were based: Heinrich Bach, Johann Michael, and Johann Christoph. This is probably even where Johann Sebastian got married.

Now, there was another church in Arnstadt, which is at a lower elevation. You also have the Neue-Kirche, a bigger one, which is now called the Bach-Kirche. This is the church where Bach became organist. That was his first job, he was 18 years old, and he became organist in the secondary church of Arnstadt.

So we got to sing. In fact, we got to sing the music from this program in the church where it belongs: the Oberkirche. We got also to sing it in the Bach-Kirche, where Bach worked, down close to the altar. Our organist also got to play the organ Bach played on, but we didn’t do a performance using that organ. However, we have performed twice in France in a city called Pontaumur, which contains an exact copy, by the centimeter, of the organ in Arnstadt.

Another interesting aspect of these churches is the acoustics. The church of Johann Sebastian Bach, the Bach-Kirche, has a drier and shorter acoustic quality to it than the Oberkirche (the church of Johann Michael, Johann Christoph, and Heinrich). It is made purely of stone, without much decoration, in a very pure Lutheran style. When we sang there, we realized the acoustics were drier, and the roof was not as high as many cathedrals you would see in Europe.

So, this program fits very well in, let’s say, churches with a drier sound in the USA, like Saint Mary the Virgin in New York, or in concert halls, because you need a short, dry sound that allows you to understand the articulation of the singers, and to clearly understand the text. We really like to tour in concert halls because it really fits in the atmosphere.

It was really important for us to visit the exact places where the music was meant to be performed. It also fixed some of the tempo issues we were debating about as a group with the motets. We had some debates about what tempo to take and we couldn’t agree on it. Then we sang the pieces the right places, the places where they were written, and then suddenly there was no discussion anymore. We knew exactly what to do.


Wow, it’s incredible to hear how the environment impacted your playing. I’m wondering, as we draw near the end of our interview, what advice you would give to a student of early music today?

I would say: don't be scared. I think that's the first piece of advice. Don't be scared to try it, even if it’s not the fashion where you live. Don't be scared, just do it.

With early music, you have more opportunities now with the internet, and you can have access to many more things than when I started twenty years ago. Manuscripts are online, and so much music is online too. YouTube, Spotify, everything, all that information is great…so move, travel, go to Europe, go where it all happens, visit places, meet teachers, et cetera. Find groups like us that are touring the USA and come to us at the end of the concert. Come to the artist at the end and talk, and we can help! That's the advice I would give.


Great advice! I have one last question. What’s next for Vox Luminis? Are there any future projects or ideas that are exciting to you?

One thing we want to do is to develop projects with staging that doesn’t resemble a typical opera stage. A stage that we can travel with and assemble in one day.

The idea is to tour with that to bring people different views of music. My plan is to do that with the older masque works that Henry Purcell wrote. We started King Arthur, but we are going on now with Fairy Queen, and hopefully more. 

The next project which we’ll perform by heart with some scenographic elements is the Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo of Cavalieri which is considered the first opera oratorio of music history.

We are playing the Matthew Passion by Bach for the first time next year, which is a project I'm very much looking forward to. I would also say one our main projects is to continue playing music of the seventeenth century in Germany, finding new repertoire, and being able to tour these programs even without the name “Bach” in them!

We are also currently editing the 265 motets of the Florilegium Portense, which is a collection of Renaissance motets that were made in a school in Germany, in Pforta, which was a school for very talented students. This is a collection of motets that Johann Sebastian Bach used in Leipzig during every service before the cantata.

Only about thirty of the motets are known. There are about fifty hours of music in total, and probably about forty-five hours of this music not known yet. So, I'm hoping to have the first edition ready by the end of 2024. Then we will try to perform the majority of them, slowly but surely. It’s an ambitious project, and we'll try to do as much as we can, and be passionate!


It's wonderful the way you are championing some of this undiscovered repertoire! We’re excited to host you for your 600th performance and I look forward to seeing you there.

Great, thank you!