VR journey into Bach’s past

In this year’s edition of Thuringia Bach Festival, the famous, long destroyed “Himmelsburg” chapel will rise again in an extraordinary virtual reality project – complete with its very unusual acoustics.

Crystal clear sounds that seem to float down directly from the heavens – this is how the music of the 17th and 18th century must have sounded in the so-called “Himmelsburg” (“Castle of Heaven”). It therefore should not come as a surprise that the chapel in Weimar counts as one of the most influential locations in Johann Sebastian Bach’s life. Thuringia Bach Festival and Musikland Thüringen now offer the unique opportunity to experience the atmosphere of the Himmelsburg almost 250 years after its destruction: Together with a team of experts they have recreated the building in virtual reality brick by brick. In the process they not only created a visual representation of the site but were also able to authentically revive its very specific acoustics. Visitors of Thuringia Bach Festival will thus be able to explore the chapel from different perspectives in a special pavilion using virtual reality glasses and headphones to experience its unmistakable sound – entirely in the spirit of this year’s Festival motto “Play Bach!”.

A lost place of longing
The Himmelsburg can be described as an “Atlantis” for Bach fans around the world: a lost place of great significance in the composer’s career, unique in its architecture and sound environment. Weimar Castle was built in the 17th century and contained a hidden Cappella with an organ 20 meters up, leaving visitors with the impression that an ensemble “was playing music from the heavens”. Johann Sebastian Bach composed some of his most beloved cantatas for this unusual space which was destroyed along with the Castle in 1774.

Diverse team of experts
Experts and partners from a variety of disciplines collaborated on this ambitious project, including Professor Stefan Weinzierl from the Technical University in Berlin, an acoustics expert who specialises in the recreation of historical concert venues. Among further collaborators were researchers from the Fachhochschule Erfurt and the Bauhaus University in Weimar. The music played in the virtual Himmelsburg was recorded by the ensemble Cantus Thuringia: Bach’s cantata “Himmelskönig, sei willkommen” (BWV 182), which the composer wrote especially for the chapel.

Bach around the world
The virtual reality project is part of the overall festival project “We Are Family,” in which Bach organisations around the world come together under the umbrella of the Leipzig Bach Festival. The installation will thus also appear in Leipzig and further afield in other Bach festivals, including the Bach Academy in Bruges, the International Bach Festival in Schaffhausen, the Stuttgart Music Festival and the Early Music Festival in Utrecht (Netherlands).

VR Himmelsburg

Preliminary rendering from 2019 | Recording Bach cantata BWV 182 in a reverberation-free space
Photos: © Rolf Kruse, Anne Levin Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Christoph Drescher
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