Church Music in a Personal Musical Language

Walter von Forster

“Write something new,” was the motto of the late Walter von Forster, who died at the end of 2002. The sentence continues: “...rather than worry about the performance of earlier works.”

In the summer of 2003, when I had the opportunity to look through Forster’s unpublished musical works, I quickly realized the two consequences that result from such an attitude. On the one hand, an enormous compositional oeuvre that, on the other hand, is practically unknown even among experts. Here is quite a bit to catch up on, considering that Forster’s oeuvre consists mostly of church music compositions!

Born on 15 June 1915 in Nuremberg, Walter von Forster spent his childhood and school days there. Starting in 1934 he studied composition and church music in Munich with Joseph Haas and Hermann Sagerer, the organist of Munich’s St. Luke’s Church at that time. Early compositions were performed already during his studies in the master class of Joseph Haas, until such events were hindered by the National Socialist authorities. In 1943 Forster received the position as organist of Munich’s St. Stephan’s Church. In 1946 he was appointed instructor (later professor) of music theory at the newly opened Staatliche Hochschule für Musik (State College of Music) in Munich, where he taught generations of pupils until his retirement in 1979.

Forster’s oeuvre covers practically all church music genres. Free organ works, more than eighty chorale preludes, partitas, etc.; several “church sonatas” for violin and organ; numerous Psalm and other Bible settings for voice (frequently baritone!) and organ, often also including a solo instrument; motets and cantatas for almost all occasions and ecclesiastical seasons for choir with and without instruments – the size of the formation and the degree of difficulty differ greatly here – finally, large forms like a Mass, “Christmas Stories,” a Passion, and the oratorio In deserto about Jesus’ temptation “in the desert.” In addition, Forster also wrote chamber music, concertos, and pure orchestral works (for example, Scheidt Variations).

Among the composers of the second half of the twentieth century, Walter von Forster found his own musical language that in spite of the endeavor not to lose sight of the church music practice, is never slick or all too simple. On 28 March 2004 a memorial concert for the composer will take place in Munich’s St. Andreas’ Church, at which the recently compiled catalogue of works and several scores will be present presented.

Michael Grill

From: Gottesdienst und Kirchenmusik