Music in the Speyer Cathedral has a long tradition, stretching back more than 1000 years. Already in the 9th century, Speyer was home to a cathedral school. Its students lived together in a building and ate together at a common table. Daily, holy mass and the canonical hours were frequented together with the cathedral clergy. All cathedral schools were modelled after the “Scholacantorum”, which was strongly associated with Pope Gregory the Great (590-604); although this pope did not found the school in Rome, he was pivotal in forming and promoting it. A similar school was the cathedral school in Metz, founded by Chrodegang (742-760), which proved to be a useful model for the Speyer cathedral school, as during the time of the Merovingians and Carolingians, Metz was a regional centre for Speyer.
Up to today, there is still no consensus as to when exactly the Speyer cathedral school was built adjacent to the bishop’s church, and by whom. There is, however, no doubt that such a school existed prior to the start of construction of the present-day cathedral in 1030. The first reliable information pertaining to the school is contained within a study report of a one-time student of Bishop Balderich von St. Gallen, Walter von Speyer, from 983. In this document his course of studies are explained and Speyer’s cathedral school is explicitly mentioned.
Into the 16th century the cathedral school provided the singers necessary for the chapter’s church services. Succeeding the cathedral school in performing this task was the grammar school, which was set up near the cathedral by Jesuits in 1567. The medieval cathedral cantor choir, as its name suggests, was a group of singers that were led by a cantor. Instrumental accompaniment was reduced to just the organ, which would either serve to strengthen the singing voices, or to replace voices that were absent. This instrumental sparseness would later become more involved, as at the beginning of the 17th century, an increasing number of string and brass instruments were brought in for church services. At first these instruments were played by Speyer’s town musicians, but later the choirboys themselves would replace them. And this was how the cathedral orchestra started, a blend of instrumental and vocal music. The head of this music ensemble was named the Domkapellmeister.
In the 17th century, the cathedral orchestra was made up of a maximum of 12 members. At the beginning of the 18th century this number was increased to 18 members. During the second half of this same century, steps were taken to augment the orchestra to 40 members, who would handle vocal as well as instrumental duties. In contrast to other similar orchestras, the Speyer cathedral orchestra was a student institution and not a professional one.
For various reasons the Speyer Cathedral’s church music tradition began to deteriorate more and more towards the end of the 18th century. This demise was fostered by the departure of the Jesuits, after their surprising dissolution in 1773. The decline was so extensive that polyphonic motets and masses were no longer feasible, and even the conducting of Gregorian chants was no longer realistically possible. The irruptions of French revolutionary troops signaled finally the end of cathedral music and the cathedral itself. Those times were at an end where Speyer could be regarded as a model for other cities and communities in the diocese. It wasn’t just that the renowned choir was no longer there, it was that the building itself and its dignified space, which for so many centuries had served as an enclosure for Gregorian chants and polyphonic masses and motets, were no more. The French troops had laid waste to the cathedral, leaving only ruins.
It was only beginning in 1820 that the school children slowly started to begin singing monophonically and polyphonically in the cathedral once more. It was no longer practicable to conduct choral masses, as they hadn’t been performed for centuries and were long out of practice. Many years passed until there were enough Catholics in Speyer once more to make the notion of reestablishing the cathedral choir at all plausible.
As it pertains to its present form, the cathedral choir was reformed in the 19th century. Its formation in 1839 is closely linked to the foundation of a teacher’s seminary, which was heavily fostered by the Bishop at the time, Johannes Geissel (1836-1841). At his suggestion the seminary’s music teacher at the time would simultaneously act as the Domkapellmeister, and the seminarians were expected to regularly attend and sing at church services. The first seminary music teacher who took on the role of Domkapellmeister was Eduard Rottmanner, a native of Munich, who took up the double role in 1839.
Among the most important tasks of the cathedral choir is the providing of musical support for pontifical and cathedral church services; this is accomplished through the performance of polyphonic a-capella music as well as instrumentally accompanied orchestra-masses. In order to fulfill their task of musically propagating the Christian faith, the singers prepare themselves for religious concerts that are not just held in Speyer, but also take them on choral tours. Among other places, the choir has performed in Rome, Loreto and St. Petersburg.