Some thoughts
on Ernst Pepping

The Church pictured here is at the center of the Evangelishes Johannestift, the collection of charitable church institutions, of which the "Berlin School of Church Music" was a small part. "Sacred Music" was deeply imbedded in the social context of schools for young children and youth, assisted living for mentally and physically handicapped individuals, and the elderly. Diaconal training, health care, a hospital and a chuch conference center were all grouped together as a self-contained village, all in service to the wider world beyond.

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While the slow movement of Pepping’s 1950 Piano Concerto plays in the background, memories of my own time with him blend with the experience of singing, playing and listening to his music. My time of study with him was in 1965/66 near the end of his teaching career. I had come to Berlin specifically to study with him, arrangements had been made through Oskar Sőhngen, a high official in the Berlin-Brandenburg "Kirche der Union." Oskar Sőhngen had been a friend and patron of Pepping for decades, supporting him as a German Artist during the Third Reich, and being the dedicatee of Pepping’s “Grosses Orgelbuch” composed in the mid 1940s.

Pepping had a ground floor apartment in the building which served as both classrooms and dormitory for the “Berlin School of Church Music.” Taking composition lessons with Pepping merely was to knock on his apartment door at the appointed time, and sit in his living room as he looked over the completed assignments. The school library had several shelves containing single printed copies of his works created over some four decades. As I was also a member of the select choir, the Spandauer Kantorei, I also learned to sing some of his music. And in my organ lessons, I asked to learn some of the Pepping organ repertoire. In the spring, I played a special concert of his pieces for him. None of his music is particularly easy. He never considered writing “down” to less than professional performers. His choral music demanded high level skills, usually unsupported by any instrumental accompaniments. And all of his music had a strong horizontal drive, contrapuntal independence.

In the printed program notes accompanying a recording of the complete Symphonies & Piano Concerto is this quote from the eulogy given by Oskar Sőhngen, 9 February 1981:

Ernst Pepping was able to create great and solid works that stand outside the sphere of today’s aesthetic relativism and will survive our time. The fact that Pepping, who did indeed make the most important contribution to the revival of sacred music in our century, in the broad public to a large extent has been labeled merely as the great reviver of sacred music was for him not always cause for joy and satisfaction. For he was too deeply pervaded by the idea that sacred music does not lead a life of its own but is a part of music in general and, like it, has to listen to the times if it wants to say something to people today.

That “sacred music does not lead a life of its own” can also be said of the work of Leo Sowerby, with whom I also studied. It is the common thread linking these two quite different composers, and the reason I choose each one to study with. I look at Bach, Mozart, Verdi and Brahms and see a similar integrity: their “sacred” music is of a piece with the “secular/ non-sacred” music. There is a single standard of judgment – write your best!

Roger Petrich
4 February 2008