Over his career, Helmuth Rilling has become one of the most respected choral conductors in the world. Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Rilling grew up in a musical family; his father was an organist and choir conductor, while his mother played violin. He himself took up piano and organ as a child, showing a fine talent for each. He later studied at the Hochschule für Musik in his home city, becoming a distinguished Kantor in Kornwestheim and Stuttgart; he received his music diploma in 1954.
Rilling had already started down the path to a long and fruitful career when he founded the Gächinger Kantorei in December 1953. Gächinger is a small town in southwest Germany, but Rilling's Kantorei were well enough supported by the locals that their reputation soon spread as leaders in the performance of unaccompanied choral repertoire. The Gachinger Kantorei's singers came, and still come, mostly from southwest Germany; the group's success is due both to the dedication of its members and the amazing pedagogical skills of its leader.
Eventually, Rilling founded the Stuttgart Bach-Collegium orchestra to accompany the Kantorei, and the synthesis was an immediate success. Rilling and his ensembles recorded all the major works of Bach: the Passions of St. John and St. Matthew, the B Minor Mass, and eventually the complete cantatas, a series which was finished in time for the 300th anniversary of Bach's birth in 1985. The Kantorei, under Rilling's direction, has also made extensive appearances with foreign orchestras, including one particularly memorable occasion in Israel in 1976. It was the first time German and Israeli musicians had performed together since World War II, and Rilling conducted the Kantorei in the Israeli national anthem as a further gesture of reconciliation.
Outreach through music was nothing new to Rilling; the Kantorei had undertaken a tour of East Germany almost immediately after its founding, and in general Rilling always tried to bridge the gap between East and West with music before the Iron Curtain lifted. He also conducted the premier performance of the Requiem for Reconciliation, which combined movements written for the occasion by composers from all the nations involved in World War II.
Even though his activites have been centered in Germany, Rilling's activities have taken him all over the world; he founded the Oregon Bach Festival in 1970, and he has instructed choral groups all over the world. Rilling gained prominence in an era when period practices were becoming dominant in Bach performance, yet Rilling has never used period instruments and has always used a good-sized choir for his performances. He feels that it is impossible to know exactly how Bach's music sounded in his time, not just to the musicians but to Bach's audience. While period practices have their place, Rilling feels, they should be used as a guide and not a doctrine. In performance, Rilling does not strive for a blend of choral tone, but a sound that is both controlled and full of character. Rilling's performances have become more and more deeply felt and subtle over the years. All of his performances are deeply felt, scrupulously detailed, and outstandingly sung.