Monday, 18 August 2014

Chasing Ghosts on the Bach Trail

Visiting some of the places where Bach lived and worked in 18th-century Thuringia and Saxony, while working on my latest Masterpieces of Music eBook on the composer’s B minor Mass*, revealed varying degrees of evidence of the great man’s existence

Bach’s disputed birthplace in Eisenach, now a musuem
TRYING TO FOLLOW the stations of Bach’s life around the cultural heartland of central Germany is a bit like trying to grasp at apparitions. From the Bachhaus in the small western Thuringian town of Eisenach to his final resting place in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, nothing is necessarily as it seems. That Bachhaus, bought by the New Bach Society in 1906 on the assumption that it was the composer’s birthplace, has since been discounted by historians in favour of another as yet unknown site in the same Eisenach square. Yet it still has its commemorative plaque and houses the town’s Bach Museum. On a visit in July 2014, the church where Bach was baptised, his father worked and where Luther preached was unfortunately closed for restoration (scheduled to reopen in October 2015).

Bachkirche in Arnstadt, with the restored
interior and original Wender organ
Bach had his first major appointment in nearby Arnstadt, a small town south of the regional capital of Erfurt and on the northern margins of the Thuringian Forest. Here, at least, there are tangible Bachian mementoes. In time for the 250th anniversary of his death in 2000, ‘Bach Year’, the local authorities undertook a complete restoration of the church in which he had worked. In his time this building dedicated to St Boniface was called the Neue Kirche, but in 1935, his 250th birthday, it was boldly renamed as the Bachkirche (Bach Church). The works removed 18th- and 19th-century accretions and returned the church to the state in which it had existed in Bach’s time (it had only been rebuilt two years before Bach’s birth from the ruins of an earlier building that had been destroyed by fire in 1581). The interior is now a rather typical example of German Lutheran Baroque: a limited colour scheme of white with gold tracery and clean lines (St Michael’s Church in Hamburg, where Telemann worked around this time and where Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emmanuel is buried, is the supreme example of the style). Also restored to pride of place is the organ on which Bach played – fortunately, although it had been replaced in the church by a 19th-century instrument, it had survived in a museum and could be reinstated. It was this organ that first brought him to the town, when he was asked to assess it and effectively give it a service.

Bernd Göbel’s Bach statue in Arnstadt
Outside the Bachkirche is perhaps the most original of the sculptural memorials to the composer. Rather than the usual stern, bewigged figure we see Bach as a young man in a strikingly laid-back pose – it was sculpted as recently as 1985 by the noted East German artist Bernd Göbel, whose works can also be seen in Leipzig and elsewhere.

As for Bach’s living quarters in Arnstadt, two houses bear evidence – one simply called the Bachhaus appears now to be solicitors’ offices and opens to visitors once a month or so. The other is a nondescript building on one of the main shopping streets and now a chemist, but it bears a plaque installed by authority of the Nazi-controlled Reichsmusikkammer in 1935.

It was from Arnstadt that Bach famously walked all the way north to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude. Here we encounter another ghost – the organ on which the Danish composer played in the Marienkirche was unfortunately bombed to smithereens in the Second World War.

BACK IN THURINGIA, Bach spent some of his most fruitful middle years working for the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in Weimar – his one major secular post. And once more we’re into phantom territory. The great Renaissance palace in which Bach worked burned to the ground in 1774, so the building we now see (an impressive early 19th-century replacement built under the guidance of no less a figure than Goethe) has no material connection with the composer. And to cap it all, Bach’s former lodging – and birthplace Carl Philipp Emmanuel exactly 300 years ago – is now a car park adjacent to the Hotel Elephant (almost as much an indignity as the site of Clara Schumann’s birthplace in Leipzig now being a Karstadt department store). Perhaps as a result, Weimar plays down its Bachian connections (there’s a bust at least) in favour of later figures – both Hummel and Liszt were to succeed Bach at the court – and its unsurpassed literary heritage.
Thomaskirche, Leipzig, where Bach worked
for over a quarter of a century

It is perhaps Leipzig that can lay greatest claim to being the home of Bach – he spent over a quarter of a century there, after all, and despite constant ructions with church and town authorities produced some of his greatest music there. There are still ghosts, though. The Thomasschule, where he lived and taught his choirboys, was knocked down as recently as 1902 (it’s difficult to establish the reason since Bach memorialisation was already strong by that stage). So the house of one his former neighbours across the street now provides the home for an excellent Bach Museum in which his music, rather than ephemeral memorabilia, plays a key role, not only thanks to excellent portable audio guides (and a room where you can hear all the orchestral instruments Bach used) but also the Treasure Room which houses a display of the composer’s manuscripts. The foundation that runs the building is arguably the most important centre of Bach research, and its holdings are like no other. It was fascinating, and moving, to see a complete set of parts for one of his cantatas, laid out in a line in the display cabinet, evidence not only of his own handwriting but that of his wife and sons who helped him with such chores.

Bach’s final resting place in the
chancel of the Thomaskirche
ACROSS THE SQUARE is the Bachian holy of holies, the Thomaskirche itself, which fortunately largely survived the city’s wartime bombing. The church where Bach was originally buried, St John’s, unfortunately fared less happily, so it was fortuitous that the composer’s remains had been dug up in the late 19th-century when the church’s cemetery was being redeveloped and moved to the church’s crypt. At least these were the presumed bones of the master, identified by dint of the oaken coffin they were found in, the mark of an important burial, and the perceived age of the man himself. An information panel in St Thomas’s recounts that Bach’s zinc sarcophagus was found open in the bombed remains of St John’s and carted across town to his former workplace, presented by the stonemason charged with the carriage with the words ‘Hello there, Superintendent, I bring Bach’. The open casket was watched day and night until a home was made for it, originally in 1949 on the chancel steps, but since 1964 in pride of place beneath a large bronze plate in the centre of the choir’s floor and now permanently strewn with flowers. The interior of the church itself has changed since Bach’s day, with 18th- and 19th-century additions, but it’s still humbling to stand there and imagine all the great music that was first performed there under Bach’s direction.

The exuberant Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, completely
remodelled after Bach’s death
One doesn’t get quite the same feeling in the city’s other major church, the Nikolaikirche, where the St John Passion was premiered, since this underwent a major refit at the height of the late 18th century and is now an exuberant fantasy of palm-inspired columns and vaulting. A final case of only the spectre of Bach remaining, despite the presence of a spotlit bust of the master:

* The Masterpieces of Music eBook on Bach’s Mass in B minor - a complete listening guide to ‘the greatest musical work of all times and all people’ - is published later this month - see Erudition for full details

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