On the trail of J.S. Bach

The year 2000 commemorates the 250th anniversary of the composer's death

On the market in Arnstadt stands the statue of a young man with sprawling long legs stuck out to trip you.

It's Johann Sebastian Bach at 18.

I never liked the traditional Bach portrait of a respectably bewigged jowly burgher with a contented smirk. The spunky kid with the big, keyboard-hugging hands seemed more where the thunder of the Toccata in D Minor came from. So, on a recent trip to Germany, I chose to trace the life of the youth. But I found the trail somewhat illusive.

"No, he didn't live here," they said at the Bach House, "but he may have visited...."

"The harpsichord is a reconstruction of what Bach would have played," they said at the Bach Museum.

But a proper Bach tour is not about relics. One should just walk his towns whistling a chorale, grab a Thringer sausage in the market, then pop into a church to hear the organist practice a fugue.


By the time Bach's parents married in Erfurt's Kaufmnnerskirche in 1668, musical Bachs were thick on the ground in the state of Thringia. The original ancestor was Vitus Bach, who had moved here from Hungary in 1600. His son Caspar became a town piper, and by the next generation every other town had a Bach for an organist or cantor, most of them called Johann.

In the 17th century, Erfurt was a major stop on the trade route between Kiev and Paris, but its money came from woad. The entire town was involved in making this blue dye, and it made the merchants rich. When richness was expressed in churches, not high-rises, Erfurt's 15,000 residents had 80 churches - and many Bachs to staff them.

My sightseeing here meant climbing the family tree: "Great-uncle Johann Christoph lived here, Johann gidius over there...." In Junkersand Street several Bachs lived in No. 2, as well as the canoner Johann Pachelbel, whose widow later moved into No. 1. I began to wonder if all baroque composers played on the same streets.

That feeling grew when I was in the Prediger Kirche where the organ had such handlers as Praetorius in 1580, Johann Bach (great-uncle of Johann Sebastian) in 1636, and Pachelbel in 1678.

The church is a history lesson. It began in 1270 as the Dominican monastery's church: The rare double screen before the sanctuary allowed the monks to enter in privacy. It turned Protestant in 1525 and served as the Swedish troops' garrison church during the Thirty Years' War. Its stained-glass windows are the shards of the originals, shattered by a bomb in 1944.

In 1989, it became a starting place for the Monday marches against the East German government that eventually brought down the Berlin Wall.

Erfurt is a delightful town for walks. Its river was split into four branches to power the textilemakers' water mills, and the town now benefits from many river views. The Krmerbrcke (Krmer Bridge) lacks views because it has houses on both sides. The 1325 structure looks like a street from the inside and like a row of houses with six canals underneath from the outside.

What has it got to do with the Bachs? The first musical Bach lived in the house under the Black Horse sign, with his family and 20 students.

A rare distinction of Erfurt is that while J.S. Bach must have visited his local relatives, there is no record that he ever played any organ in any church here.


J.S. Bach was born in Eisenach in 1685. I wasn't surprised to find out that his birth house has disappeared. The Bach House is the house of his relatives, around the corner from where he may have been born. The museum shows an 18th- century middle-class home full of Bach memorabilia. In the music room stand a small snuffling and creaking organ, a 1745 clavichord, and a 1760 spinet. Bach didn't play those, but museum director Uwe Fischer does, conjuring up the spirit of Bach as he demonstrates.

Baby Johann Sebastian was baptized in the Georgenkirche. For 132 years, from 1665, the organists in this church were family: J. (for Johann) Christoph, J. Bernhard, J. Ernst, J. Georg - all Bachs.

Bach's parents died when he was 10, and he went to live with his brother (another organist) in nearby Ohrdruf, then to Lneburg for his musical education.


By the age of 18, Bach had acquired a reputation for having a way with organs. Thus, when Arnstadt had a new organ installed, he was invited to put it through its paces. Bach liked the organ; the councilors liked the way he played and offered him a job, his first as organist.

Bach should have felt right at home. Starting in 1620 with his great- grandfather Caspar, town piper and watchman, generations of Bachs lived in Arnstadt. According to records, 17 were born, eight married, and 25 buried here. Most of them worked as musicians, enough to form a full orchestra at family gatherings.

Johann Sebastian was serious enough about his music to walk 500 kilometers (310.5 miles) to Lbeck to visit his idol, Buxtehude, organist at the Marienkirche. He so impressed Buxtehude with his talent that the master invited him to be his successor, provided that - according to custom - he married one of his daughters. Nobody knows what the girls looked like, but Bach walked back to Arnstadt.

Bach's absence of four months, instead of the granted four weeks, did not go down well with his bosses, the town council and the church presbyters. Nor were they pleased about his getting into a street fight with a choir boy. The stodgy churchgoers grumbled about his musical innovations. Both the young man and the town were relieved when he moved on to his next job in Muhlhausen.

Arnstadt has since embraced Bach, giving him a room in the Town Historical Museum (where I saw one of his few traces, the organ keyboard he played), and putting up the statue that has raised as many arguments as the youth himself. The 1683 Neue Kirche, now Bach Church, where Bach worked, is a perfect soundbox with a wooden barrel roof and tree trunks for columns. The plain white-gold dcor matches the purity of his music on the old organ rebuilt to baroque specifications.

You can balance the musical tour with walks among half-timbered houses, a delightful exhibit of baroque doll houses in the Schlossmuseum, and dinner at the Goldene Sonne, the pub where the Bachs gathered every year for their "family day."


In 1707, at a mature 22, Bach decided to settle down and marry. His bride, Maria Barbara, was the daughter of organist Johann Michael Bach (it was difficult to find a non-Bach in the region). The wedding took place in Dornheim, where the local pastor was his friend and the pastor's wife his bride's aunt. Tiny Dornheim's tiny 12th-century church had been neglected until a few years ago when the villagers got together to save it. The Bachs' 15th-century wedding altar has been put back, together with the footstool on which the couple knelt. The organ from 1695 has been rebuilt for baroque music and attracts organists for guest performances. It will be played on Sept. 17, the 293rd anniversary of the wedding.


In the year following the wedding, the Bachs moved up in the world when Johann Sebastian was appointed organist and chamber musician to the ducal court in Weimar.

If Bach's memory could be overshadowed, it could happen only here. This cultural-intellectual paradise attracted so many geniuses in the 18th and 19th centuries that their residences and monuments fill the town. The plaque on the Bachs' house (Markt 16) and his statue are just two of many mementos. In Weimar, Bach's family and his creative genius blossomed: He fathered three sons and composed 30 church cantatas. But he had one more rebellion in him. When a lesser talent was promoted to music director over his head, he became so angry he resigned. Not to be outdone in willfulness, his employer, Duke Wilhelm Ernst, had him locked up for a month.

At 38, he found his last job - the first that measured up to him - in Leipzig. He was appointed head of music at St. Thomas's Church and ex officio director of church music for the entire city. For the next 27 years he taught, raised his family (another generation of musicians), and composed the music that still awes and dwarfs while it inspires - like a cathedral built by a giant.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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