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Die Sturms

"Rhythm in Every Limb"
A journey on the trail of Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig, Eisenach, Arnstadt, Mühlhausen and Köthen
Stadt Leipzig, Mai 2002

by Daniel Sturm.

Leipzig on a warm Summer day - Cafe Kandler is serving Bachcakes with buttercream and mocha. The Thomaner choir has just sung nimm was dein ist und gehe hin - 'take what is yours and go out'. 252 years after his death Johann Sebastian Bach is present in Leipzig as never before. The St Thomas church cantor and organist, who, as his friend Johann Matthias Gesner once wrote, "had rhythm in every limb", had previously been long neglected by the city. Today however everything in the finely restored "Gründerzeit"(1871-1873) centre of Leipzig is centred again around the great composer - a good reason to begin one's journey on the trail of Bach in the Saxon Metropolis.

At the 2000 Bach Festival Bobby McFerrin demonstrated his reverence with fresh and jazzy versions of Bach's work in the city's marketplace. "Don't worry be happy" - even culturally spoilt contemporaries get their money's worth in Leipzig! The city emphatically remembers the role it has played in the history of music. Bach worked here as St Thomas Church cantor and musical director from 1723 until his death in 1750. The St Nicholas and St Thomas churches were not, of course, the city's only cultural lighthouses. The city also maintained a distinctive musical coffee-house - currently the Museum zum Arabischen Coffee-Baum, reconstructed in the baroque style, and which maintains a strong sense of atmosphere of the period when it was frequented by Goethe, Lessing, Schumann and Napoleon. A visit to this café is strongly recommended, not just for the in-house museum, but also for the coffee which marvellously sharpens the senses. Next comes the Bachmuseum, situated on Thomaskirchhof, with its fabulous listening room on whose leather seats one can relax and immerse oneself in the cosmos of Bach's music. Two years ago the city paid 400,000 Euro in order to enlarge the exhibition by one third. Head of the Museum Cornelia Krumbiegel is incidentally the mother of the lead singer of German pop group "Die Prinzen", Sebastian Krumbiegel, himself a former St. Thomas Choir member.

The St. Thomas choir are to be heard free of charge every Friday (6pm) performing Motets, and every Sunday (3pm), Motets and Cantatas. To be sure of getting a seat one should arrive in good time since the choir in the "Kieler Blusen" is now something of an institution and immensely popular. The St Thomas Church is a magnificent setting. The church was lavishly restored for the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, sponsors coming forward after the church was named as one of the world's hundred most endangered cultural treasures by the World Monument Fund. The crowning glory is undoubtedly the new Bachorgan, designed to play Bach's works as he intended, in deep and solemn tone.

"I believe that this one, my Bach, contained within himself many Orpheuses and a few dozen Arions", praised his friend Johann Matthias Gesner. A trip to Bach's birthplace Eisenach offers a suitable musical beginning to the journey. In the instrument room of the Bach house, Michael Meißner initiates visitors "live" into the musical world of the composer. The violin and viola were Johann Sebastian's first instruments. Three times weekly he marched through Eisenach as a member of the boy's choir, draped in dark cloak and stiff hat. He was educated in the same former Dominican Monastery where Martin Luther two hundred years previously learned his first words of Latin. In the Bach house one can also read how the young Johann Sebastian was conspicuous by his frequent absences from school, being busy instead singing in the street, and in church and school choirs. In the neighbourhood of Eisenach, besides the Bach house, the St.George Church and font and the Latin School, there is also Wartburg Castle where Martin Luther and Saint Elizabeth resided, as well as the Hörsel mountains with the cave of Venus said to have inspired Richard Wagner to compose "Tannhäuser".

In Arnstadt the wild side of the young Johann Sebastian is to be found. In 1705 Bach led the Organ services at the Latin School, but the students were only slightly interested in music, and, one evening, Bach, having been threatened with a walking stick by Johann Heinrich Geyersbach, one year his junior, drew his sword in self-defence. In the enquiry which followed, he admitted calling Geyersbach as a "zippelfagottist" or 'bad bassoonist' on account of his appalling performances. The current Arnstadt telephone directory records six entries under the name Geyersbach.

Press officer Eike Küstner came up with the idea of tracing Bach's descendents while preparing for Arnstadt's 1300th birthday celebrations in 2004. "They were countless. We couldn't have afforded to invite them all". In 1985 the city dedicated a monument to the wild young Bach, portraying him in an open shirt, lounging in a chair, his legs outstretched. In the "Haus zum Palmenbaum" in the marketplace, one can see evidence of the discussion inspired by the statue. It is amusing to read the opinions quoted in the local newspaper following the unveiling of the monument: "A musician never lounges - he stands or sits!" proclaimed one pensioner. The highlight of the exhibition is the original console of the wind-organ tested by Bach in Arnstadt in 1703. The completely rebuilt organ of the master instrument-maker was presented to the public in 2000 in the new church which today carries his name.

Another genuine connection with Bach is also to be found in a small half-timbered house at Kohlgasse 7. For over thirty years it belonged to the family of his uncle, Johann Christoph Bach. "Since the period of ownership falls within Bach's lifetime, it is certain that he's been in and out of here, he probably even lived here" says Peter Damaschke of the Altstadtkreis. The organisation has diligently collected contributions towards the upkeep of this, the only confirmed Bach house, which by 1992 had fallen into almost total disrepair. Since then the foundations and windows have been restored. Next year, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the appointment of Bach in Arnstadt, the house will reopen to the public for musical and cultural events. Along with regular concerts, an exhibition of the story of the twenty-four "Bachs" in Arnstadt is planned.

With "strange tones" and "many wonderful variations" Bach finally won over the population of Arnstadt. The records there provide a counterpoint to the widespread cliché of staid bewigged baroque musicians. The young Bach was tempestuous and at times also a little "obstinate". The story is related of how Bach's determination to leave, after eleven years in the service of Prince Herzog Wilhelm Ernst at the court of Weimar, resulted in his being locked up for a month. Valuable documents are also preserved in the city archives in Mühlhausen, Bach's next port of call. On the way there one should take the scenic route through the delightful mountain landscape of Thüringen and the small city of Wechmar, which confidently claims to be the original home of the Bach family. About Vitus Bach, the baker, who around 1600 migrated to Wechmar, Johann Sebastian himself reveals: "He derived his greatest pleasure from a guitar which he brought with him to the mill and which he would play while milling." The former bakery is lovingly arranged as a Museum and displays the line of Bach family portraits in an eccentric collection of silhouettes. The mill of Bach's great-grandfather is due to be restored by 2004.

A daytrip to Köthen in Saxony-Anhalt is also recommended. The small town has a superbly maintained old quarter whose 'pearls', as is often the case with small towns, are somewhat hidden. The Bach monument faces directly on to an Irish Pub, whose shamrock logo is only in seeming contradiction to the general Bach ambience - the Irish being recognised as among the most musical of European peoples - and where once a week live music is performed. Inside the waiter serves the jubilee beer from the Köthen Brewery. The brand naturally enough "Johann Sebastian Bach".

In the baroque Water Castle, with it's chamber of mirrors and chapel, Bach reached the peak of his formal career as musical director. The working conditions must have been good, otherwise he would not have described his employer Prince Leopold as a "prince who knew music as well as he loved it". An inventory from 1729 counts a total of thirty-one musical instruments and a stock of "Italian, French and other musicalia". However manuscripts by Bach are not documented. "In terms of written records it is a tabula rasa here" says Günther Hoppe, who has been at the head the castle's historical museum since 1982. The scarcity of records has compelled this researcher to make a virtue of necessity and broaden his researches to cover every scrap of information he can find concerning the thirty-two year old Bach. This is how he knows, for example, that Bach only rarely - no more than eight times - attended confession in St. Agnes' Church. "This displays his confidence in his standing" says Hoppe. Indeed Bach himself would have been content with his situation - if the prince's new wife Princess Friederika Henrietta of Anhalt-Bernburg hadn't been such an "Amusa" (in Bach's own words). The young princess, however, died in the spring of 1723, which was before Bach's appointment in Leipzig, and can therefore hardly have been the sole reason for his departure from Köthen.

The riddle of where Bach's family lived also remains unsolved. After much speculation on the matter, the city in 1930 hired Max Möcke, a clairvoyant, who after a walk through the city decided on 26 Wallstraße. It was later discovered there were no houses there in Bach's lifetime. To ponder these and other questions, the plush red booths of the "Theatertreff" restaurant are recommended. Indeed, tasting the traditional regional dish of potato dumplings from Köthen, one can scarcely imagine that Bach's parting from this idyllic place could have been an easy one.

Throughout his time in Leipzig Bach was substantially undervalued. The city's council offered him little respect or reward. In the treasury of the Bach archive led by the renowned Harvard academic, Professor Christoph Wolff, lie the originals of each well-known complaint to the council. The current St Thomas Church cantor, Georg Biller, harks ironically back to the petitions of his predecessor in formulating a memorandum of his own on the need for "a new and urgent way forward for a well-established church music". As once it was with Bach, now it is his task to constantly try and improve things.

Biller's critical words, however, hardly apply to the current city council, which shows anything but indifference towards Bach. Indeed Bach has for many years now been seen as the trump card of Georg Girardet who's head of the City's culture department. In this emphasis on the legacy of the former Thomascantor, he sees " the one chance to be remembered world-wide as the quintessential city of Bach". Thus in 1999 the Bach festival was initiated, which in the interim has become a first-class magnet for drawing visitors to the city. The next Bach festival will be in May 2003. From now until August both traditional Bach churches, St. Nicolai and St Thomas, hosts the Organ Summer Festival, which is dedicated to the world famous baroque musician's work.

Leipzig is also responding in culinary terms to the new emphasis on Bach. Two members of the Leipzig Orchestra have created the "Bachpipes": eleven pralines in the form of organ pipes filled with coffee cream and deliciously coated in melted chocolate. The musicians see it as "form of reverence to the venerable master Bach". A delicacy for connoisseurs to enjoy!