by Derek Childs
One Christmas, many years ago, I was short of an idea for a present for my wife so I gave her an I.O.U.
Earlier this year she reminded me that I had promised that I would take her to Germany to enjoy seeing those places where the greatest Bach of all lived and worked; and so immediately after Easter Morning Service, with a quick dash to Gatwick, we flew to Dresden. From there Deutsche Bahn soon delivered us to the huge Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, one of the biggest railway termini in Europe. The first sight of central Leipzig is of spaciousness and modern architecture, having thrown off the effects of the Second World War, it was followed by forty-five years of the unglamorous East German social system. Despite being a city of some half million inhabitants, the Alstadt can be easily explored in a few hours and it was of course to the Thomaskirche and the Nicolaikirche we headed. Neither church is spectacular externally, but the interior of the latter is extraordinary. The many pillars with their palmtree-like capitals support a roof, which is a riot of decorated plaster. The white-painted pews and the surrounding galleries laced in gold add to the amazing spectacle. On the Western gallery sits the Ladegast organ whose pipes cover most of the width of the church. This is where the peace prayer services were held in the eighties with increasing enthusiasm until boiling over in the autumn of 1989 into a peaceful revolution causing the ideological regime maintained by the secret police to collapse.
Not so far away stands the church of St. Thomas to which Bach had been appointed to direct all the musical training and performances under the Leipzig authorities, both here and at St. Nicholas and other city churches. This included teaching in the attached school, and to this day the famous boys’ choir sings every Friday in the church. Unfortunately the day of our visit was a Monday. The previous week there had been a plethora of musical performances! However we admired the two organ cases and Bach’s latest grave (his remains having been moved twice previously). Here was Johann Sebastian’s final post, lasting from 1723 until his death in 1750.
It was geographically and historically sensible for us to visit his birthplace next — in Eisenach, some 100 miles or so to the West. By now we had discovered the virtues of the railway’s ‘Saxony Ticket’ which allows up to 5 people to travel all day long for just 27 euros, with a few restrictions such as being excluded from the inter-city expresses. Thus we were required to use the regional trains and make a few changes. Nevertheless this gives the opportunity to see some wayside places and we were astonished at the number of derelict buildings, mostly old factories from Soviet times, suggesting the transition is still not complete.
Bach's church, Arnstadt, Barockorgel von J. Fr. Wender 1703
Eisenach could not have suffered so much bombing and is an attractive town with much medieval charm. Being rather short of time we eschewed a glance inside the Georgenkirche in case the Bach museum closed early. This is a very modern establishment virtually on the site of JSB’s birthplace and our visit was worth every pfennig. Not only can you wallow in every aspect of Bach memorabilia, including the unsuccessful cataract operations and the bizarre medications leading to his death after a very healthy life and twenty children, but also you can enjoy one of the frequent snapshot demonstrations on organs, spinets and harpsichords of his time. Sadly Bach was orphaned here at the age of ten and taken to Ohrdruf to be cared for by an older brother. The Bach family seems to have been a very caring family as JSB undertook a similar role later on. We walked down past Martin Luther’s house to the church but it was too late, having closed at 4pm. Never mind, he didn’t play the organ there. And so to the railway station and thence Erfurt to arrive at our hotel, in driving snow.
Erfurt is a very pleasing city — just a pity Bach didn’t play there. Worth a visit in its own right - but make sure you get to the Cathedral before it closes at the regulation 4.00 p.m. The narrow-gauge trams are an anorak’s delight too. We chose this city as a good launch-pad for Muhlhausen, Weimar, Ahnstadt, and Sangerhausen. He married his first wife at Muhlhausen but was gazumped for the organ post at Sangerhausen, so we confined our energies to visiting Weimar in the morning and Ahnstadt in the afternoon. Other than admiring the castle where he was employed by one of the Dukes, we felt this town is today given more to the other cultural figures strongly associated with it, such as Goethe and Schiller. We didn’t even see a weimaraner dog.
Ahnstadt has several churches, but the one we were aiming for was sign-posted Bachkirche so it was a safe bet it would have an interesting organ. Well, it had two — set one above the other: the rebuilt Wender showing its pipes above the Steinmeyer set behind a screen. This barrel-vaulted church boasted no fewer than three side galleries - one above the other, all painted off-white, quite remarkable. A recording of the Prelude and Fugue in E minor playing quietly in the background added to the sense of occasion until the man on guard looked at his watch. It was 4pm. Fortunately the cafe across the road was still open advertising Kaffee und Torte 2.5 euros.
And so with Saxony Ticket in hand we made our way back to Erfurt, then next morning to Dresden airport. Time did not allow us to follow Bach to Hamburg, Luneburg, Lubeck, Kotchen, Gorlitz etc. — but then it was imperative to get back in time for our next organ recital at Knockholt !
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