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Photo of the Bach Church in Arnstadt
Bach’s angel in the roof

Posted on 03 February 2012, 7:05

Bach pilgrimage: Day 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | Photos

Thursday 2nd February: We had to leave Eisenach today, and the classy Steigenberger Hotel, which serves the best breakfast this side of the 18th century. But before we left town, we called in on the Georgenkirche and then the Lutherhaus.

Bach was baptised in the kirche and Luther was a student in the haus, but sadly the latter wasn’t worth visiting. Unless you enjoy laughing at dented mannequins taken from 1980s shop windows and recycled to look like people in Luther’s time, and the whole thing failing really, really badly. Which I do, of course. But it’s not for everyone.

The Georgenkirche was something else, though. It’s where baby Bach was baptised just two days after being born in March 1685. In the porch we found an imposing statue of Johann Sebastian looking very angry indeed and with his left foot thrust forward, as though he’s balancing on a skateboard. He doesn’t look much like Bach, which is maybe why he’s hidden away indoors. But I noticed that the left foot is bright brass, while the rest of the statue is black, so the pilgrims must touch or kiss it as a sign of respect. I gave it a kiss on my way out as a thank you to JSB.

The church is baroque, with a vertiginous three-decker gallery, and right at the front, in the centre, is the font where Bach first made contact with faith. I really loved the church, which felt old and well used by generations of Christians, and (on a more trivial note) was painted in cool neutrals, which seemed strangely contemporary. High up in the gallery at the back, squeezed up against the ceiling, is the church’s organ. A leaflet on the bookstall listed all the stops on this three manual monster, very few of which I recognised.

Back outside (the temperature by now a painful minus 11), we picked up our hire car, found the 88 road and settled into the drive to Ohrdruf, where 10 year-old Bach went to live with his older brother, an organist, after his parents died within nine months of each other.

We drove along the edge of the Thuringian forest, the trees outlined by snowfall on the branches, the long shadows of pines corrugating over the fallow fields powdered in white, wood smoke lazily rising straight upward from the few houses we passed. The little, rounded hills were just as I’ve always imagined Bach country and I could easily picture the bands of the family’s musicians walking from town to town. The whole landscape feels rich with memory and nostalgia.

There’s a dark side to that, though, as these landscapes breed isolated villages and deeply conservative ways, and it’s where nightmares straight out of the Brothers Grimm can be hidden and then dramatically emerge. Driving through, I could feel that, alongside the sunnier stuff.

At Ohrdruf, the lumpy landscape has been ironed flat by God, and the town itself is dull and uninterested in its most famous resident. The whole place was closed up tight at lunchtime, when we arrived. Cafes and restaurants had their doors firmly shut. My advice is to put your foot down when you reach Ohrdruf as it’s not worth the stop.

As we drove on towards Arnstadt, where Bach got his first organist job at the age of 18, the flat plain suddenly gave way to a descending valley, the road at first passing straight between long avenues of trees, and then winding through fields and woods, the winter sun splashing through the trees onto the frozen earth. It was just magical, and I can’t think it’s better in summer.

We ended the day in the market square of Arnstadt, looking around the church of St Boniface, the ‘Bach Church’. It’s another baroque splendour, with wedding cake tiers inside and an angelic-looking organ in white and gold fluttering in the roof. This is where some of Bach’s best toccatas and fugues were composed and first heard by people sitting in the pews below.

But thinking about it, the idea of a first ever performance of Bach is a bit unimaginable, actually. It might be because it’s always been around, but Bach’s music seems eternal: he didn’t compose it, but discover it. Michaelangelo described artistic creation using the language of discovery – ‘Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it’ – and in Bach’s case it’s as if the music was somehow always out there and his brilliance was to hear it himself and then make it audible for everyone else.

But there was a first moment when those torrents of sound fell upon human ears. And it happened here. The old place feels touched by undeserved grace.

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Nicely written, I felt I was there with you. Just discovered Trevor Pinnock’s vigorous Brandenburgs yesterday, and for cataloging the flacs :-) so together with the freeze, highly topical.

Steve Weeks, Fri 3 Feb, 15:04

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