Ein feste Burg
Posted on 02 February 2012, 12:31
Bach pilgrimage: Day 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | Photos
Wednesday 1st February: Waking up this morning and looking out of the hotel window confirmed what I thought from last night: Thuringia really is rather lumpy. Small hills rise on the edge of town and the biggest of them, a crag, stands over Eisenach and is crowned by the Wartburg, the ‘mighty fortress’ of Luther’s bold hymn, Ein feste Burg. That was our destination this morning, and we took a taxi straight after breakfast, as I think it would be an hour’s walk to get up there on foot.
Once there, we bought tickets to a guided tour, if only to get out of the icy wind swirling round the castle’s courtyards, but the tour (which was in German, with an English booklet for language sluggards like me) was through a series of interesting but unheated rooms with our guide staying a bit too long in each of them.
Despite its ‘mighty fortress’ reputation, the Wartburg’s contribution to Germany has been cultural rather than military. For centuries, it’s been a place of architecture, poetry and song and inspired Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser – not that I’d know, as I’m decidedly not a fan of Wagner – but my leaflet told me it was so.
I was amazed to read in it that according to the legend which inspired Wagner, a singing contest was staged here in the 13th century, in which six minstrels sang for the local ruler, Hermann I. Unlike The X Factor, the winner was not promised a recording contract and a guaranteed Christmas smash single, but the loser was promised immediate execution at the hands of the hangman. Surely Simon Cowell is familiar with this story? He must know that putting the losing contestants to death would build audience share. It’s the show’s natural next step.
Dermot O’Leary: What would it mean to you to win The X Factor?
Talentless contestant: Well, not being strangled on live TV would be nice.
But the reason my Dad and I came up here this morning was for Martin Luther. He was ‘kidnapped’ by masked agents of a friendly ruler, Frederick III, when his life was in peril in the winter of 1521-22 and hidden in the Wartburg. He spent those no doubt freezing months making the first translation of the New Testament into German, which was a hugely subversive act in those times.
Our last stop on the guided tour was the Luther room, his wood-lined pad during that winter. Even though it’s almost 500 years since he was here, seeing the round-topped door to his room ajar, I felt like knocking on it before entering. But the room is sadly empty of the fierce and impatient presence that once filled it.
Instead, the wood panelling is covered with carved graffiti from devout Lutherans who were here before me. IB was here in 1646, for example, while someone called Clueben left his mark in 1715. If this was in England, the room would be obsessively wired with CCTV to stop new carvings by fans, but thankfully that’s not happened here. Apparently, even the Stasi knew when to stop monitoring people.
Luther hated relics and risked his life to protest against them, but this room has that relic atmosphere to it. You feel in touch with Luther as you stand in it. Despite his many flaws and sins, you feel thankful for his stand against absolute religious power.
After a coffee, we went back down to Eisenach and landed in the Bachhaus, where it was once thought young Johann Sebastian was born and lived his childhood years. While that story has now been dropped, the house is a comprehensive Bach museum and performance place.
We arrived just in time for the house’s small collection of period keyboard instruments to be warmed up for a small, appreciative audience (of mostly Japanese students, plus me and Dad) in the instrument hall. I was pulled out of the audience to operate the bellows on a baroque chamber organ – pulling on two stout leather straps which gradually retracted into the organ case – while our guide-musician ran through some numbers from Anna Magdalena’s Notebook and other Bach pieces.
The house, which dates from Bach’s time, has been supplemented by a handsome building next door in the best German modernist style, with large, open, beautifully lit spaces. My Dad settled into one of the many perspex bubble chairs hanging from chains in the ceiling, and listened to Bach on a plumbed-in iPod. I walked round a brilliantly documented exhibition of how Bach has been pictured in paintings and engravings, and why it matters. Our three hours there simply vanished.
I hadn’t clocked before visiting the house how theological Bach was. He owned 81 fat volumes of theology at the time he died. But more than that, his huge copy of the Bible is filled with underlined words and notes jotted by him in the margin. The Bible is Luther’s, produced in the dead of winter in his lofty study in the Wartburg.
Bach’s Bible scribbles and the graffiti of Luther’s fans are an unlikely pairing, but they point to something out of this world happening in the unassuming town of Eisenach 500 and then 300 years ago.