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The goal of pilgrimage

Posted on 05 February 2012, 7:33

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

Saturday 4th February: This morning, my father and I took a walk. Out of the hotel, along the slippery-with-snow street, down into the subway and then out onto Reichsstrasse in the old heart of Leipzig, going south. On either side of us were dire buildings from the GDR era, one of them covered in blue and yellow panels and looking like the sort of block which would disgrace a South London estate.

We cut through past the old town hall, an overcooked piece of gingerbread which is 50 per cent larger than it should be, and then along Thomasgasse. Suddenly the goal of our pilgrimage slowly revealed itself around the corner of a building. We stopped to admire the Thomaskirche, standing pale and beautiful across the wide square in the freezing February sunshine.

I don’t think I could have felt one tiniest bit less happy than a pilgrim who has dragged himself bleeding along the Camino in northern Spain for a couple of months and who finally spies Santiago de Compostella on his horizon. We just stood there for a while and I felt that kind of bursting happiness.

Not many buildings do this to me. Hagia Sophia in Constantinople certainly did, 15 months ago, but I wasn’t expecting to experience something of that feeling again with Johann Sebastian’s church in Leipzig, where he was cantor for 27 years until he died in 1750.

We walked around the west end of the church and stopped at the huge statue of Bach on the south side. I remember the statue from black and white record covers in my Dad’s classical music collection in the 1950s, and I just had to snap a picture of him with it. I owe him so much for introducing me to Bach through those albums and through his own music-making, and taking the picture completes a 50 year-old circle.

Then up the steps and into the church. We could hear organ music as we approached the door, and as it opened, the joyous music of Nun danket alle Gott came out to meet us and pulled us in. A small congregation was singing the hymn in the choir and its English words immediately came to mind…

Now thank we all our God,
With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms
Hath blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.

I’m not ashamed to say that the thought of my mother and the lifelong blessing she was to me immediately brought me to tears. Nearly a year after her death, I’m still in a winter of grief for her. And I wished, like Digory in CS Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, that she could be here, healthy and strong again, to be with me and my Dad, enjoying this amazing moment of arrival.

The church in its current incarnation is a whitewashed Lutheran hall. It has deep red tracery on the ceiling which falls into the pillars slightly randomly, as the pillars have somehow lost their capitals. The effect of that is a bit awkward and distracting. The choir is bent at a distinct angle to the nave for no reason I can imagine, but that feels loveably eccentric. The overall effect is of expansive, light-filled space, and when the organ ceases, the reverb is just right. The old building (just over 500 years) has an acoustic Bach must have enjoyed working with.

Standing with the other pilgrims on the edge of the choir, which was roped off, the large slab covering the grave of Johann Sebastian Bach was just a few feet away, alone in the centre of the paving, with flowers all around the edges. Bach’s unmarked grave was rediscovered in 1898 and his remains were moved here in 1950, 200 years after his death.

We had planned to cover various places in Leipzig today, but we basically spent the whole day in and around the Thomaskirche: in the shops, for example, where the Bach tat included chocolate coins, German wine and a USB memory stick, all printed with the bewigged head of JSB; and in the museum opposite the church, poring over the original, autograph parts for a Cantata played here in 1723.

Sitting in a cafe across the street at 2.15pm, drinking delicious, hot vegetable soup and waiting for the start of a motet in the church at 3 o’clock, I noticed large numbers of people arriving at the church door and kicking the snow off their feet, 45 minutes ahead of time.

The church stages motets every Friday and Saturday, and when we’d finished our soup and sat inside, the church was pleasantly full. I had thought we’d probably be there with a few diehards, since February is hardly the height of the tourist season.

The programme began with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C major (BWV 545). Its long pedal notes, sustained while the higher notes spiral around them, took me back to when I was a kid and I’d go forward at the end of a service while my Dad was playing the post-service music, and I’d watch him in a kind of awe.

He’d be sitting back a little on the organ bench, absolutely focused on the sheet music, his feet walking and then running on the pedals, his fingers glancing off the keys, his breathing sharp with the effort of it all, and the music lifting, rising, flying, soaring. It was the physical energy on the bench and the spiritual effect in the heart. And it was utterly magical, with my father as the magician.

In the Thomaskirche, I couldn’t help inclining towards him and noticing how he responded in this fulfilling moment of hearing Bach’s music, which he had made his own music, being played in Bach’s church.

Does it make any difference listening to the music of JS Bach in the church where he is buried? Do you understand his music any better if you walk his path to work? Is it odd to find it consoling that his bones must vibrate when the colossal, 32ft Großer Untersatz pipe sounds in the Thomaskirche? Why go on pilgrimage in search of Bach when you already have the music anyway?

I can only say, sitting in this church and hearing this music that is in my own bones, that I’m glad my father asked me to make this journey with him, first when I was a child, and then today.

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Gulp! Gorgeous. Thank you.

andy harrison, Fri 17 Feb, 15:47

That is such beautiful and moving writing, Simon. Thank you.

Canon Peter, Fri 10 Feb, 15:23

Beautiful. Thank you, Simon.

Huw, Tue 7 Feb, 15:51

It’s been great. Thank you. Reaching for the remote control now… Maybe some more of the the cello suites…

Steve Weeks, Tue 7 Feb, 04:18

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