The invisible composer
Posted on 04 February 2012, 7:49
Bach pilgrimage: Day 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | Photos
Friday 3rd February: My Dad and I arrived in Weimar last night and this morning took a 20 minute walk into town to discover the meagre show the town puts on for Johann Sebastian Bach. He was here twice: for a few months when he was 18, and then again in his early 20s when he was organist and concert master at the overblown court of Duke Johann Ernst for nine years.
His stay here ended when he spent a month in the clink for telling the Duke that he wanted to leave and take a job elsewhere. Despite that local difficulty, these were happy years for Bach. He was newly married to his first wife, Maria Barbara, and their first kids were born and baptised here in the Peter and Paul Church. He was rapidly growing as a composer and absorbing influences from Italy and elsewhere.
You’d think that any city, given nine formative years in the life of the world’s best known composer, would respond by doing everything it could to celebrate such fabulous good luck. But not Weimar. It’s much too concerned with its contribution to in-house German culture in the form of Goethe, Schiller and Herder, to pay much attention to JSB.
The only public mention of Bach we could find today in the centre of town was a plaque on the wall where Bach’s house used to be. Why Weimar has rudely turned its back on Bach is hard to fathom. Maybe it’s never forgiven him for wanting to leave.
The city is beautiful though and proud of its appearance in a way that would put pretty much any British town you could mention to shame. Dad and I took a walk in the bright sunshine from young Bach’s disappeared house, across the Markt square, accompanied by the prettily ringing bells of the town hall, to the Schloss, the local Duke’s palace, where Johann Sebastian worked. His commute must have taken him five minutes, tops.
Every day he passed through the palace’s old gateway and beneath the tower, which survived when the palace Bach knew burned down in 1774. I can recommend following his walk to work as an act of pilgrimage. Anything which helps reclaim his place in this rather inward-looking town is good.
The Schloss has an extensive collection of paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, including several of the most famous pics of Martin Luther, but I especially enjoyed their collection of medieval altarpieces, crucifixes and devotional statues which somehow survived the Lutheran bonfires to end up here. I took pictures of several of them until a rather severe attendant shook her head at me. I’ve put a selection of my shots into a Flickr set called Devotional statues... they’re beautiful and moving, and clearly made by people who knew what death and suffering looked like.
Rivalling that for best moment of the day was a late lunch in the cellar bar of the famous Hotel Elephant. The hotel has been here for 450 years and is right next to Bach’s now vanished house, so he must have supped here whenever Maria Barbara wanted a break from the cooking.
As we ate our wild pork (with red cabbage, poached pear and walnut croquettes, served on nicely hot plates and easily the best food I’ve eaten out in ages) in the Elephanenkeller, our enthusiastic waiter brought us some info sheets about the hotel, which has a long and mostly distinguished history, including visits from Liszt, Tolstoy, Goethe, Hans-Christian Andersen and… er… Hitler, who used to address crowds in the square from his own little ‘Fuhrer balcony’ over the front door.
I was fascinated to read that in 1998, some newly opened rooms in the hotel enabled the ‘demythologisation of Suite 100, the rooms used by Hitler during his visits’. I had never realised before today that hotel rooms could be demythologised. But 10 out of 10 for them for being honest about their dark past, when swastikas hung from the hotel windows, and attempting to expunge it.
Thoughts of that past lingered as we left Weimar this evening. We passed two buses on our way to the autobahn. The first displayed the destination Planetarium. The second, Buchenwald. The concentration camp – the first opened by the Nazis – has been preserved and is just six miles north of the city.