Hi and thanks for landing here. It might seem a bit backward, but I decided to start blogging only because I've been enjoying Twitter so much. While I love the 140 character limit of tweets, I realised that a blog would give me a place where I could have the luxury of saying a bit more. I've also set up here because I have a blogging project in mind... but more on that later.
Right now my face is stuck in the following books...
Nathan Jenkins (my second offspring) joined forces late last year with Jesse Hackett in a musical partnership called Blludd Relations. They’ve just released the video of their new song Even Steven (view above), a track with a gorgeously retro feel that’s in no hurry to go anywhere. Now the music has some surreal video storytelling to go with it.
Even though there’s an almost obsessive attention to detail in both the music and the video, the atmosphere of both is laid-back and dreamlike, which is a great trick to pull off.
Nathan (aka Bullion) has launched his own record label Deek, featuring different artists who inhabit the same musical groove. Hear some of the Deek output here – I especially love Fixxx by Nautic.
After a lifetime singing along to Charles Wesley, John Newton and Mrs Cecil Alexander, it felt thrillingly transgressive to stand up in church and launch into ‘Why do you build me up, buttercup baby?’ plus two other inappropriate songs which have certainly never graced the pages of a hymn book.
The songs we sang weren’t especially relevant even for an atheist service, as all of them were individualistic love songs. But when I watched the video clip above today, of a flashmob singing ‘Here Comes the Sun’ in a Spanish unemployment office, I saw how a song of hope can have a powerful effect.
In the middle of Europe’s horrible economic winter, in a job centre, the place where the freeze cuts most deeply, here is a song which dreams of ice melting and the sun returning. ‘Here comes the sun, and I say it’s all right.’
Christian hymns and spirituals have been a powerful source of hope and inspiration in our culture especially since the 18th century revivals. Several of them linger on in cup finals and rugby matches: ‘Abide with Me’, ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah’, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. They’re wonderful songs, but their language and imagery, steeped in stories of the Bible, come to most people from long ago and far away. They are disconnected from today’s world.
In contrast, what seems to be happening in the Spanish job centre is a song of our times, a song you’ve heard on the radio, a song you actually understand, coming to life in an unexpected way. It’s a moment to feed on something truly good. This lovely Beatles song is doing the work of a hymn.
As a Christian, I’m fascinated to see this happening. I’ve seen it in other flashmobs, where a kind of gospel joy breaks out in a train station or a shopping centre. How do I account for it, or think of it, when it seems to have broken free of the Christian culture which first shaped it? I’ve no answer for that, but the question is intriguing.
The Israelites in exile in Babylon asked (in Psalm 137) ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ Maybe that’s our situation today. What do you think?
While I’m here, just to say that I’m going to be interviewed on several BBC local radio stations early tomorrow morning, Sunday 13 January, talking about my experience of atheist church last week. Here are the stations and times…
0710 3CR (Beds, Herts and Bucks)
0730 Hereford & Worcester
0740 Sussex and Surrey
Looking forward to it, despite the early start. I’ll be cooped up in a self-service studio in the bowels of Western House, the home of Radio 2. If you hear one of the interviews (they happen live, in sequence), do tweet to let me know.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tuesday 31st January: I’m travelling today with my Dad to the little town of Eisenach in eastern Germany, which is the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach. We’re here for a week of pilgrimage, travelling to the towns and cities where Bach lived and worked. It’s a journey I’ve wanted to make with him for a long time, but family circs have prevented it from ever happening before today. So finally picking up our suitcases and heading off for the tube feels like a good moment to be alive.
There’s a lovely episode in Dylan Thomas’s play Under Milk Wood, which poetically captures life in a small (and small-minded) Welsh town. The church organist, who rejoices in the name of Organ Morgan, is having a conversation with his wife, who has been droning on a bit.
Mrs Organ Morgan: ... but they’re two nice boys, I will say that, Fred Spit and Arthur. Sometimes I like Fred best and sometimes I like Arthur. Who do you like best, Organ?
Organ Morgan: Oh, Bach without any doubt. Bach every time for me.
Mrs Organ Morgan: Organ Morgan, you haven’t been listening to a word I said. It’s organ organ all the time with you…
Organ Morgan: And then Palestrina.
My Dad is not quite Organ Morgan, but he is an excellent church organist with a passion for Bach that eclipses all other composers. He was king of the organ pipes at church when I was a young child, and I was in awe of the powerful and beguiling music he conjured from this Mt Sinai of musical instruments. I heard someone on Desert Island Discs a while ago saying that when they were little, they confused God with JS Bach, and I know the feeling.
For several years in my teens and twenties Dad gave organ recitals and accompanied the university choir my Mum sang in. And he remains the gentile organist at a synagogue in Cardiff, where he has been making music, kippah on head, for over 60 years.
Bach was frequently on the record turntable when I was growing up in the 1950s, and I often asked my parents when I was 4 or 5 years old to put on ‘Side Six’, the final side in their three-disc recording of The Christmas Oratorio, which maybe has Bach’s most joyful and danceable melodies. It was only in my 40s that I learned that the German lyrics to these closing arias and choruses sing of the triumph of Christ over death and the devil, a theme which has always been important to me.
Today’s journey, by rail from St Pancras in London to Eisenach via Brussels and Frankfurt, was simple in theory. Sleek German trains would speed us south from Brussels, wowing us with their cool efficiency. But instead, our ICE train, which travels at up to 300kph, was abruptly cancelled for no good reason and we were left at the mercy of plodding local trains (three of them) and a bus, which eventually disgorged us, mid evening, in Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof. We caught the last train of the night for Eisenach and arrived to biting wind and minus 10 of frost. We’re deep in former East Germany, and on tonight’s evidence, it still knows how to put the cold in Cold War.
My Dad, 83, despite a day of lugging a case and climbing in and out of carriages, looks happy and content to be here on the platform of Bach’s birthplace. He stands patiently for an iPhone snap (seen above). He’s in Bach’s own country at last.