Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bach Forever

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach in 1685. Following his education and stays in Lüneburg, Weimar, Arnstadt, Mühlhausen and again Weimar he was offered the position of Konzertmeister at the court of the duke of Saxony-Weimar in 1714. In Weimar his sons Friedeman and Philipp Emanuel were born.

Memorial tablet with a grammatical mistake (wurde instead of wurden) at the place of Bach's first home in Weimar.  Now the tablet decorates the wall of the Elephant's parking lot
Later Bach was held in custody at the duke's court for a while before he was allowed to leave for Köthen in November 1717 to take up an assignment as Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Köthen. The contract he had signed without the consent of his previous ruler already in May of the same year. Was Bach's "imprisonment" the reason that it took such a long time before Weimar, the city of writers and thinkers, erected a monument in honor of the musical genius? Forget it, nowadays any reason is good to hold a Bach festival in Thuringia for the man who is known to many of us as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, Saxony.


Bach's bust in Weimar was cast in 1950 but posted at the present location between market place and Anna Amalia Bibliothek only in 1995
Three of the major opening events of the Thüringer Bachwochen concerned the topic Reformation and Music. Since they were scheduled in Eisenach our group took a coach that drove us from Weimar through blooming landscapes (what former chancellor Kohl had promised in 1989 to east German voters) on newly built first-class roads you will only find in the east of Germany.

 We arrived at the Bachhaus in the midst of demonstrators demanding the state government of Thuringia to continue subsidizing the Eisenach theater and in particular to spend an additional 2 million euros to fill this year's financial gap. The supporting words Luther had once said during one of his famous table talks were written on a banner: Fürsten und Herren müssen die Musikam erhalten, denn großen Potentaten gebühret, die guten freien Künste zu erhalten. Und da gleich einzelne Privat-Leute Lust dazu haben, können sie die nicht erhalten.

In school my teachers had once taught me: When you use a citation you must quote literally. So here we go again: Könige, Fürsten und Herrn müssen die Musicam erhalten; denn großen Potentaten und Regenten gebühret, uber guten freien Künsten und Gesetzen zu halten. Und da gleich einzelne, gemeine und Privat-Leute Lust dazu haben und sie lieben, und doch können sie die nicht erhalten.

Protest banner in front of Bach's monument in Eisenach
Only to translate the gist of it: Luther meant that the taxpayer should finance cultural activities since private subsidizing is not always guarantied. Is Luther a socialist? One of Germany's richness is the variety of its cultural heritage, the legacy of those small territories formed after the Peace of Westphalia. All those wannabe rulers wanted to show off with their own orchestra and theater. Nowadays their heritage is a nightmare for all public coffers.

Kitsch as kitsch can:
Bach's head illuminating the discussion panel
Before we were allowed to listen to music we firstly had to participate in a panel discussion and secondly sing in an ecumenical service. The panel at the Bachhaus with two specialized professors, the musical director of the Festival, and the Landesbischöfin of the Lutheran Church of Thuringia discussed Luther's influence on Bach's music. It was obvious that the 500 years anniversary of Luther's posting of the ninety-five theses loomed on the horizon. The region where the reformer dwelt is preparing for the 2017 commemoration: In the beginning was the Word.

1517-2017: 500 years of Reformation: Im Anfang war das Wort
I must admit that many of those wise ideas about Luther and Bach brought forward in the discussion between experts escaped my brain for my mind was concentrated on an early remark the bishop had made in her introduction. She had claimed that the makeshift of the church with the authorities had fortunately ended in 1919 with the toppling of the princes following the 2nd Reich's defeat in World War I. Sorry, but this was not just a makeshift. It had always been a two-fisted community of throne and altar fully united in the formation of obeying subjects.

Later in the public discussion my query concerning the bishop's remark was one of only two coming from the audience: I claimed that the pact between throne and altar did not end in 1919. It is sufficient to mention the Konkordat the Reich signed with the Holy See and the formation of the Lutheran Reichskirche during the Nazi period. Even nowadays the influence of the two Churches on German society is still important when regarding the number of church goers declining.

Later in the afternoon our group took part in an ecumenical service at the St. Georgenkirche jointly celebrated by the already known lady bishop and the catholic (male, what else?) suffragan bishop of Erfurt. It was Palm Sunday and I liked to sing those old hymns common to both Catholics and Protestants. We also listened to Bach's Praeludium BWV 244 in h-minor, during the service to his cantata Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (Step on the path of faith) BWV 152, and to the Fuge BWV 244 in h-minor as a postludium.

St. Georgenkirche in Eisenach
The highlight of the day or rather evening was Bach's Passion according to St. Matthew BWV 244 performed by the Scottish Dunedin Consort under the direction of John Butt again at Eisenach's St. Georgenkirche.

The orchestra was already assembled and I was waiting for the choir to appear but eventually only a dozen soloists stood in front of the musicians completing the whole set-up. This small company not only sang the solo parts but the choir parts too thus interpreting Bach's music with an unheard dynamic. The singers seamlessly continued without the usual pause between solo and choir. We listened for three hours with only one short interruption. Although some body parts started to ache Bach’s great music filled our hearts up to the end: Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (I tears of grief, dear Lord, we leave Thee).

Many regard this final choir to be the apotheosis of Bach's work. Yet, I have my special favorite: a weeping violin in concert with an alto: Erbarme Dich mein Gott, um meiner Zähren willen! Schaue hier, Herz und Auge weint vor dir bitterlich. (Have mercy, Lord, on me, regard my bitter weeping, look at me heart and eyes both weep to Thee bitterly.)

Note: I found the pieces of music on Youtube where the final choir and the soprano aria are not interpreted by the Dunedin Consort.

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