Homage to Bach

It was indeed a rare privilege: to hear Bach played in his own church, the Leipzig Thomaskirche, where he was Cantor and Music Director at the next-door choir school; to be shown the objects he owned — his Bibles and other books, his autograph scores, his treasure chest — by Christoph Wolff, the greatest Bach scholar alive; and to spend a few days in the old city of Leipzig which was Bach’s home for the last 27 of his 65 years.

I was there during the Bach Festival in June for a   Liberty Fund conference on “Bach and the Idea of Sacred Music: Opening Up to Freedom”. The theme was right for Leipzig because this was the place where the demonstrations began in the autumn of 1989 that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall; the protestors first gathered at the Nikolaikirche, the other great city church where Bach first performed his St John Passion.

Bach has an appeal to people of every time and place. Hence it was right, too, that the 16 participants in our colloquium came from all over the world; that they included philosophers, writers, an archaeologist, a Dominican friar and a Lutheran pastor as well as musicians and musicologists; and that our discussions, while rooted in texts that we had all read in advance, could range freely and embrace the whole of Western civilisation.

Needless to say, we came to no conclusion, reached no consensus, other than to rejoice in and give thanks for the music that had brought us all together. The ways in which we see, hear and understand Bach have been evolving ever since his death, but his contemporaries already agreed that he had set a standard in every branch of music he composed that has never been surpassed.

The recital we heard in the Thomaskirche, played by the great Dutch organist Jacques van Oortmerssen, began with works by Bach’s pupils and his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, but ended with one of Johann Sebastian’s finest organ works, the G minor Prelude and Fugue. This brought home to us the infinite distance between the master and his apprentices. 

Leipzig is full of homages to Bach, who came as close to sainthood as Luther could allow. (In the Bach museum, there is even a little casket with relics found in the grave of the great man and his wife Anna Magdalena when they were exhumed.) The worst of these homages is the huge bronze statue erected in front of the Thomaskirche a century ago: pompous and imposing, it is a typical product of Imperial Germany. 

Under an ancient tree a few feet away, however, stands the modest yet much more elegant Bach monument of 1843 that was designed and paid for by Felix Mendelssohn, the man who did more than any other to revive Bach in the romantic era. The Nazis tried to erase Mendelssohn from the canon of German composers, but they did not dare to demolish this earliest of all monuments to Bach. Surmounted by a bust of the master, it is decorated by angels, one of whom is playing the organ. The memorial is, in its way, perfect; and it is also a poignant expression of the Jewish love of German culture, a love that, even as it did so much to enhance that culture, was destined to remain unrequited.

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