In Search of Bach
A free day on tour! It’s almost like a vacation. What to do with all that time? Well, it’s Leipzig so it’s a no-brainer. A Bach adventure. One of the Gewandhaus musicians has graciously offered to take a couple dozen of us on a Bach walking tour. He is the ideal guide because 1) he has done amazingly thorough research on the life of JS Bach, and 2) he’s as tall as a six-foot-eight linden tree, so we can never get lost.
The tour starts in a grassy area, in front of the Grassi Museum, all of which was once the site of the city cemetery where, we are told, Bach, who died in 1750, might have been buried. Many years later, when the area was converted to other purposes, a cadaver which might have been Bach, but, according to our guide, probably not, was conveyed to the Saint Thomas church where he had worked. This corpse has been and is currently the destination of thousands of Bach pilgrims. Why not?
Inside the Grassi museum itself is a marvelous and extensive musical instrument collection, including a wide variety of instruments used in Leipzig during Bach’s tenure there. We learn that, contrary to popular belief, the clavichord and not the organ was his favorite instrument.
After a ten-minute walk we enter the Old Rathaus (city government) Museum. There we learn that Bach’s famous contentious relationships with the local government and with church authorities and with the music school were probably not as contentious as is usually purported. We also learn that, given the written evidence of his investments in silver mines on top of his various salaries, he was a pretty wealthy guy and that his wife, Anna Magdalena, probably was not the destitute widow, living in abject poverty, that is the usual story line. At the museum we also see the single portrait of Bach that was painted in his lifetime, which is (almost) certainly him.
From there we proceed to Saint Thomas, where, we’re told, his primary place of employment as a composer was not there but at Saint Nicholas. It was as a teacher as well as composer that connects him more to Saint Thomas; the irony being he had a contract not granted to anyone else which permitted him to find substitutes to teach in his stead.
Rather than going into Saint Thomas or admiring the famous Bach statue in front of it, we continue another hundred feet to a small grassy area, where we’re shown a memorial statue with Bach’s likeness at the top, the construction expenses for which Felix Mendelssohn himself had raised the money with three benefit concerts, almost a hundred years after Bach’s death. The statue is not quite in its original location, and it has been turned 90-degrees, so the symbolic engravings on each side no longer line up with the intended sources of their inspiration. At the other end of this tiny park is the statue of Mendelssohn, which I wrote about yesterday.
Capping off the walking tour, we walked to Zimmerman’s Coffee Shop, which hosted concerts for which Bach wrote some of his greatest compositions. Well, actually, it was only the site of the coffee shop, with a plaque on a modern building noting its location. And, as it turns out, it’s the wrong location. And, wouldn’t you know, Bach probably didn’t have much to do with the concerts, either.
So, what do we know for sure about Bach? Turns out, not that much. But there’s only one thing that’s truly important: THE MUSIC.
If you enjoyed this walking tour of Leipzig, you can enjoy a whirlwind concert tour of China and Japan from the comfort of your living room: SYMPHONIES & SCORPIONS