A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Johann Sebastian Bach's Germany

Part 1 - Eisenach

4 April 2014

This monument to the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach is located near the Bachhaus in Eisenach, Germany.


In 2006 I went to Germany and, on a kind of quest, traveled to every city (with a few minor exceptions) in which Johann Sebastian Bach either lived, or to which he journeyed, or to which he had any significant connection. (All of these cities are now included in the Johann Sebastian Bach's GERMANY tour offered by Travel Con Brio®.)

This blog entry blends salient biographical information about the great composer with — in spite of some of my own personal (read humorous) foibles — enlightening experiences that can be had in Germany today.  Along the way in our exploration of Bach's life, we will encounter 14 cities in Germany which offer delightful surprises in history, music, art, architecture, language, and cuisine.

Each part of this blog entry will concentrate on one town or city (or, in some cases, more than one), in which Bach had spent some time.  So as not to be too tendentious, we’ll take periodic breaks from Bach to visit topics pertaining to other cultures along the way.


The Bach Family

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), composer, Kapellmeister, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and violinist, was born in Eisenach in present-day Germany.  He was the seventh and last child of Johann Ambrosius Bach, the director of the town musicians, and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt.  All of his uncles were professional musicians:  church organists, court musicians, or composers.  One uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (1645–93), taught him organ.  Johann Ambrosius’ eldest son, aged 14 when Bach was born, probably taught him violin and some music theory.

The Bach family’s involvement with music stretches incredibly across almost two hundred years.  More than 50 members of the family were performers or composers.  Veit (Vitus) Bach (1550, Pressburg – 1619, Wechmar) was, in Johann Sebastian's words, "a white-bread baker in Hungary" who had to flee due to his being a Lutheran.  He settled in Wechmar, where he "found the greatest pleasure in a little cittern [a medieval stringed instrument] which he took with him even into the mill."

Johann David Herlicius: Johann Ambrosius Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach’s father, wearing a Japanese kimono, 1685

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

Veit Bach’s son Johannes (Hans) Bach (c. 1580–1626) was called "der Spielmann" [the player], and was the first professional musician of the family.  "At first he took up the trade of baker, but having a particular bent for music," Johann Sebastian wrote, he became a piper.  (Hans's brother's name was Philippus "Lips" Bach but disappointingly, with a name like that, he was born four centuries too early to be a jazz trumpeter.) Veit’s first great-grandson, Johann Ambrosius, was Johann Sebastian Bach's father.

Over the decades there had been so many Bachs living in Erfurt (a city not far from Eisenach), that musicians there were known generically as "Bachs", even when there were no longer any members of the family living there.

Johann Sebastian Bach's talent as an organist was highly acclaimed throughout Europe during his lifetime and, in fact, after his death he was remembered more as a performer and teacher rather than as a composer.  Then, in the first half of the 19th century, there was a revival of interest in his compositions.  Now he is considered one of the greatest composers of all time.

Ludwig van Beethoven summed up Bach as the "Urvater der Harmonie [original father of harmony]".


Eisenach: City of Bach’s Birth

I set off from Weimar, Germany, where I was staying, for Eisenach, Bach’s birthplace, about 80K (50 miles) distance.  While driving extremely fast on the Autobahn (which is almost compulsory) in my rented Mercedes, I had started to learn how to look for any one of a number of synonyms on signs to help me reach the historic center of cities:  “Zentrum [center],” “Stadtmitte [city middle],” “Innenstadt [inner city],” or “Altstadt [old city, i.e., historic city center].”  Within the plethora of other German terms and place names with which I was unfamiliar at the time, I found this to be not easy.

Also, these cities being a thousand years old or older, there is often no direct route to their centers.  This left me constantly stopping to read several maps (for a quasi-reassuring redundancy, as I did not have GPS on this trip), or rolling down the passenger window to ask a passerby, “Bitte . . . Entschuldigen Sie . . . Wo ist der Weg nach das Zentrum?” or worse, having to turn around and retrace my way to a point where I should have turned, and losing that point as well.


The Bachhaus

Nevertheless, I found Eisenach — nestled happily among the Thüringer hills and under the watchful presence of the imposing Schloss Wartburg [Wartburg Castle].  As I snaked through the narrow, winding streets I eventually arrived at the Bachhaus [Bach’s house), which, like every other museum/ castle/ cathedral in Germany, was undergoing renovation in 2006 and covered with a giant plastic poster.  In addition to the work on the outside of the Bachhaus, they were building a modern wing next to it, with cranes, piles of dirt, and the concomitant noise.


The Bachhaus was being renovated in 2006 when I visited.


Inside the Bachhaus, I was transported back to the seventeenth century:  everything was made of dark oak (floors, staircase, beams, doors), as when young Johann was attending German school (1690-93) and enrolled in Latin school (1693-1695).  Upstairs the house is mildly interesting:  period furniture, utensils and other artifacts, but not really much that had actually belonged to Johann Sebastian Bach’s family.  In fact, it’s not even certain that J.S. was born in this house, although his father owned it at the time.  It is possible that he was born at Rittergasse 11, an apartment that Johann Ambrosius rented for his family right after their move from Erfurt.  There is a commemorative plaque at this site, right across from the putative Bachhaus at Frauenplan 21.

What was impressive indeed was the instrument collection downstairs.  Apparently the Bachhaus owns over 400 period instruments and about 100 are on display:  violas-da gamba and -da braccia, violins, Zinken [cornets], Krummhornen [a Renaissance wind instrument], Trompeten [trumpets], Posaunen [trombones], clavichord, spinet, harpsichord, and two organs — one, a Swiss Orgel positiv of ca. 1750 with a foot-pump for the bellows, and the other requiring an assistant to pull on two draw-cords.

An organ in the Bachhaus

Also from Bach’s time were a theorbo, lute, mandolin, harp, and guitar — the upper four courses double-strung, making it a “10-string” instead of a “12-string” like today.  And funny little Baroque kettle drums to complete the instrument collection.

At some mysterious juncture (a predetermined time? Or when the museum visitors reached a critical mass?), a young, obviously creative individual — Florian, who hails from Bavaria — appeared and began a sort of lecture-demonstration-performance (in German) for us.  He alternated between cueing with his remote (CDs of Bach’s orchestral music) and performing live on the period instruments in the room.  He started on the organ with the foot pump and played, I believe, Bach’s Prelude in G.  Then he went over to the other organ and disappeared behind it, explaining how the organist could look through the pipes and see the congregation and yet remain invisible.  To assist in playing this organ, he asked one of our group to pull the draw-cords.

Florian’s lecture continued at the clavichord, which was winsomely delicate.  He then went to the spinet, and finally to the harpsichord, on which he played the Prelude No. 2 in C Minor from Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1).  I found his performance a little uncompromising in this last piece, almost too predictable but, in general I admired his verve.  I think I was still learning how to tie my shoes at that age . . .

At the gift shop there are several books (mostly in German), postcards, and other souvenir items available.  (When I was there, the staff spoke zero English, and it was a fun challenge for my newly-acquired German language skills.)  One book offers a history of the Bachhaus (a museum since 1907), with details on the instrument collection, the archives, and even a photo of the Bible that belonged to the Bach family and that is on display upstairs.  Another interesting book available is a catalog of all the known and supposed portraits of JS Bach, including the one in the Bachhaus with the red nose.  Sculptures are also included, such as the monument outside the Bachhaus by Adolf von Donndorf (1835–1916), depicting Bach with quill-pen in one hand and manuscript in the other.  Yet another book — utterly charming — features silhouettes of several Bach generations, made through the years by the Bach family members themselves.


Another view of the Johann Sebastian Bach Denkmal (monument) near the Bachhaus in Eisenach


The sculpture of the great composer outside the Bachhaus is fascinating to study both from below/in front and above/in back (as a hill rises behind the monument).  The image of Bach has a commanding presence, and seems apposite to the music that he composed.


Other Places of Interest in Eisenach

Soon I was strolling down Lutherstrasse toward the Lutherhaus (Martin Luther’s house) but first I had to stop by a Bäckerei for an energizer.  I pointed at one poofy thing and asked, “Ist das ein Berliner? [Is that a Berliner?]” and the lady was all smiles that a foreigner might know such an arcanum in a cultural exchange. 

“Ja [Yes].”

“Eins, bitte [One, please].”

The only reason I knew the name of the pastry was that, in 1963, when  John F. Kennedy spoke at the Berlin Wall and said “Ich bin ein Berliner,“ he was inadvertently referring to himself as a jelly donut by using the article “ein.”  This is something that only native speakers of German can be expected to know.

Next, I walked by the Georgenkirche [church of St. George — as in St. George and the dragon], where Luther preached after he was excommunicated and where Bach centuries later attended as a child.  Above the portal are carved the words of Luther’s chorale, “Ein’ Feste Burg ist unser Gott [A Mighty Fortress Is Our God].”


The Georgenkirche


 I then strolled through the Markt [market] and past the pink Rathaus [although the name seems to suggest so, rats don't live there, at least we hope not — it's the town hall] down Karlstrasse, formerly called Judengasse [Jew’s Alley], where both Goethe and Napoleon stayed in ages past.

The Eisenach Rathaus [town hall]


Last, I walked a few blocks in order to see the Luther Denkmal [Luther monument] and the twelfth-century Eastern gate of the old city, the Nikolaitor.  Dark stone, big, imposing, with parts of the old city walls still attached and arches used today for traffic, it holds a lot of history within its crenelles.


The Nikolaitor


Eisenach is a city with a musical history.  The Wartburg Castle, built in 1067, was a center for the medieval Minnesingers (troubadours).  Competitions, which Walther von der Vogelweide attended — and which, in turn, were idealized in Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser — were held at the castle. 


The Wartburg Castle


Martin Luther (1483-1546), the German church reformer, was a choirboy as a child in Eisenach.  Later, he had gone into hiding under the assumed name of "Junker Jörg [country squire George]," at the Wartburg Castle after the Diet of Worms in 1521.  (No, they didn’t try to feed him worms; that’s the name of a city . . . as for “diet,” you’ll just have to look that one up.)

Anyways, while hiding at the Wartburg Castle he translated the New Testament from Greek into German.  Luther also penned the hundreds of Lutheran chorales that are still sung today.  Interestingly, considering how musical he was, his family name was a trade name for one who plays or makes lutes.

Lucas Cranach der Ältere [the Elder] (1472–1553):  Martin Luther, 1526, Paris, private collection

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

And almost 200 years later, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in the same city, attended the same school as Luther had, and attended the same church that Luther had preached in.  In fact, Bach harmonized many of the melodies that Luther had collected or written.  Luther’s chorales had a considerable impact on the music of Bach and, in turn, Bach’s music has had a vast influence on the world. How different music would be without Bach or Luther, both with ties to Eisenach!

I eventually meandered back to the Frauenplan, near the Bachhaus where a concert would be taking place at 8 pm.  Promptness is very big in Germany, so I decided to get to the concert early.  The room was already packed one-half hour before the concert, with only a few seats left.  Practicing my extra-meticulous German declension, I asked, “Ist dieser Platz frei?”  Given the affirmative, I quickly sat down, the lone American in a sea of Germans, grateful that I hadn’t underestimated their punctuality.

I was expecting the Ensemble Letitiae from Hamburg to play music from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spain and Italy, but instead, we were presented with a duo:  Myriam Eichberger, Blockflöte [Baroque recorder] and Mikhail Yarzhembovskij, Cembalo [harpsichord].

The program was titled, “Bachs Kinder und Mozart als Kind [Bach’s children and Mozart as a child],” and featured works by CPE Bach, WF Bach, JC Bach, Mozart, and  . . . Telemann.  In her introduction (in German), Ms. Eichberger explained that Telemann could be justified in this concert program in light of the fact that he was a godfather to one of Bach’s children [Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach], at which everyone laughed.

What was nice about the program selections was that they represented music that is normally peripheral and doesn’t get much play.  What was also nice was that we got to hear the performers perform as a duo and as soloists, which provided variety:  duo — solo flute — duo — (intermission) — solo harpsichord — duo — solo flute — duo.

I learned something about German audiences, too, at this and several other concerts.  They untiringly demand encores — seriously, demand — by clapping and stomping their feet in a rhythmic unison with military precision.  It was rather daunting.  If I were performing, I  might have felt intimidated to perform a Zugabe [encore] myself.  Our duo submitted and obliged the audience.


The Wartburg Castle

On another occasion I returned to Eisenach, as the Gemütlichkeit [coziness] of the little town is hard to resist.

The drive was only several kilometers for me, but I wondered, what was it like for the 10-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach when his parents died?  (This is one of the topics to be discussed in Part 2 of this blog entry.)  It must have taken him at least two days to walk through the hills and valleys!

I reached Eisenach and drove up the steep, forested mountainside to the Wartburg Castle overlooking the city.  Parking in a lot below the castle, I made the 15-minute climb to the top.  I was among a group of people all huffing and puffing from the vigorous ascent.  Having crossed the drawbridge and once inside courtyard, I found myself in the Hof:  brick as well as half-timbered surfaces, gates, corbels, bays and gables, capitals carved with grotesque figures, and a cistern.


View from inside the Hof of the Schloss Wartburg


I soon heard music emanating from the Palais [the Germans in this case are borrowing the French term for palace], and wandered over to find musicians in medieval dress singing and playing instruments (as a sort of prelude to the concert) on the grand staircase.  This lasted about 20 minutes, during which time more and more audience members crowded into the foyer.

What followed was "Der Sängerkrieg auf der Wartburg [The Singers' Contest on the Wartburg],” a marvelous performance of Medieval music in a striking, Medieval setting.  Modeled on the contest in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser, the performance featured singers dressed as Minnesingers such as Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Walther von der Vogelweide, and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

In this case, they performed the original thirteenth-century repertoire (not Wagner’s nineteenth-century spin on it), to the accompaniment of Harfe [harp], Drehleier [hurdy-gurdy], Fidel [vielle, a forerunner of the fiddle], Laute [lute], and — my favorite word in the German language —Dudelsack [bagpipe].

After finding my car in the rain and in the dark, I drove through the thick forests on the side of the mountain and found my way through Bach’s city of birth to the Autobahn, and soon — “Eine Verkehrsstockung [traffic jam]". 

The drive that should have taken about 50 minutes took almost two hours, and when I arrived back at my hotel in Weimar it was quite late.  Soon I was dreaming of thirteenth-century Minnesingers who stumbled into a nineteenth-century opera while lutenists played in a castle where a sixteenth-century monk, whose family had once made lutes, was sequestered incognito.


The Wartburg at night







The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (Germany)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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