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 2 - Ohrdruf, Lüneburg

11 April 2014



Read Part 1: Eisenach


Johann Sebastian Bach’s father, Johann Ambrosius, had a twin brother named Johann Christoph Bach (1645–1693).  Johann Christoph was a court musician in Arnstadt, located about 58 k (36 mi) from Eisenach.  Apparently the twin brothers looked so similar that even their wives could not tell them apart.  (One would think that one could easily spot the brother in the Japanese kimono [see illustration, Part 1], but perhaps this didn’t occur to anyone at the time.)  More curiously, the problem was that when one of the twins felt ill, so did the other.  Thus, in 1793, when Johann Sebastian Bach’s uncle died, it did not bode well for the other twin, Johann Sebastian Bach’s father.

Then, the next spring (1694), Johann Sebastian Bach’s mother died at the age of 50, when Bach was only nine.  His father remarried within six months, but then he died three months later in1695, also aged 50, sadly leaving Johann Sebastian Bach an orphan.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s eldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach (1671–1721), having the same name as his uncle, took in both Johann Sebastian, now 10,  and his 13-year-old brother, Johann Jakob.  Johann Christoph was organist at Michaeliskirche (St. Michael’s Church) in Ohrdruf, 45 k (28 mi) from Eisenach, and had just married the previous fall.  He had studied organ in Erfurt with Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), who was very popular when he was alive, but now seems to be famous for his one greatest hit, Canon in D.


This plaque on Johann Sebastian Bach Strasse in Ohrdruf reads, “In dieser Strasse stand das Haus in dem Johann Sebastian Bach von 1695 bis 1700 bei seinem Bruder dem Organisten Joh. Christoph Bach Wohnte [On this street stood the house in which Johann Sebastian Bach from 1695 to 1700, with his brother the organist Johann Christoph Bach, lived ].”  


Johann Sebastian Bach attended secondary school in Ohrdruf, studying the Comenius curriculum, from 1695 to1700.  He was taught Latin, Greek, French, and Italian at the local gymnasium (secondary school).  He also studied six years of theology in the space of four years, along with music study both in school and privately with his brother on the clavichord.  Through his brother he was introduced to the works of Pachelbel, Jakob Froberger, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis Marchand, Marin Marais, and Girolamo Frescobaldi.



When I arrived in Ohrdruf I noticed that signs are almost nonexistent, as the tourist infrastructure appears to be infinitesimal in this small town with a population of 6,100.  I finally stopped to inquire of a pedestrian, who leaned in my passenger window, for directions.  I asked, “Wo sind wir? [Where are we?]” and he showed me on my map.  The church I was looking for had been bombed in WWII, and only the tower remains.  He gave really complicated instructions — at least for me, as I understood only every third word in German — and I set off in the direction in which he pointed, just following my hunches.


Johann Sebastian Bach Strasse in Ohrdruf


I soon, inexplicably, found Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Strasse and the remains of the Michaeliskirche.  This is the street in Ohrdruf where Bach had moved at age 10.  At the end of the street, a fragment of the church’s tower remains, with a library on the second floor.  There is a plaque at the site where Christoph’s house was, and several monuments at the church location.  One monument consists of six bent metal strips sticking up out of the pavement next to the tower.  This would be where the church once stood.  Do these represent the non-existent building?  The congregants?  Angels?


 This is one of the monuments commemorating the destroyed Michaeliskirche . . .


Another sculpture, more complex, is comprised of many elements presumably salvaged from the destroyed church building.  The assemblage features several damaged organ pipes, what looked to be possibly a music stand (on closer inspection, a gate that seems intended to look like a music stand), bits of iron welded to look like vines and leaves, a block of stone (again, a piece from the old church), and an iron banner that reads, “Nicht Bach, Meer sollte er Heißen”  [“Not brook, he should be called ocean].”  In German, the word “Bach” means brook or stream, and these are Beethoven’s words said in homage to Bach.  In a kind of symmetry, the top of the largest organ pipe in the sculptural assemblage was shaped exactly as the top of the tower of the Michaeliskirche that is still standing.


 . . . and this is a second monument at the same location.


Two memorial tablets are also at the site.  One looks like a book stand in the middle of the square where the church once stood.  On the left hand “page” (in brass) it reads, “An dieser Stelle errichtete Winfred Bonifatius um 724/725 die St. Michaeliskapelle sowie das erste Kloster in Thüringen [In this place erected Winfred Boniface in 724/725 the St. Michael’s chapel, thus the first cloister in Thüringen].”  Boniface was an Anglo-Saxon missionary who helped Christianize Germany in the eighth century.  On the right it reads, “Johann Sebastian Bach erlernte bei seinem Bruder Johann Christoph Bach in der St. Michaeliskirche von 1695 bis 1700 das Orgelspiel  [J.S. Bach was taught by his brother J.C. Bach in St. Michael’s church from 1695 to 1700 how to play the organ ].”  These two momentous, historical events spanned almost a thousand years, but it took only seconds to destroy the church in WWII.


 The tower of the Michaeliskirche, after WWII the only remaining vestige of the church where Johann Sebastian Bach's brother, Johann Christoph, played organ.


A second plaque, part way down the street, reads, “In dieser Strasse stand das Haus in dem Johann Sebastian Bach von 1695 bis 1700 bei seinem Bruder dem Organisten Joh. Christoph Bach Wohnte [On this street stood the house in which Johann Sebastian Bach from 1695 to 1700, with his brother the organist Johann Christoph Bach, lived ].”  [See photo above.] The house where Johann Sebastian Bach lived with his brother is no longer standing.

There is one incident that is illustrative of Johann Sebastian Bach’s appetite for learning new music when he was living in Ohrdruf.  His brother, for whatever reason, kept in a locked cabinet a volume — forbidden to Johann Sebastian Bach —of keyboard works by the greatest composers of the time.  Young Johann Sebastian had found a way, after everyone had gone to bed, to get into the cabinet and copy the music by moonlight.  He had copied the entire volume in six months, but when his brother found out, the music was confiscated.  Bach was disconsolate and never received the music back until after the death of his brother.  Some think that this may have led to Bach’s vision problems later in life.

In 1700, when Bach was 14, he and his class-mate George Erdmann were awarded a choral scholarship to study at Michaelisschule (St. Michael’s Monastery) in Lüneburg.  It is believed that they made the 375 k (233 mi) journey on foot.


(See side bar at right, En Route to Lüneburg, for excursions between Ohrdruf and Lüneburg)



 This map of modern Germany shows the locations of where Johann Sebastian Bach lived between 1685 and 1702.


Bach lived in Lüneburg from 1700 to 1702, studying initially at St. Midrad’s School and then at Michaelisschule (St. Michael’s Monastery).  While at the Michaelisschule he had the opportunity to play the their three-manual organ and harpsichords.  Many of Bach’s fellow students were sons of noblemen from northern Germany preparing for various careers. To pay for his tuition, Bach sang at Michaeliskirche (St. Michael’s Church).

A great influence on the young Bach was Georg Böhm, a distant relative who was organist at Johanniskirche in Lüneburg.  Böhm took trips with Bach to Hamburg where he could hear the great organist Johann Adam Reincken perform.

When I arrived in Lüneburg that afternoon, I immediately caught sight of the Wasserturm (water tower), a salient feature in the skyline.  Climbing being one of my favorite activities (especially after being in the car for half a day), I went straight to the top of the neo-Gothic structure.  Most of the city is authentic Gothic —Backsteingotik (baked stone, i.e., brick, Gothic) being common throughout northern Germany.

The Wasserturm in Lüneburg

The Johanniskirche

The view from the Wasserturm (water tower) is magnificent.  One can look directly at the spire of the Johanniskirche only a few feet away (where Georg Böhm was organist) and take in Am Sande (a soccer-field-sized square near the center of the city), the Rathaus, and the Michaeliskirche (where Bach sang).

panorama of Lüneburg  with the Michaeliskirche in the background


another view over Lüneburg 


Back on the ground, I next walked along Am Sande and studied all the charming step-gabled and bell-gabled buildings on either side.  Dutch architecture was the rage here for many centuries, and it is obvious.  If it was “Am Wasser [at the water]” instead of “Am Sande [at the sand],” I would have believed I was in Amsterdam.   Even the McDonalds (alack, now a ubiquitous reality) had a bell-gable.


 Am Sande in Lüneburg, with the Johanniskirche in the background


I then walked down to the Markt and the Rathaus, and finally over to St. Michaeliskirche, a Gothic structure  built in the fourteenth century.  Naturally, as it seems to be required by some ancient Teutonic law, this building, like every other one I tried to see in Germany, was covered in scaffolding.  But what did I hear resounding from within?  Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor!  I stood with my ear to the door for a long time while the phantom organist rehearsed.


 The Michaeliskirche, where Johann Sebastian Bach sang while still in his teens


I happened to walk by a Reisebüro (travel agency) and it occurred to me that a travel agent is certainly more likely to have a propensity for ethnic cuisine than the average person, and so I stepped in and asked, “Wo finde ich ein Thailändische oder Chinesische Restaurant?”

 She thought for a moment.  Nothing.  Then I asked, “Indianische?” and she instantly pointed the way.

 I found the IndiaHaus on Heiligengeiststrasse.  After a week-and-a-half of sausages (it could be wurst), I savored a thali of murgh vindaloo, rice, naan, and raita, with a mango lassi to wash it down.  If Bach’s father could wear a Japanese kimono, he probably would not have had too much difficulty with Indian cuisine either.

 When Johann Sebastian Bach’s voice changed in 1702, he left Lüneburg and returned to Thüringen, possibly Ohrdruf.  Then, in January 1703, he was appointed court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar.








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.

En Route to Lüneburg

One can walk from Ohrdruf to Lüneburg as Bach did and take several days, or one can make the drive in just under four hours.  Even if driving, it’s a good idea to make a couple of stops to break the monotony of the Autobahn.  If one likes castle ruins and has lots of energy, one can stop and make the climb to the top of a 370 m (1,200 ft) hill to see the Wanderslebener Gleiche.

I must have passed these ruins at least nine times before and I could no longer resist the climb to see them myself. (A visit to these ruins is offered on Travel Con Brio®’s
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Germany tour.)

It is not certain, but it is very possible in Bach’s peregrin-ations between Ohrdruf, Eisenach, and later Arnstadt and Weimar, that he could have passed these ruins himself near what is now the A4 (E40) Autobahn.

Inside the Wanderslebener Gleiche.

A view of another "Gleiche" castle on the opposite hill 


The castle ruins are one of Die Drei Gleichen ("three like") castles between Gotha and Erfurt.  The castle itself dates from the eleventh century.  Supposedly the Count Von Gleichen, a feudal lord, returned from the crusades with a Sultan’s daughter and lived with both wives at the castle.  (I’m still trying to figure out why his original wife didn’t mind.)  In the 1600s, the last count died childless and the castle was abandoned.  Now it is a mysterious, awesome place on a high hill — ruins that convey tomes of history in roofless, stone walls.  It is a profound experience to stand amongst the stones.


A crest at the castle 


The Wanderslebener Gleiche as seen from above

After the visit to Wanders-lebener Gleiche and back on the Autobahn, I began to eat up the kilometers now.  After nearly a week’s practice, I had braved driving in the left lane — not an easy thing.  One has to watch the Rückspiegel (rear-view mirror) in equal amounts with the Windschutz-scheibe (windshield), as the Audi’s, B’mers, and Benzes approaching from behind close the gap with unnatural fierceness.  Normally I would maintain a speed of 160-180 kph (there is usually no speed limit on the Autobahn), but on one occasion an Audi tailed me like a heat-seeking missile, and having no opportunity to change lanes I accelerated.  But the Audi was merciless, and by the time I reached 205 kph (127 mph — by the way, the “merciless” pun refers to the Mercedes I was in [Spanish for “mercy”]), and an opening allowed me to change lanes, the Audi was already Geschwindigkeitsüberschreitung by me!

In addition to Wanderslebener Gleiche, there are many other places to pause between Ohrdruf and Lüneburg — Bremen (well-known for four musicians: a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a cockerel), or Hameln (you’ve heard of the Pied Piper) or even Wolfsburg (several of my Volkswagens came from there), but I was in a reflective mood and decided to take a breather at the Gedenkstätte Bergen-Belsen [Gedenkstätte = “think of place,” as in memorial], a WWII concentration camp.

I asked myself why I wanted to visit this place.  I didn’t personally know anyone who was imprisoned or had died here, other than Ann Frank through her diary.  It certainly had nothing to do with Bach of which I was aware.  I had anticipated a long drive today, and thought a break at some point near the middle would be welcome, but why this site?

I ended up choosing Bergen-Belsen, because I knew it would make me a better person, a bigger person:  more understanding of human suffering in some way deepens one’s compassion and patience.  I recalled reading in Ecclesiastes, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.”  Morbid?  Yes, but true.

At the entrance to the camp is a stone wall with concrete lettering that reads “Bergen-Belsen 1940 bis 1945.”  I cried when I saw how every possible surface of the raised letters and numbers was covered in small pebbles — each one representing a prayer.  One cannot even begin to comprehend human suffering on such a massive scale — yet now, ironically, the oaks, beeches, and birches that cover much of the camp seem to emanate such tranquility.


 A memorial at the WWII-era Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

In addition to the innumerable adults, at least 2,000 children were also interred in the camp, including Ann Frank and her sister.  Ann died of typhus at age 16, her sister at age 19, a mere two months before Allies liberated the camp.  Actor and director Roberto Benigni’s father was interred at this camp for three years, and the film La vita è bella is based in part on his father's experiences.



It was a short drive from Bergen-Belsen to Lüneburg, through the same heath — the Lüneburger Heide, an immense expanse of heather, juniper, birch, and pine that is now a preserve — that Bach walked through from Arnstadt to Lübeck, as well as on his visits from Lüneburg to Hamburg.

(please return to main article: Lüneburg)

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