In search of... Bach's passions - News & Advice - Travel - The Independent

In search of... Bach's passions

The master of choral counterpoint is still a relatively unsung hero in his Saxony homeland.

CP E? J S? J C? Which one are we talking about? Johann Sebastian. Ironically, two of his sons, Carl Phillip Emmanuel and John Christian, became more famous in their lifetimes than their father, but It is J S who is now considered the musical Titan.

CP E? J S? J C? Which one are we talking about? Johann Sebastian. Ironically, two of his sons, Carl Phillip Emmanuel and John Christian, became more famous in their lifetimes than their father, but It is J S who is now considered the musical Titan.

Where are we talking about?

Most of the places where Bach lived and worked are in the former German Democratic Republic. Bach tourism is still in its infancy here, and several cities currently promote other local heroes, such as Goethe, Schiller and Luther, with greater gusto than the musical maestro. The downside of this is that it can be difficult to locate sites of interest; the upside is that only minimal Bach kitsch is on sale.

Bach's career was confined to a much more limited geographical space than that of many other famous composers. The four outer compass points of his travels were Lübeck in the north, Dresden in the east, Carlsbad in the south and Kassel in the west. A strictly chronological tour of the places where he lived and worked would take you from his birthplace in Eisenach, through Ohrdurf, Luneburg, Weimar, Arnstadt and Mühlhausen, back to Weimar again, on to Kothen and, finally, to Leipzig, where he spent the last 27 of his 65 years.

Need only Bach nerds apply?

You don't have to be a groupie to go; one of the good things about visiting the houses where Bach lived and churches where he worked is that they remove the mystique from the man. Bach made money writing music for wealthy citizens' weddings and funerals in order to feed his 20 children, so there is no need to be overly reverential. If nothing else, a Bach tour is a good excuse to explore eastern Germany and find out how life has changed in the past 12 years.

Are the places pretty?

Generally speaking, the closer you get to the Harz mountains in the north or the Erzgebirge in the south, the more interesting the scenery becomes. As for the towns, at the northern tip of the Thuringian Forest is Eisenach. The town was partly destroyed during the Second World War but the lovely market square still has a run-down charm, and the views from the hilltop Wartburg castle are worth the climb.

In contrast, Weimar, to the east, has had millions of Deutschmarks pumped into its restoration since reunification, and was European City of Culture for 1999. A huge memorial makes it hard to forget that this was also the site of Buchenwald concentration camp. Arnstadt's old quarter has been perfectly preserved, as has Mühlhausen's maze of ancient narrow streets, timbered buildings and complete circle of medieval walls.

Leipzig has a mixture of Classical, Socialist and Post Modern architecture and its appeal is in its personality rather than its looks. St Nicholas's Church, where Bach gave his first concert in the city in 1723, was more recently host to the Prayers for Peace, the starting point for the "Monday demonstrations" that triggered the peaceful revolution of 1989. The city is forward-looking and progressive, but its Stasi exhibition and Contemporary History Forum also present a reminder of life behind the Iron Curtain.

But what was so great about Bach?

The techniques Bach used were not radically new, but he took them to a new level of complexity. As a composer, he was sometimes more interested in structures than sounds – his music is often described as cerebral and mathematical, although many of his works are also heart-wrenchingly emotive. Perhaps his greatest legacy was his intricate use of counterpoint, the art of weaving together two or more melodies at the same time.

I get depressed contemplating genius

Console yourself with the fact that Bach was not considered a genius in his own time, and was, in fact, third choice for the post of choirmaster of St Thomas's Church and musical director of Leipzig. First choice was Telemann, probably because, unlike Bach, he had a music degree, and was therefore better suited to teaching in the choir school.

If you're still depressed, then go for a spiritually uplifting experience at St Thomas's, where the world-famous 100-strong boys' choir, in existence since the 13th century, performs motets and cantatas on Fridays at 6pm and Saturdays at 3pm. Bach's bones are buried in the altar room, having been dug up from their previous pauper's grave.

So what were Bach's real Passions?

The Passions are several-hour-long marathon works dealing with the last week of Jesus's life. They are composed of powerful choruses, soaring solo arias, instrumental interludes and narrative recitatives. Bach probably wrote five, but the only two that have survived intact are the St Matthew Passion, which is the most-performed, and the St John. Other major choral works are the Christmas Oratorio and the B-Minor Mass. The St John Passion will be performed by St Thomas's Boys' Choir in Leipzig's glass-walled Gewandhaus on 28 and 29 March, 2002. The choir will sing the Christmas Oratorio in the same setting from 14-16 December, 2001.

I'm not very religious

Bach's musical interests were not confined to praising the Lord. Most of his sacred cantatas were written within the first five years of his 27-year stay in Leipzig, while a lesser-known later secular creation is the "Coffee Cantata". This piece of Saxon palm court music tells the story of a father trying to dissuade his daughter from the much-loved Saxon habit of coffee-drinking.

Today, as the city renews itself, café society is flourishing again, so one of the laziest ways to emulate Bach is to sit and chat in one of the city's many coffee houses (most of which double as bars). Leipzig hasn't quite caught Western stress yet, and the atmosphere in the cobbled streets of the pedestrianised inner-city is easy and relaxed.

When should I go?

The annual Leipzig Bach Festival lifts off on Ascension Day each year. The best Bach musicians in the world congregated here last year in order to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. At this year's festival, a political split between the town council and the keepers of the Bach Archiv meant that the "Ascension Cantata" was performed twice in different locations on the opening day, but despite these tensions, the festival's pulling power continues to increase. The dates for 2002 are 8-12 May.

How do I get there?

Return flights to Berlin's Schonefeld Airport in the south of the city with no-frills airline Buzz (0870 240 7070; www.buzzaway.com) start from £70, including tax. The direct train to Leipzig takes about an hour and 20 minutes and costs 58DM (£18). The train to Weimar takes three hours and costs 84DM (£26). Most of the major roads in the east of Germany have now been resurfaced, so to enjoy the newly won freedom of travel, hire a car. One week's car hire from Berlin Schonefeld Airport with Sixt (00 49 180 525 2525; www.e-sixt.com) costs from 311DM (£99) with fully comprehensive insurance for a further 154 DM (£49).

What about organised tours?

Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; www.martinrandall.com) organises an annual six-day Bach tour, timed to coincide with the Eisenach and Leipzig Bach festivals in May, and also passing through Muhlhausen and Kothen. The details for 2002 are not fixed, but the 2001 price of £1,190 covered six concerts, return flights, four-star accommodation with some meals, admission to museums and tax. Or DER Travel Centre (020 7290 1111; www.dertravel.co.uk) offers an eight-day Bach tour, starting in Thüringen and going from Erfurt through Weimar on to Leipzig. After flying to Frankfurt, travel within Germany is by train. The cost in July is £519 per person, including all travel and b&b in three-star hotels.

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