Chron­i­cling a lit­tle-known chap­ter in the com­poser’s life

The New European - - Agenda - BY CHAR­LIE CON­NELLY

One evening in the late sum­mer of 1705 Jo­hann Se­bas­tian Bach was walk­ing across the main square in Arn­stadt, Thuringia. He was 20 and two years into his job as or­gan­ist at the Neue Kirche. Arn­stadt was a small, provin­cial town with small, provin­cial at­ti­tudes that Bach’s am­bi­tions had al­ready com­pre­hen­sively out­grown.

Com­pound­ing his frus­tra­tion was the – at least by his stan­dards – poor qual­ity of the mu­si­cians at his dis­posal who as part of his du­ties he was ex­pected to pre­pare and re­hearse for ser­vices and recitals. In­deed, a few days ear­lier he had be­come so in­censed at the flat­u­lent parp­ing com­ing from one par­tic­u­lar in­stru­ment that as part of an an­gry tirade he de­scribed its wielder as “ein zip­pel Fag­gotist”, a term Ho­ra­tio Clare trans­lates in Some­thing Of His Art: Walk­ing To Lübeck with JS Bach as “a prick of a bas­soon­ist”.

This par­tic­u­lar prick of a bas­soon­ist was a young man named Jo­hann

Heyn­rich Gey­ers­bach and the in­sult, un­leashed in front of the mu­si­cian’s peers, still ran­kled. The num­ber of drinks he’d just con­sumed at a chris­ten­ing party served to stoke his ire only fur­ther and when he caught sight of Bach cross­ing the square the com­bi­na­tion of re­sent­ment and beer com­busted into a fiery rage. Egged on by his friends Gey­ers­bach dashed across the cob­bles and an­grily con­fronted Bach who, be­ing a man of forth­right opin­ions, may well have re­it­er­ated his ear­lier de­scrip­tion of the boozed-up bas­soon­ist’s char­ac­ter and abil­ity. Ei­ther way, Gey­ers­bach pro­duced a cud­gel – in fair­ness to Bach def­i­nitely the ac­tion of a prick – and clouted his neme­sis on the side of the head with it. The com­poser im­me­di­ately reached for his rapier and an undig­ni­fied tus­sle en­sued be­fore the two men were sep­a­rated by passers-by, for­tu­nately with­out ei­ther suf­fer­ing se­ri­ous in­jury.

It’s ap­pro­pri­ate that Clare opens his book with this anec­dote. For one thing it’s a ter­rific story (‘prick of a bas­soon­ist’ is a solid gold humdinger of an in­sult in any cen­tury and one I in­tend to use from now on even for non-bas­soon­ists), for an­other it im­me­di­ately gives us an un­ex­pect­edly hu­man in­sight into ar­guably the great­est com­poser of all time. For­tu­nately for his read­ers hu­man in­sight is some­thing

Clare does very well in­deed. Some­thing Of His Art is a bit of a flac­cid ti­tle for a book of great eru­di­tion, con­ci­sion and depth (not to men­tion one with a cover so beau­ti­ful you’ll want to hang it on your wall).

With rare in­sight Clare fol­lows the jour­ney Bach made a few months af­ter his brawl with the bas­soon­ist when he took a month’s leave and set out to walk 230 miles north to the free Hanseatic city of Lübeck. There he planned to hear, meet and be in­spired by the su­per­star or­gan­ist and com­poser of the day Di­eterich Bux­te­hude, who was pulling in bumper crowds at the city’s Marienkirche for ser­vices and the weekly con­certs he gave ev­ery Sun­day evening dur­ing Ad­vent.

Long jour­neys made by the great, the good and the no­to­ri­ous are al­ways ne­glected by bi­og­ra­phers and his­to­ri­ans which is a shame as they can of­ten pro­vide the per­fect way in to a per­son’s char­ac­ter and fu­ture ac­tions. Granted, there isn’t usu­ally much in the way of doc­u­men­tary de­tail of such jour­neys and most bi­og­ra­phers de­cide the des­ti­na­tion is the im­por­tant thing, but the time a long jour­ney, par­tic­u­larly on foot, al­lows is per­fect for re­flec­tion and ru­mi­na­tion. Walk­ing is good for the mind, a time for pro­cess­ing events and ideas, a time to in­ter­act with fel­low trav­ellers and a time for de­vel­op­ing self-knowl­edge. Bach’s walk to Lübeck is glossed over in most ac­counts of the com­poser’s life, the cou­ple of hun­dred miles of en­coun­ters, land­scapes and med­i­ta­tions he ex­pe­ri­enced be­tween Arsntadt and Lübeck gen­er­ally mer­it­ing no more than a sen­tence or two. For Clare, how­ever, Bach’s two-week foot­slog through the north Ger­man coun­try­side is cru­cial to an un­der­stand­ing of the man, his mo­ti­va­tions and even his mu­sic.

“Per­haps ev­ery long-dis­tance walk is a pil­grim­age, whether the walker is a be­liever or not,” he writes. “The re­con­nec­tion with our­selves through im­mer­sion in the world is in­evitably ther­a­peu­tic and the deeper plea­sure comes from a coun­ter­point: the sim­i­lar­ity of each day in their greater rhythms and the di­ver­sity of each mo­ment.”

Some­thing Of His Art at­tempts to re­store Bach the hu­man be­ing to his place in the story of Bach the ge­nius.

There are few larger fig­ures loom­ing over the cul­tural his­tory of Europe than the man who gave us the St Matthew Pas­sion, the Bran­den­burg Con­cer­tos and the Cello Suites, the man who even in his dotage 40 years af­ter his Lübeck odyssey could pro­duce A Mu­si­cal

Of­fer­ing, a range of vari­a­tions on a fiendishly dif­fi­cult theme set for him by Fred­er­ick the Great of Prus­sia that some ar­gue is the finest, most in­tri­cate and most sig­nif­i­cant key­board mu­sic ever de­vised.

If we have an image of Bach at all it’s the 1748 por­trait by Elias Hauss­mann of the com­poser painted when the sit­ter was 61 years old. He’s stern, dig­ni­fied, fear­some and peri­wigged, his ex­alted rep­u­ta­tion ra­di­at­ing from a can­vas that is ab­so­lutely not a paint­ing of some­one who’d be found at the heart of a drunken brawl in a provin­cial town. Yet it’s pre­cisely this com­bi­na­tion of char­ac­ter as­pects that Clare evokes through the prism of his soli­tary long-dis­tance walk that not only gives us a more-rounded Bach than one would find in a house­brick-thick bi­og­ra­phy, it also pro­vides a deeply per­sonal evo­ca­tion of the power of Bach’s mu­sic and an en­ter­tain­ing, en­gag­ing travel mem­oir in its own right.

Clare has a gift for phras­ing. He spies a nuthatch, “im­pec­ca­bly dressed as if for the races in tones of blue-grey and yel­low silk”, and when imag­in­ing the sounds Bach would have heard en route cites “the creak of cart­wheel, the tread of horses and the tock of wood­cut­ters’ axes”.

He also suc­cess­fully re­sists the con­ceit of plac­ing him­self in­side Bach’s head. While the com­poser is the lifeblood of the book we only see him in oc­ca­sional glimpses, sit­ting alone and sep­a­rate from the crowd in an eat­ing house with a bowl of soup, chat­ting with his feet up by the fire at the house of a cousin who lived on the route, wrap­ping his cloak around him­self dur­ing a shower of rain. At the same time Clare suc­cess­fully hu­man­ises the com­poser, spec­u­lat­ing as to whether he might have felt lonely on the walk and, when Clare goes club­bing with two friends dur­ing a stopover in Braun­schweig, won­der­ing whether Bach still barely out of his teens would have gone out drink­ing there too. “Per­haps he danced,” he muses, but wisely takes that thought no fur­ther, re­sist­ing the com­pul­sion to pro­ject him­self on to the com­poser.

Of Bach at Arn­stadt he writes, “he knows he has tal­ent, per­haps enor­mous tal­ent, but he can­not yet tell if the world will thwart its ful­fil­ment,” but that’s as far as spec­u­la­tion ever goes as Clare is not one for mak­ing as­sump­tions, pre­fer­ring to give us glimpses of a young man as vul­ner­a­ble to lone­li­ness, ex­cite­ment, won­der at na­ture, drink and sex­ual temp­ta­tion as any other on the road.

Clare evokes Bach’s jour­ney beau­ti­fully, a land­scape and peo­ple still dis­play­ing the scars and trauma of the in­tensely trau­matic Thirty Years War that had fin­ished a full half cen­tury ear­lier. He notes that Bach would have been armed against the ban­dits that in­hab­ited the forests and re­counts the dif­fer­ences in the na­ture he would have

seen, at one point point­ing out a copse of an­cient oak trees that would have been saplings when Bach passed by.

Such his­tor­i­cal con­text is put into sharp fo­cus by Clare’s ob­ser­va­tions of his own jour­ney, from un­der­pass graf­fiti re­lat­ing to the far right AFD and a de­mon­stra­tion against them in Er­furt to the brief en­coun­ters one ex­pe­ri­ences on a long walk, the “short friend­ships of min­utes or hours which lighten a mo­ment, an evening, a day”. He evokes the eeri­ness of the Harz moun­tains to great ef­fect, where the East­ern Bloc reached its west­ern­most point and in whose dis­used mines slave labour built V2 rock­ets dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. We even learn that one in three boars in Sax­ony are still too ra­dioac­tive to eat more than 30 years af­ter the Ch­er­nobyl dis­as­ter.

“The qui­etly ma­jes­tic scale of Ger­many seems to speak of old power and new po­ten­tial, some­thing ex­pand­ing and ex­pan­sive,” he writes. “The houses, gar­dens and vil­lages, even the in­di­vid­ual rooms, of Ger­many are all big­ger than their Bri­tish equiv­a­lents. There is just more space here, and a feel­ing of free­dom within it.”

Clare has read widely and deeply – the book might have ben­e­fited from a bib­li­og­ra­phy, or at least some rec­om­mended fur­ther read­ing by the writ­ers and bi­og­ra­phers he cites in the text – but his re­search, aptly for a long jour­ney, is worn lightly. As the jour­ney nears its end on the Salt Road to

Lübeck he fi­nally al­lows him­self to come to the fore of the nar­ra­tive and in a beau­ti­ful, heartrend­ing pas­sage we learn why this jour­ney and this com­poser mean so much to the au­thor.

The Lübeck Bach finds at the end of his jour­ney is a busy, wealthy town where wa­ter­ways come to­gether to flow out to sea and the world beyond. Within a year of his jour­ney – he would even­tu­ally walk back to Arn­stadt and brush off all com­plaints about be­ing away for four months in­stead of the agreed one – he would be on his way to a bet­ter job in Mül­hausen. Clare is sorry to leave him and sorry to leave his­toric Lübeck, a city where once “Lüneb­urg salt and all the spices, silks, to­bac­cos, wines, fish, met­als, skins, furs, cloth, grain and trade goods of the world passed through it”.

We leave Clare and his book with a vi­sion of Bach not of the grim-faced old timer of the Hauss­mann por­trait, but a young man on the road start­ing out on one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary of Euro­pean lives, fired with am­bi­tion, in­fused with the self-be­lief to seek out his hero, the mus­cles in his legs thrum­ming and the skin on his face prick­ling with a day’s sweat as the sun sets and he’s faced with a canopy of stars and a vi­sion of the in­fi­nite. The pos­si­bil­i­ties he saw there were lim­it­less.

As Dou­glas Adams once put it, “Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven, Mozart tells you what it’s like to be hu­man, Bach tells you what it’s like to be the uni­verse”.

Pho­tos: Con­trib­uted/ Getty Images

PIL­GRIM­AGE: The jour­ney of Jo­hann Se­bas­tian Bach, left, who walked across Ger­many on foot

Some­thing Of His Art: Walk­ing To Lübeck With JS Bach by Ho­ra­tio Clare is pub­lished by Lit­tle Toller, price £12.99

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