Crossing the Berlin Wall with the spirit of Bach

Ever since a Sunday morning long ago when I was about 13, walking into the kitchen of my parents’ home and hearing for the first time Kathleen Ferrier on the radio, singing the Agnus Dei from Bach’s B minor mass, when I hear Bach on the radio, I usually turn the volume up and stop whatever else I’m doing to listen. The beginning of Radio 3’s “Spirit of Bach” week leading up to Christmas 2017 coincided with a long day of work, an early start to travel to a mediation in an office park far from home, and all the other things to be done in the last few days at work and preparing for Christmas, so I mostly caught up with the Spirit of Bach week over Christmas itself. Of its many musical offerings, the programme which held my attention most closely was the writer Horatio Clare’s series of “Bach Walks”. In these, he retraced a journey which Johann Sebastian Bach made at the age of 20, in the autumn of 1705, walking (it is believed) 250 miles due north from the town of Arnstadt in Thuringia to the Hanseatic port city of Lübeck, the furthest distance from home that he had travelled in his life.

Map of places associated with Bach, reproduced from preface to John Eliot Gardiner’s Music in the Castle of Heaven — A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, published by Allen Lane 2013/Penguin 2014

Bach’s biographers describe the importance of the young man’s journey to him –

Lübeck … home to the man [Bach] then considered to be the greatest living practical musician, Dietrich Buxtehude, then aged seventy. There he witnessed dazzling concerted music on a monumental scale as well as small-scale chamber music of the most intimate, devotional kind. Memories of these — and of Buxtehude’s own special style of playing the organ — would stay with him all his life. His musical imagination had been fired with visions incomprehensible to any petty town official [Bach was employed by the municipal authorities as an organist] in Arnstadt

John Eliot Gardiner: Music in the Castle of Heaven — A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (2013) Penguin edition p.175

Christoph Wolff describes the journey as the realisation of a dream:

For Bach, Buxtehude signified a kind of father figure who anticipated the ideal of the autonomous composer, a category unheard of at the time. The bourgeois, liberal and commercial atmosphere of the free imperial city of Lübeck provided Buxtehude with considerable flexibility in realising his various projects.

Christoph Wolff: Johann Sebastian Bach, The Learned Musician (2001) Oxford p.95

Bach had been given a month’s leave of absence from his post in November 1705, but greatly overstayed it and only returned to Arnstadt in February 1706. When called on to explain his long absence he said that it had been

in order to comprehend one thing and another about my art”.

It takes little imagination to supplement this with what must have been the sense of adventure and freedom for a young man, striking out alone from the region of his birth and upbringing, an orphan since the age of ten, although surrounded by countless musical ancestors and relatives, walking to a new and more metropolitan destination and towards a living figure who inspired him.

Bach left no record of the journey itself. As Horatio Clare says, “we can divine more of the route than we can prove”, but his speculation is plausibly based on a south-north route established in Bach’s time. His programmes of Bach Walks conveyed a vivid sense of a series of landscapes in autumn, of trees and birds, mountains and rivers, of landscapes shaped by time and change, and of threads of continuity, like the “old fruit trees, whose ancestors would have been here when our man came through”. He described Bach’s journey as “a secular pilgrimage — a pilgrimage for art and craft”, but his walk in Bach’s footsteps was as much about landscape and history as about art and craft. It was filled with the exhilaration of being outdoors on a fine autumn day, and the pleasure of all the things that are only seen and reflected on at walking pace. The programmes created a portrait in words of a young man walking purposefully on a life-changing journey — an altogether different portrait from the “forbidding stare” (John Eliot Gardiner’s words) of the Cantor in the Haussmann portrait associated in many people’s minds with the image of Bach.

Portrait of J S Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussman, restored to the Bach Archive in Leipzig in 2015

As I listened to Horatio Clare’s talks, I was also reminded of a journey I had made thirty-five years ago, when I was 22, in January 1983, a few months after graduating from university and working in a directionless way in a dull clerical job. This was a journey accompanied with the spirit of Bach, whose music was never far away — particularly since the 1980 launch of the Sony Walkman in the UK, which was the first truly portable music system, consisting of a miniature cassette player and headphones, a device that could bring Bach into such incongruous settings as shopping in the supermarket or travelling on the Tube. I had become interested in Bach’s cantatas in the mid-1970s — a curious interest for a teenager, perhaps — catching up with the first project to record them in their entirety, and with a sound which was thought to be close to that of Bach himself, through the use of historic instruments and boys’ voices by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, as it progressed through the 1970s. And quite apart from being a teenager, one of the questions which an interest in Bach’s Lutheran church music invariably poses for anyone Jewish, is how far such a journey of exploration goes towards its roots, or towards a sense of being quite at one with it. My English grandparents did not listen to Bach’s church music at all, although my parents did. But we never visited any of the places in Germany associated with him. None of the landscapes of the journey from Arnstadt to Lübeck were familiar to me. In connection with the subjects of his book East-West Street, the English lawyer and writer Philippe Sands has written of the coincidence that in the summer of 1946, both the Jewish lawyer Hersch Lauterpacht found that, as he was preparing the closing arguments for the Nuremberg trials

the only thing that helps me through the day is listening to the St Matthew Passion”,

and

At the same time the man he was prosecuting, Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer, on whose orders Lauterpacht’s family was slaughtered, tells his psychologist he “realised the enormity of what has happened and the only thing that gets me through each day in the trial is to imagine that I’m listening to the St Matthew Passion”

This historic coincidence eloquently expresses the question, for me, that is never entirely answered or disappears.

My journey in January 1983, was undertaken on a mixture of whim and curiosity. A few years later, crossing from Canada to the USA at Niagara, an American border official looked at the DDR stamps in my passport with incredulity, saying “You went to the German Democratic Republic on vacation?” with equal stress on each syllable of the question. On discovering that it was possible to buy a ticket to travel from Liverpool Street Station in London to Warsaw, I did so, crossing by ferry to Hook of Holland, and stopping for a few days to visit Berlin, where I had never been before. Berlin was then a city still divided by the Berlin Wall and without either the visible cosmopolitan life, or the many public memorials that confront the darkness of its recent historic past that it now has. On the map, this west-east journey across continental Europe from Hook of Holland to Warsaw crosses Bach’s walk from Arnstadt to Lübeck at right angles, and the most significant part of it — crossing the Berlin Wall and traversing the former DDR, has entirely vanished into history with the fall of the Wall and reunification of Germany. I took no photographs then, but who could forget the beginning of the train journey eastwards, leaving Berlin in the yellow-grey light of an early January morning, and crossing the forbidding stare of the heavily guarded Wall. I still have the guidebooks I acquired on the journey, and one of them depicts the way the Wall cut across the city just as I remember it.

It wasn’t the first time I had been to eastern Europe, from where my ancestors had variously come to England over the previous hundred years, but at the age of five in 1965, I had been too young to remember or understand anything but vague fragments of our family journey to our mother’s birthplace in Prague — the first time she had returned since leaving as a teenage refugee in 1939. I could remember the heat of the central European summer, and swimming in a series of wood-lined pools by the Vlatava river, a handful of Prague place names as my mother pronounced them, the skin on a child’s glass of milk at an old-fashioned hotel, and climbing the many stairs to an apartment where a very old couple lived — very distant relatives perhaps, or relatives of a Czech friend of my mother’s in London, for the rest had escaped or were ghosts — but nothing else, and nothing of the real emotional weight of the journey. As an older child and young adult growing up in England in the Cold War, I only had received ideas about what lay behind the Iron Curtain — a sense of lands without freedom or pleasure, and of cities where Levi jeans and Beatles records, which to us were commonplace, were prized as black market currency.

DDR stamps in my passport from January 1983

On the first part of the long train journey, from Hook of Holland to Berlin, I had music with me to pass the long hours. But cassette tapes were subversive and it was forbidden to take them into the east, and I had to abandon them before I left Berlin.

Berlin for Young People (1981), with tips for visiting East Berlin — note the forbidden “tapes, cassettes and many popular records” and the advice to “speak with people in a normal way and without arrogance”

Before continuing my journey eastwards from Berlin, I visited East Berlin itself on a day visa, crossing at “Checkpoint Charlie” at the Friedrichstrasse station. I remember very little of that afternoon in East Berlin, other than the sharp perception of how the Wall divided the streets of the city, with many of the finer remnants behind it in the East along Unter Den Linden, and of browsing in a bookshop, with particular interest in the English-language books describing the Wall and the countries that lay beyond it from the perspective of the DDR — as a bulwark that kept the corrupting forces of capitalism out.

From “East Berlin: A portrayal of the political and social structures” (1981)

As it was obligatory to exchange and spend a minimum amount of East German currency, I also found a vinyl record shop, and bought a record, that I still have, of Bach’s cantata BWV 198, the Trauer-Ode. This was written to a commission in 1727, to mark the death of Christiane Eberhardine, Electress of Saxony, in the autumn of that year. John Eliot Gardiner brilliantly describes¹ the “dangerous ground” of its composition and performance, and how musically subversive this composition was of the “potpourri of banalities, mawkish sentiments and bathetic rhymes” of the words of the ode itself, also a commission, written by a respected university professor and literary reformer. Gardiner is right about the words of the ode, of course, although I have a lingering fondness for the beautiful phrase “Der Ewigkeits Saphirnes Haus” (the sapphire house of eternity) that forms one of the arias. And at the time I was unaware of this, or of the irony of this now historic and hidden subversion being openly sold in East Berlin. Nor did I fully realise that even in the communist DDR, Bach’s legacy was respected, and prestige accorded to the choir of St Thomas’s church in Leipzig, of which Bach had been the cantor, and whose fifteenth successor, Hans-Joachim Rotzsch was the conductor of the record I had bought. Before returning to West Berlin I sat in a cafe for a while, and when I left, accidentally left the record behind me. The waitress who had served me ran into the street to find me, holding the record and smiling and praising the beauty of the music and its recording. This turned out to be amongst the warmest of encounters in a journey which in fact was deeply solitary and brought no deep insights or conversations about the division between east and west or past and present. Only the record remains as a vivid and tangible fragment of memory, of a place which has within my adult lifetime changed virtually out of all recognition, and of my imagination on the day that I was there.

Sleeve of Hans-Joachim Rotzsch’s 1975 recording of Bach’s Trauer-Ode BWV 198

1 — In Music in the Castle of Heaven (Penguin edition) at pp.220–221

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