On the trail of Johann Sebastian Bach part 1
I was off from Aberdeen on what had become a frequent flight, the Lufthansa one to Frankfurt. Here, the railway station is underneath the airport, and the express trains run to Erfurt in just over two hours (it used to be over four hours until the high speed line opened – they are so far ahead of us).
The arrival at Erfurt was just on midnight, and I was booked into the Inter City Hotel that is attached to the station. These Inter City Hotels are throughout Germany, always next to the station, and are excellent value for money.
The next morning I took a train to Arnstadt. Train fares in Germany are much cheaper than here, and the trains much better quality as well. In a previous article I described Arnstadt – a beautiful small town and well worth a visit. The church organist, Jörg Reddin, is brilliant and he played some of Bach's music for me. Bach came here as an 18 year old to his first job as organist. The statue of him in the market place shows him as a carefree young man. Here Bach fell in love with his first wife (and several other ladies as well it seems) and fell out with the choir, had unauthorised absences, and had to leave!
Arnstadt is just 20 minutes by train from Erfurt, so in the afternoon I reluctantly left this lovely town to return to go to another concert – which turned out to be three concerts!
After an excellent meal, and in all the towns the restaurants are good, and not expensive, and top quality local food too, I went along to the old goods shed. This sounded like an odd place for a Bach concert. The notice said that the place cannot be heated so dress appropriately, so I had plenty of Keith clothes on as I joined the throng walking across the uneven stone cobbles of the goods yard.
The goods shed is a huge long low building, attached to a massive office building and other bits of disused railway infrastructure. Instead of simply demolishing it and building flats, Erfurt is gradually turning it all into public use, and cultural centre, and also a craft beer brewery is there! The big hall had chairs ranged on both sides of a central platform, an impromptu bar, and lighting, and a large industrial space heater blasting warm air in from a portable generator outside, so it wasn't too cold. On the walls are still painted destinations for the parcels and pallets to go, and the floor is pockmarked worn concrete.
I found my seat, and read the programme – another surprise – it was the Scottish Ensemble, lead by Jonathan Morton. They played a wonderful selection of Bach's work, with the crescendo being from the Brandenburg Concert, which they played so energetically I wondered if their violins would be sawn in half. At least with all their energy they wouldn't have felt the cold!
At the end, we all went out into the cobbled yard again, and were treated to a modern concert of spectacular light and sound, played against the exterior wall of the grand building. This was loud and violent, colourful and strident, great fun.
Then it was into another section of the goods shed to hear "BachSpace" play Bach in a totally different way. This is a trio of talented Swiss musicians who have taken the classic music and deconstructed it, and rebuilt it in modern style and shape. It was certainly Bach in an unusual package. They have a violin, piano and electronic "composition". It is unlike any other music I have heard.
After this feast of music, it was a short walk back to the Inter City Hotel – so well placed for the railway goods yard!
The next morning I packed my bags and took the train for the 44 minute journey to Mülhausen. This is yet another one of these lovely German towns, typical of the region. It still has nearly all of its medieval walls and towers, with the old town higgledy piggledy inside them. The station building is enormous and imposing, wonderful architecture. In front of it is a large semi circular green space, grass, small trees, paths, like a stately home's park. It also contains a memorial to the thousands of people who were taken away to the death camps by the Nazis. Every single place I went has its monument to this most awful of times in human history.
I walked up into the town, to my lodgings at the Pension bei der Marienkirche. Pension means guest house, and the rest describes it well, by the big Maria church that dominated the town centre. Easy to find! It is a bed and breakfast hotel, with large rooms around a courtyard. Ideal location for exploring the town.
In July 1707 Bach, aged 22, came to take up the job as organist at the huge Divi Blasius church. They were building a new organ, and in 1709 it was tested and inaugurated by Bach himself. With the rest of the day free, until the concert at 4 pm., I explored the town. It is a popular place to visit, obviously, as there is a large bus park outside the walls, with a well equipped, capacious and clean free public toilet. Walking around the walls was like walking in another century. The houses, shops and streets have not changed much for hundreds of years.
Town Halls (Rathous) are usually large imposing buildings, but here, with the lack of space inside the walls, it is cramped into a space by a large arched gateway. Outside it was a white car with red heart shaped stickers over it and "Just married" (yes, in English) across the rear windows. I carried on, walking the walls and then following one of the streets to find the town museum, and here was the car again, with the happy couple being posed beside a magnificent magnolia tree in bloom for the photos. I cut through one of the lanes to return to the centre, passing the town hall again where a road sweeper machine was sucking up loads of red heart shaped confetti.
On time I went to the Divi Blasius church, and found my seat. Now this was cold! It was actually freezing inside the huge church, and it was normal to see the audience wrapped up in scarves and wearing woolly hats, certainly not a formal dress code!
I wondered how the musicians would get on with it being so cold, surely they would need to have warm hands to play the instruments? I had asked this question back in Arnstadt where Jörg told me that in such circumstances he would soak his feet in hot water for 20 minutes before hand, and his hands for 10 minutes.
The Netherlands Bach Society must have done something similar as they performed with élan and the singing and music filled the ancient church completely. They performed pieces from several of the extended Bach family. At the end of the concert the audience erupted into a frenzy of applause and foot stamping (and I am sure that it was not just to get the circulation going again) and the Dutch responded with no less than three long encores.
In the evening I wandered around the town, it was settling down for the night. No loud parties or red light district, just everyday people going about their business and the town has a friendly comfortable feel to it. I had a meal in a bakery shop, very friendly people working there, and locals said hello as they came in and bought their bread and cakes.
I returned to my Pension for the night. It is such excellent value for money – you could not stay anywhere in the UK for such a good price, and for such a good breakfast too.
I would happily have stayed longer here in this town and explored round about, but the next morning I had to go off to Weimar. The continuing tour and Bach concerts will have to be in the second part of this article. It was such a great trip, and every town is worth spending more time in than I managed – must go back!
The Bach festival is found at www.thueringer-bachwochen.de Look out for the 2018 festival. There are many offers for combined tickets and so on. The towns involved also have Martin Luther connections (see earlier article in this series) and there is the "Luther Ticket", see www.luther-ticket.de which makes getting around cheap, local regional tickets, and hotels usually give you a ticket for the public transport in their town free. It is all "user friendly" and English, of course, is spoken everywhere.
For more information on the region see Visit Thuringia.