Satisfying the craving for Bach

The world of Bach in images

At the Thomaskirchhof in Leipzig

For years nobody knew for certain where Johann Sebastian Bach's earthly remains were buried. After they were finally exhumed and verified around the turn of the 20th century, the "New Bach Memorial" was erected in 1908 just steps away from the side entrance to St. Thomas Church, where Bach had been the music director. The bust was patterned after the size and shape of the composer's skull.

The world of Bach in images

Computer-aided guesstimate

Due to a lack of authentic historical sources, we have only a rough idea of what Bach looked like. This image of his possible physiognomy, generated for an exhibition at the Bach House in Eisenach in 2008, was based on a plaster cast of the composer's skull and new forensic methods. He looks friendlier here than in the more traditional, severe, bewigged depictions.

The world of Bach in images

Born in Eisenach

The name "Bach" was once synonymous for "musician" in the central German region of Thuringia. There were Bachs in cities and towns everywhere, from Erfurt to Weimar, Ohrdruf to Eisenach, where Johann Sebastian was born in 1685 in the above house. He later listed 53 musician family members, most of them in the service of a court or a church. At family get-togethers, they — what else? — made music.

The world of Bach in images

Angry young man?

Having lost both parents by age ten, Johann Sebastian went to live in Ohrdruf with his 14-year-older brother and received musical tutelage. Little is known about his youth other than that he snapped up every scrap of music he could get his hands on. At one point he described a fellow musician's playing in unflattering terms. The quarrel escalated, but a duel was averted at the last moment.

The world of Bach in images

St. Mary's Church in Lübeck

Hearing your favorite music today is easy: just don your headphones. To hear the music he wanted, the young Bach traveled over 200 miles (321 km) — by foot. Destination: Lübeck, on Germany's north coast. It was there the great organist Dieterich Buxtehude held his legendary "Abendmusiken" (evening concerts) in St. Mary's Church. Buxtehude left deep marks on Bach's organ playing and composing.

The world of Bach in images

Court orchestra director in Weimar

In 1708, at age 23, Bach landed a prestigious gig in Weimar (above). He wrote his first cantata masterpieces and the greater part of his organ works in the following nine years there. In 1717 he opted to move on to even greener fields, but Weimar didn't want to let him go. In those days, quitting a job could mean imprisonment for insubordination, and Bach did in fact spend a month behind bars.

The world of Bach in images

Happiest years in Köthen

In the first part of his tenure as orchestra director at the court in Köthen (above), Bach had a superbly equipped orchestra at his disposal and, in Prince Leopold, a music-loving patron and friend. Many of his instrumental works were written there. But when Leopold took a wife who was less interested in music, Bach's working conditions suffered, so he began looking for a different job.

The world of Bach in images

St. Thomas School

Today Leipzig is proud of Bach, but this was less so during his lifetime. He was only third choice to be cantor of the prestigious St Thomas Church and School (above). His grueling work regimen included writing, rehearsing and performing a new cantata week after week. Bach eventually found himself at odds with church and city authorities, leading him to apply for jobs elsewhere — unsuccessfully.

The world of Bach in images

The family that plays together, stays together

20 children issued forth from Bach's two marriages. Nine survived him, and four of his sons became musicians of renown. Johann Sebastian Bach did everything he could to pass on the musical family tradition, as this image likely depicting him at the keyboard captures, but it ended with his sons. The generation to follow brought forth no musicians of stature.

The world of Bach in images

The sound of money

With all those hungry mouths to feed, Bach complained about the high cost of living in Leipzig. He even dryly noted that in one year, the city's healthy air meant fewer deaths, less funerals and a regrettable loss of income through a resultant decline in fees for a musician's services.

The world of Bach in images

Zimmermann's Coffee House

Restive schoolchildren, bickering with authorities, burdensome tasks and scant respect: The life of a cantor at St. Thomas wasn't easy. For a change of pace, Bach would go to the local coffee house, Cafe Zimmermann (above), and make music with friends and students in Leipzig's Collegium Musicum musical society.

The world of Bach in images

The portrait by Haussmann

Only one authentic image of Johann Sebastian Bach exists: the painting by Elias Gottlob Haussmann from the year 1748. For over 60 years it hung in the living room of the musicologist, historian and arts patron William Scheide in Princeton, New Jersey, in the US. Scheide left the precious object to the Bach Archive in Leipzig, and it was returned to the city by his widow Judith in 2015 (above).

The world of Bach in images

Soli Deo Gloria

Bach signed many of his compositions with the initials "S.D.G." (Soli Deo Gloria — To the glory of God alone). This declaration is found even on a number of his works of secular music and points to a deeply felt, personal religiosity. Even in his everyday compositions, Bach always strove for perfection. That in itself could be taken as an expression of his faith.

The world of Bach in images

Can you Bach?

On Johann Sebastian Bach's 334th birthday, Google greeted users with this doodle, inviting them to engage in an interactive exercise and compose a short melody. After cross-comparing hundreds of compositions by Bach, the software then embellished that melody by adding a multivoiced accompaniment in style of the composer. It seems doubtful that the results were as ingenious as the original, though.

Bach is a booming business, as the Bachfest Leipzig has discovered, with more events seeing higher ticket sales. Director Michael Maul is thinking ahead with plans to showcase dozens of choirs from around the world.

After last year's record-breaking attendance, the most often heard question was: can the Bachfest Leipzig sustain the momentum?

Music | 08.06.2018

In Michael Maul's first season as festival director in 2018, the schedule of events grew by half, from roughly 100 to 150. Increased supply, surprisingly, met with increased demand, with over 90 percent of the available tickets sold.

The program included, among other highlights, Bach's most famous church cantatas. It was a focus suited to Leipzig, as it was there that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) spent the last 27 years of his life as cantor of St. Thomas Church, with church music as his central activity.

Bachfest director Michael Maul

A hard act to follow?

The 2019 season from June 14-23 will shift its focus from Bach's role at St. Thomas to his time serving wealthy patrons. Under the slogan "Court Composer Bach," this year's festival highlights works written largely before Bach's time in Leipzig when he was engaged at various courts. They include favorites such as the Brandenburg Concertos, the violin concertos and works for various solo instruments.

"Last year we had visitors from 47 countries, but we wanted to up the ante," said director Maul, who is also a scholar at the Leipzig Bach Archive. He is looking even further ahead to the festival's 2020 season, which promises to be highly international event. "After a systematic search, we actually located 219 Bach choirs and societies around the world." These organizations then received invitations to travel to Leipzig in 2020 and perform at the very locations where Johann Sebastian Bach himself once made music.

When in Leipzig, you're not likely to overlook the fact that there's a Bachfest there

A leading role

At their own cost, 65 Bach societies agreed to participate in the musical summit — from the East Malaysian Bach Singers to the Paraguay Bach Society to the Choir of Trinity Wall Street in New York. With a smile, Maul relates how the latter immediately replied with the words, "We want to have a leading role in your festival!"

The choristers from Wall Street will have to match up to 64 other choruses and Bach societies from 21 countries, however. Invoking the tradition of get-togethers in Bach's own big family, the Bachfest 2020 will go by the name, "We Are Family." In part, the playbill sees professional musicians performing works by Johann Sebastian Bach's predecessors, sons and various relatives. In addition, the diverse international Bach Societies will perform a complete choral cantata cycle of 62 works.

Of course, the boys of the St. Thomas Choir will be there too

Festival director Maul was himself astonished at the response to his invitation: "These were pieces devised to be used in a certain congregation in a particular German city but are now performed by people all over the world who aren't necessarily Protestants and maybe don't even understand the texts. Yet this music not only has its effect but can even convince people to travel thousands of miles to make music at Bach's final resting place."

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