Bach in Erfurt is an unusual story. It is true that Johann Sebastian Bach often visited the town in his youth but he left few traces behind him that are visible today. As a footnote, the great composer would have been born in Erfurt had not Duke Johann Georg 1 of Sachsen-Eisenach turned down Johann Sebastian’s father’s 1684 request to leave his court service in order to move back to Erfurt as a town musician. The Erfurt-born Johann Ambrosius must have felt at home in this beautiful town on the Gera and the Via Regia. After all, many Bach relations lived and worked in the town.
Thus, there is no Bach memorial to serve as the starting point for a tour of the city. Therefore, our suggestion is that you start your tour on the spot where the Thuringia Bach Festival has its offices: on the 120 meter long Krämer bridge, one of the most beautiful and popular places in Erfurt. The town has Mediterranean charm and is a lively pleasure centre where artisans and artists live and work and, with its distinctive buildings on either side, the bridge lends the city a great deal of flair. The Bach family is said to have lived in one of the small houses and would surely nowadays treasure the presence of the chocolate manufacturer or the Mundlandung bistro and delicatessen round the corner.more
Starting from the bridge, the next destination must be the Kaufmann church. Beside the little river Gera in a small street called Junkersand there are further memorials to the Bach family. Johann Sebastian’s parents lived in numbers 1-3. There is a memorial plaque to its famous inhabitants which include the baroque composer, Johann Pachelbel, who not only worked as organist in the Prediger church but was also a friend of the Bach family.
One can get to the Kaufmann church through the narrow alley ways and busy streets. This sacred building counts as one of the few authentic Bach sites in the town. The Kaufmann church records register more than 60 baptisms, marriages and deaths in the Bach family of Erfurt musicians. Bach’s father with his twin brother, Johann Christoph, was baptised in the church in 1645. Later the marriage of Johann Ambrosius and Elisabeth Lämmerhirt was concluded here before the family moved to Eisenach three years later.
Well before the famous Johann Sebastian, members of the Bach family determined the musical life of the town as town musicians or organists. Bach’s grandfather, Christoph, was active as a council musician, as was his father, Johann Ambrosius. Even after they moved to Eisenach, there were regular so-called “Bach family days”, for which Johann Sebastian also travelled to Erfurt. In front of the church one is made aware also of another great Erfurt citizen: the Luther memorial commemorates the reformer who from 1501 to 1511 lived, studied and entered the Augustine monastery as a monk in Erfurt. This historic place in the centre of the old town is worth visiting, not just because of the many connections with Luther but because Bach came here in 1716 to assess the organ.
As the state capital of Thuringia, Erfurt has always been exposed to change. Near the Krämer bridge, thanks to a happy accident, one can see a spectacular find: in 1998 silver and gold coins, wrought iron and a Jewish wedding ring were found in the cellar of an old house. The Erfurt treasure and further examples of mediaeval Jewish culture are exhibited in the Old Synagogue. Erfurt has been in the process of applying for UNESCO World Heritage status on the basis of its rich mediaeval Jewish history for some years now.
The cathedral square with its imposing view of the church complex comprising the Cathedral of St Mary and the church of St Severus is also a lively and much visited spot. Whether for its daily markets or because of great festivals such as the traditional Christmas market which attracts up to 2 million visitors, the town has long become a very lively, international cultural and university town. Not far from the Cathedral is one of the Bach Festival’s favourite cafes. The small Cafe Hilgenfeld is an ideal place for a break and an insider tip for those who enjoy their coffee.
There were already musicians by the name of Bach in Erfurt long before the birth of Johann Sebastian. Johannes Bach, the founding father of the Erfurt line of Bachs, was member of the Erfurter Stadtmusicanten-Compagnie and held the post of organist in the Predigerkirche. The town was so convinced of the skill of these musicians that from then on, “the Bachs” became a synonym for the profession of musician in Erfurt.
Erfurt’s Kaufmannskirche is a site of great importance for the Bach family: it was here that 61 of the family’s children were christened and 12 Bach couples were married, among them Johann Sebastian’s parents Johann Ambrosius, a born Erfurter, and Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. We have evidence that Johann Sebastian Bach himself came to Erfurt in 1716 to examine the organ in the Augustinerkirche. But he is likely to have visited quite frequently, as traditional Bach family gatherings also took place in Erfurt.
One of the principal sights of Gotha is Schloss Friedenstein, Germany’s largest early Baroque palace, which was built between 1646 and 1654. Figures such as Voltaire, Goethe and Luther spent time in the town, as well as the composer Spohr and Ekhof, the father of German acting. In 1775, Ekhof established the first German court theatre with a ermanent in Gotha. It is now considered the world’s oldest preserved Baroque theatre with historic stage workings.
From 1711, Bach was a well-regarded musician and organist at Gotha’s ducal court. In 1717, he conducted one of his own works, a Passion, at the court. Bach kept close personal relations to Gotha through Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. In 1747, Stölzel bought a copy of Bach’s ‘The Musical Offering’ for Gotha’s court chapel. A remarkable purchase that proves that contemporary music was played at the court.
Exactly when Johann Sebastian Bach visited his older cousin Johann Ludwig in the idyllic Meiningen is still not known today. Yet he appreciated his works and completed transcriptions of several cantatas and performed them in 1726 in the large churches of Leipzig.
This assistant who performed at the Meiningen court chapel eventually rose to servant-teacher and cantor. After Georg Caspar Schürmann’s depature, he began managing the instruments and musical accompaniment of courtyard festivities in Meiningen and Coburg. Johann Ludwig Bach became court chapel master in 1711.
For him that was not always an enjoyment, as we now know today. Bach’s ten-year-long conflict with chapel members eventually went to court. An especially impressive work stems from 1724 – the funeral music for Duke Ernst Ludwig I of Sachsen-Coburg-Meiningen – a time at which Duke Anton Ulrich of Sachsen-Meiningen was in Vienna putting together the largest complete collection of baroque vocal music.
The 22 year-old Bach held his second post as organist in Mühlhausen at the Divi-Blasii-Kirche. This was the start of a very fruitful year. He wrote the cantata “Gott ist mein König” (BWV 71), which was premiered on 4th February 1708 in front of many of the inhabitants of Mühlhausen. This cantata is the only cantata that was printed during Bach’s lifetime. Today, the Mühlhausen period is often called Bach’s “early mastery”, due to the sheer number of compositions that date from this time. Here Bach was able to compose zealously and run musical riot.
Johann Sebastian lost both his parents at the age of ten and was subsequently taken in by his elder brother Johann Christoph Bach in Ohrdruf. Here he received Lutheran schooling and according to his teachers, was soon conspicuous for his remarkable intelligence.
Johann Sebastian studied Latin, Greek and the sciences and received five hours of music teaching a week. His brother, a pupil of Pachelbel, the most famous organist of the time, was his first piano teacher and he also taught him to play the organ, the harpsichord and to compose music. Ohrdruf plays a very important role in Johann Sebastian’s development. It is here that he departs from the path taken by his ancestors, who had devoted themselves to the more secular side of a musician’s career.
Schmalkalden, first mentioned in 874, is often referred to as the city of half-timbered houses and the Reformation. The city gave its name to Martin Luther‘s Smalcald-Articles, among others. The reformer held two sermons in 1537 at the St. George church, which was completed in 1509 and is one of the most beautiful late-gothic hall churches in Thuringia.
Of importance is also the Wilhelmsburg palace, one of the most important renaissance constructions in central Germany, which, to this day, has seen almost no constructional changes and is maintained in an almost original condition.
Schmalkalden presents itself as an equally lively and historic city of half-timbered construction with a historical downtown, flourishing industry and a well-reputed college of applied sciences.
The Trost Organ in Waltershausen’s Stadtkirche is the largest organ in Thuringia that was built during the time of Bach. Court organ builder Heinrich Gottfried Trost worked on this organ from 1724 to 1730 without ever finishing it. It is probable that Johann Sebastian Bach is connected to the Trost Organ in some way.
Today, this instrument is certainly of great importance in understanding Bach’s organ works. Its practically unique concentration of characteristic voices opens up an enormous world of tonal colours and stop possibilities, which reveal the true richness of sound of Baroque organ music, in particular in his chorale works and instrumental adaptations.