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Journey to Lubeck

Uphill. Both ways. In the snow.

If you are over thirty, some member of an older generation, possibly a father or grandfather who grew up in rural environs, has tried to make you feel guilty over how hard life was in those days, and how, just to get to school required a long and treacherous sojourn over rocky cliffs and against driving winds. And how they cheerfully paid that price for an education.

Try walking two-hundred fifty miles.

That, at least, is the Romantic picture some of Bach's early biographers paint for us when it comes to the strange journey the lad made from his home church in Arnstadt to Lubeck, to hear for himself the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude. If you are not familiar with Buxtehude, take Bach's word, or rather actions, for it. He was worth the long walk.

We don't know, exactly, what it was the made Bach want to undertake the trip. Buxtehude did have a considerable reputation, at least among musicians, and Bach, a young man of twenty, was in his first job as a church organist. It wasn't a particularly large church, and Bach may have felt very constrained by the limited resources in town, as well as being motivated by the urge that every ambitious young musician feels to make contact with other musicians, to learn from them, and thus improve their own art. One thing should be stressed--had Bach been content to simply stay at home and do the job for which he had been hired, and not gone forth to confront and learn from the best that German art had to offer at the time, he wouldn't have been Bach.

In October of 1705, Bach applied for and got permission to leave his post for a month to hear Buxtehude. He left his job in the "capable hands" of an assistant, and traveled to Lubeck where he met the approximately 68-year old Dietrich Buxtehude, organist at St. Mary's, and director of the town music.

Bach had probably had a copy of a manuscript or two of the elder composer's in order to acquaint himself with his organ music; it was not unusual for a  studious musician to make copies (by hand) of works he wished to study. Bach came from a very large family of musicians who were adept at the art of passing around and copying manuscripts. (Bach had once gotten in some trouble over a forbidden manuscript of his uncle's that he tried to copy by moonlight). Still, here in Lubeck, he came face to face with the creative force himself, who must have shown him a number of his other compositions, supplementing whatever scant knowledge Bach had up to that point, as well as demonstrating them in the church services, or perhaps even privately.

Here musicology becomes a series of "must haves" and "probablys" because we don't really have a record of what went on between the two, and can only surmise from later pieces of Bach how greatly he was influenced by Buxtehude, and what pieces he must surely have known.

Buxtehude's big show, however, was yet to come. It was a series of concerts known as "Abendmusik" (Evening music) given on Sundays during Advent, the season leading up to Christmas, when music during the church services was banned. Advent was hardly a celebratory season in those days--the reading for the 1st Sunday which is still in our Common Lectionary today deals with the end of the age and it ushered in a season of premonitory and penitential reverence.

Since music wasn't permitted during the morning service, or the afternoon service, it became customary (despite a few origin stories nobody is really sure how) for a large concert to take place following the afternoon service. Buxtehude composed some very large works for chorus and orchestra for these occasions. It is a real musical shame that none of this music survives.

The problem for Bach was that Advent is in December, and Bach's leave extended only into November. This suggests that, whatever Bach knew about Buxtehude, he did not seem to have been aware of the Advent concerts when he obtained his leave of absence. Unless his malingering was premeditated.

Bach was now faced with a tough choice. If he stuck around for the concerts, he would be overstaying his leave, and the church authorities would not be very happy. On the other hand, to miss such concerts!

Given the distance between the towns and the impossibility of another trip so soon if he did return home, Bach decided to stay. He was not about to wait another year for this seminal influence on his art, something of great importance to him, and probably of little consequence to the people back home. That fact that he remained in Lubeck may be why he is remembered 300 years after his birth as one of the greatest composers known to history.

That doesn't, however, make his behavior anything less than rude.

When he returned home, the church authorities let him know it. A fascinating transcript survives of the "minutes" of a meeting to which Bach was called to explain himself. By this time it was well into February. Bach had not only remained through Christmas, he found reasons to stay for another month and a half, causing him to return nearly four months late.

That reason could have been Buxtehude's daughter, though it is unlikely. She was not young, not pretty, and perhaps did not posses an overwhelming personality. At any rate, her father was having difficulty marrying her off. By the time of Bach's visit, she had become part of a package deal in which Buxtehude's job and her hand went together. In other words, Buxtehude's successor would have to marry his daughter.

Sound like a strange benefits package? It had already been turned down by visiting luminaries like Georg Frideric Handel, and Johann Mattheson. Did Buxtehude make the same offer to Bach? He would have had to make another difficult choice in Lubeck.

Or perhaps not so difficult. Bach seems to have had his eye on another young woman at the time, one he would marry shortly afterward. Biographers have speculated that it was this young lady that Bach invited up to the choir loft on at least one occasion. In the document described above, Bach is accused of "making music" with a "stranger lady". In a time when women weren't even allowed to sing in the choir, this was a serious breech of etiquette. Besides, it might give people...thoughts. Not that church people are ever given to gossip.

This particular problem predated Bach's trip, and was waiting for him when he got home. The authorities were going to have to take their scandals one at a time, however.

In addition to the awkwardness of Bach's courtship, the church choir wasn't getting the sort of attention from Bach that his employers wanted. It was not the most talented choir in town (literally) and there were discipline problems with the boys who made it up. Bach evidently decided he had better things to do and chose not to come to practice on several occasions. When questioned, Bach said that he would return to the choir "if a proper director" were appointed. The council gave Bach eight days to decide whether to vacate this position officially, or to promise to attend practice. But they chose to reprimand the choir's director, suggesting that they, too, knew there were problems at that position.

If that were not enough, Bach seems to have picked up a "musical virus" in Lubeck which caused him to try some "surprising variations in the chorales". In other words, Bach was now accompanying the hymns in a new way. It appears to have been throwing off the congregation. Whether this was because they didn't like anything different or because Bach was simply letting his fancy do with a hymn what he wished, regardless of whether anybody could recognize the tune is impossible to judge from this distance. Spitta, in his early biography, is not too sympathetic with Bach on this point, and suggests that a chorale prelude that survives from this period might give an indication of the unpredictable manner in which phrases were extended, and variations employed, obscuring the tune, and making impossible to know when to come in on the next line. Bach was also making his preludes much longer (it was customary to play figurative chorale-prelude introductions to hymns for a few minutes rather than just play the last line unadorned as many of us do today) than he had in the past, and, when this was pointed out to him, he stubbornly made them very short.

At this point the document appears to have leapt forward eight days, because it is the choirmaster on the hot seat. On the Sunday previous to the council's notes, he, apparently bored with the sermon, had visited a wine shop!

Rambach said he was very sorry about that and promised not to do it again.

Which doesn't make Bach seem exactly like an...ahem...choirboy by comparison, but does put some things in perspective.


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