Some musicians embrace the rigours of touring; others are rather more homebodies. This isn’t to say the close-to-home musicians lack ambition or doubt their spheres of influence; they don’t indulge self-deprecation or remove themselves from the world.
No, for the most part, if we are still talking about them, they were good, even exceptional as musicians: they just seem to prefer to work near home. Enter Johann Sebastian Bach!
Study the map: Eisenach, Lüneburg, Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, Weimar, Köthen, Leipzig. These are the cities that highlight Bach’s life, and they don’t define a very large geographical area, hardly as much as Vancouver Island. Even by standards for prime artists in the 18th century, that’s not a lot of movement far a-field.
So, why, you ask, will the VCM’s Johann Sebastian Bach Tour travel to such far-flung destinations as Berlin, Krakow, and Budapest?
In Bach’s lifetime, the cultural life of German-speaking Europe centered on the enlightenment court of the King of Prussia near Berlin, the Elector of Saxony’s court at Dresden, and the Hapsburg court at Vienna.
Early in his career, Bach spent substantial time in Berlin assisting with the purchase, development and maintenance of the harpsichords for his employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. It was here that Bach developed the connections with the Margrave of Brandenburg which ultimately gifted us with the “Brandenburg” Concertos.
As an established musician he returned to the area on several occasions to visit and perform with his son Carl Philipp Emmanuel who was then in the service of Frederick II, The Great, of Prussia. For the King’s court, the older Bach gifted the musician-King with none other than The Musical Offering.
In the decades after Bach’s death, a good number of his students settled in Berlin and prospered from his teachings. By the end of the 1820s the so-called Bach Revival was in full swing having begun with Felix Mendelssohn’s famous performance of St Matthew Passion at Berlin’s Singakademie.
While not necessarily the most illustrious of the great houses, the Saxon court at Dresden was the royal household with which Bach most desired alliance. After much supplication and many proffered compositions – including the first incarnation of the great Mass in b minor – Bach was finally awarded the title Royal Composer to the King of Poland, Elector of Saxony in 1736, a position he held and wore proudly until his death in 1750.
This fact, by turn takes us into Poland.
Clearly the further afield we journey from northern Germany, the more we look for Johann Sebastian in hidden places. With Poland under the same cultural sphere of influence as Dresden, our major contact with Bach is through his primary export: students, well-educated and well-trained musicians all. The cultural centers of Poland – Wrocław (then Breslau), Krakow and Warsaw – bolstered by disciples of Bach, including Johann Gottlieb Goldberg whose name is eponymous upon the “Goldberg” Variations.
Turning further south toward Hungary, we are actually headed in the direction of the Bach Family ancestral home. Johann Sebastian, himself, prepared a family tree in his 50th year and here he notes that his great-great grandfather, a white-bread baker, had to flee the family homeland in Hungary because he was Lutheran.
The area in question was rather closer to today’s Bratislava, but we’ll capitalize on the presence of the Bach family on the Danube River, keep heading south to Budapest; there we’ll pick up Bach’s trail again with that city’s Bach Days in early June and a slate of irresistible baroque concerts.
And so … THAT is how it’s done!
On this second annual Johann Sebastian Bach tour and fundraiser taking place May 24th to June 5, 2018, Dr. Mary Byrne of the Victoria Conservatory of Music will guide lovers of great and beautiful music and history through the heartland of Europe from Berlin to Budapest in search of Bach’s roots, his inspirations, and the essence of some of the most perfect music ever conceived. For more information or to book your spot, call 250-412-1876.