At home with Bach in Eisenach | Music | DW | 27.04.2012
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At home with Bach in Eisenach

The town of Eisenach in Thuringia houses the world's first museum dedicated to Johann Sebastian Bach. The institution opened its doors in 1907, welcoming a steady stream of visitors who adore the city's most famous son.

"One of the first exhibition pieces I want to show you is the door from the Thomas School in Leipzig, where Bach served for 27 years as cantor," says museum guide Uwe Fischer during a visit to the Bach House in Eisenach.

"For many visitors, it's important to follow the exact same path that Johann Sebastian Bach once did."

For more than 100 years, visitors have been listening with perked ears as they are led back in time and into Bach's world. The composer, musician and cantor spent the first ten years of his life in the town of Eisenach.

Contrary to what many guests think, though, the world-famous composer was not born in the home they tour.

"20 years after the opening, people discovered in some tax documents that the house where Bach was actually born had already been torn down. It stood 100 meters further," admitted the museum's director Dr. Jörg Hansen.

A horn-violin, Baroque keyboard and other treasures

Uwe Fischer

Uwe Fischer plays a tune for museum guests

Though Bach never lived in the 15th century home, the exhibition does not suffer. Numerous objects, writings, scores and, of course, music instruments ranging from a horn-violin to a glass harmonica have been lovingly collected and arranged. Organizers also recreated Bach's study, bed and living rooms, while an instrument room in the museum allows visitors to dive into the musical world of the 17th century.

The instrument room's supervisor, Uwe Fischer, gives listeners a taste of Bach's works using organ, harpsichord, clavichord or the spinet. Bach had a special affinity for the clavichord, Fischer says, because he considered it the best instrument for learning on as well as for private enjoyment.

"It's an instrument that's not so loud that it disturbs the neighbors," the guide explained, "And at 15 kilos, it's also possible to transport it, and Bach had to practice when he was away from home. It was so to speak the keyboard of the Baroque."

The Bach House takes special pride in its newest acquisition, a 1650 Baroque organ from the German state of Thuringia. Bach House Director Hansen discovered it in the inventory of a Bavarian auction house while surfing the Internet and did all he could to bring the rare piece into the museum's collection. It is the first Thuringian organ owned by the museum.

"The big question is whether Bach would have used this instrument," Hansen said.

Bach House Director Dr. Jörg Hansen

Bach House Director Dr. Jörg Hansen is proud of the new acquisition

"One would almost like to assume so because this organ is definitely from Johann Sebastian Bach's immediate surroundings. It's such a wonderful feeling to have that kind of organ in the museum."

A walk-in work of music

Johann Sebastian Bach also enjoyed an excellent reputation during his lifetime. He worked as a church and court organist, served as an orchestral director and for nearly three decades as cantor of the St. Thomas Choir.

The school's rector at the time, Johann Matthias Gesner, heaped praise on his colleague: "If only you could see Bach - the way both hands and every finger play the harpsichord or the instrument of instruments, whose innumerable pipes come to life thanks to the bellows, and the way he swiftly glides with both hands here then with both feet there, the way in which rhythm lives in every part of his body!"

Bach left those who would come after him work of inexhaustible dimensions, and people around the world love his chorales, organ works and especially the "St. Matthew Passion." The Bach House is keeping up with the composer's enduring reputation, adding a modern annex that attests to Bach's relevance.

The new annex includes a 'walk-in work of music.' Guests can enter a dark room in which a film on a musical subject is projected on to a 180-degree screen as organ music by Bach plays in the background.

A Bach renaissance

A plastic model of what Bach might have looked like

Simply dashing: a reconstruction at the museum depicts Bach

The latest blockbuster on view in the annex is the Matthew Passion, directed by ECHO prize-winner Christoph Spering, who presents Felix Mendelssohn's adaptation of the well-known work. In 1829, a 20-year-old Mendelssohn offered his interpretation of the oratorio to an audience that included the Prussian king and his court, philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, poet Heinrich Heine and other illustrious contemporaries. The performance ushered in a Bach renaissance.

"The newly awakened interest in Bach's music, but also the fact that Bach came to national prominence so that he would ultimately be celebrated as 'the' German composer and genius: that can be traced back to this event in Berlin," said the Bach House director.

In God's honor

Martin Luther's songbook

Luther crafted the first book of hymns in German

"In devotional music, God is always present with his grace" was a slogan of Bach's. The composer was a believer but no saint, as visitors to the Bach House learn. He was known to have hit one of his pupils and to have landed in jail for being stubborn and obstreperous toward his superiors. But when he composed, he forgot the world around him and created works for the sake of honoring God.

So it is no wonder that the avowed Protestant offered a musical memorial to reformer Martin Luther, who himself wrote numerous songs for the church. It is thanks to Luther that the first German hymnal appeared, and Bach scored the chorales in his own way. A current exhibition in the Bach House brings listeners closer to those works.

"You have to have a seat, take the headphones and hum along - it's the wonderful music that brings people here," Hansen said with a smile.

Author: Suzanne Cords / gsw
Editor: Rick Fulker

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