By Linda de Vries
On this date in 1700 Sebastian and his young friend Georg Erdmann left Ohrdruf to enroll in St. Michael’s school in Lüneburg.
Our Bach Bagatelle for today is: Bach in the North.
There are, however, two other important events that occurred on this date that we should mention.
A Mighty Fortress
The Diet of Speyer (Spires) opened on March 15, 1529, with one of its purposes being to address the division caused by Martin Luther. The protestant delegates issued a “Letter of Protestation” on April 20th. On April 24th the Diet concluded with a reaffirmation of the Edict of Worms, prohibiting further reformation. On April 25th the reformers issued another complaint against this decision. This protestation is considered the birth of Protestantism.
Although there are several theories regarding its date of composition, one theory is that at the opening of the Diet on March 15, Luther and his fellow reformers entered singing his hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
Ein feste Burg
An alternative date is possible, but many say that on March 15, 1716 Sebastian’s BWV 80a was first performed. This is an early version of Ein feste Burg, his harmonization of Luther’s hymn.
For more on this cantata, please see Conductor’s Notes, by Stephen Gothold, posted March 15, 2014 on this blog.
Bach in the North
After the death of both his mother and father at age nine, Sebastian went to live, as was the custom, with his eldest brother, Johann Christoph, organist at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf and a former student of Pachelbel.
Pachelbel represented the South German organ school, whereas Lüneburg was the center of North German music. Even though Johann Christoph was a student of Pachelbel, scholars believe he encouraged his brother to go north to school. Sebastian was the first Bach to move out of their ancestral territory. While in Lüneburg Sebastian encountered several people who strongly influenced his development.
We should note that this was his sole formal education. Many musicians of his era were university graduates, but Sebastian’s poverty prevented this. He was a scholarship student in Lüneburg, having secured his place owing to his fine soprano voice. The story told is that Sebastian and Georg walked the 180 miles north, hitching rides on carts and river barges along the way. He was 15 years old.
While in Lüneburg he studied organ with Georg Böhm, who introduced him to the great organ traditions of Hamburg.
Böhm was born in 1661 in Hohenkirchen, Thuringia, and studied with Johann Heinrich Hildebrand, Cantor at Ohrdruf, who had studied with two distant Bach relatives of Sebastian. He attended the Gymnasium at Gotha, where he was also taught by Cantors who studied with the same two Bachs. In 1684 Böhm entered the University of Jena. There is little information about him until he appears again in Hamburg.
Secular music in Hamburg introduced him to French and Italian opera, while in the realm of sacred music he listened to Johann Adam Reincken, organist at St. Katharine’s Church and one of the leading keyboard players of his time. He could also have visited Lübeck to hear Dieterich Buxtehude.
In 1698 Böhm became the organist at the Church of St. John in Lüneburg. There is no strong evidence that Sebastian actually studied with Böhm, and it seems unlikely given that the two schools, St. Michael’s and St. John’,s were in constant conflict. On the other hand, C.P.E. Bach reported to Sebastian’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, that his father loved and studied Böhm’s music.
Böhm was noted for a style of playing based on improvisation, called stylus phantasticus. His most important contribution to North German music was the chorale partita, a composition consisting of variations on a single melody, with sophisticated use of several voices over the harmonic structure. Sebastian followed his model in writing partitas.
Johann Adam Reincken (1643-1722), born in the Netherlands but transplanted to Germany, was one of the most important German composers of the 17th century, and a major influence on both Böhm and Sebastian.
Reincken began his study of music in Deventer, but in 1654 departed for Hamburg to study with Heinrich Scheidemann, organist at St. Katharine’s Church. After a year back in Deventer, he returned to Hamburg as assistant and then successor to Scheidemann, even marrying one of Scheidemann’s daughters.
(It appears to have been the custom at the time to marry the cantor’s daughter when you succeeded to his position. Sebastian faced the same choice with Buxtehude’s daughter.)
Reincken was lauded as one of the greatest organists in Germany, and was a close friend of Buxtehude. Bach biographer Christoph Wolff writes of the meeting between Reincken and Sebastian: after Sebastian improvised at length on the Lutheran chorale An Wasserflüssen Babylon, an homage to Reincken’s fantasia on the same chorale, Reincken said, “I thought that this art was dead, but I see that it lives in you.”
Wolff also reports that on the same 1722 visit to Hamburg, Sebastian performed his organ fugue BWV 542, based on a popular Dutch song, in honor of Reincken, and went on to arrange three more works of Reincken: BWV 954, 965, and 966. Sadly, few of Reincken’s works survive.
On August 31, 2006, the earliest known manuscript in Sebastian’s handwriting was discovered in Weimar. It is the same fantasia, signed “Il Fine â Dom. Georg Böhme descriptum ao. 1700 Lunaburgi.” “Dom” may refer to domus (house) or dominus (master), but it proves that Sebastian knew Böhm well and had deep respect for Reincken. In 1727 Sebastian also appointed Böhm his northern agent for the sale of two of his partitas.
In Lüneberg Sebastian also met Franz Joachim Burmeister. Burmeister was born, lived, and died in Lüneberg, surviving only 39 years, but his influence was profound. His early 17th century treatise was the first to explore the connection between rhetoric and music, a central theme in Baroque musical style. Burmeister wrote the chorale text for Es ist genug, which Sebastian set to music as his BWV 60. In the 20th century, Alban Berg used Sebastian’s setting in his oft-played Violin Concerto.