By Linda de Vries
On March 3, 1726 Sebastian performed the cantata Ja mir hast du Arbeit gemacht (“Yes, you made me work”) in Leipzig. It was composed by his second cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach.
This event provides our Bach Bagetelle for this date: Bach and the Band, or, The Astounding State.
Johann Ludwig was born in Thal, a town in the state of Thuringia, Germany, in 1677. At the age of 22 he moved to Meiningen, where he became Capellmeister, known as the “Meiningen Bach.” He died there in 1731. Ludwig was only one of the many Bachs who worked as musicians in the state of Thuringia (Thüringen).
There are, however, even more astonishing facts about this tiny corner of the world. Thuringia, located in the center of the country, is about 6,200 square miles in size, and today has a population of a little over two million, making it the sixth smallest by area and the fifth smallest by population of Germany’s states. It was even smaller in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, but produced a mind-boggling number of major musicians and writers.
Is it something in the water? What explains this astounding state? Here are the facts. Its climate is temperate, but it is Germany’s driest state, and is Germany’s only state without connection to navigable waterways. It is heavily forested and has come to be called the “green heart of Germany.”
It was founded by the Thuringii tribe. The origin of these people is not completely known, but they are first mentioned in history around 400 CE. During the middle ages it was on the border between the Germanic and Slavic territories, which led to the assimilation of Slavic people under German rule during the 11th to 13th centuries. The first towns emerged during the 12th century.
In the 15th century it came under the control of the Ernestine branch of the Wettin dynasty and was divided into a number of smaller states, according to the Saxon custom of dividing an inheritance among male heirs. These were the “Saxon duchies” of Saxe-Wiemar, Saxe-Eisenach, Saxe-Jena, Saxe-Meiningen, Saxe-Altenburg, Saxe-Coburg, and Saxe-Gotha.
In the 16th century it was the birthplace of Martin Luther, thus the home and heart of the Protestant Reformation and Lutheranism.
Population growth increased during the 18th century and remained high until World War I. It was for centuries a major European trading center and drew vacationing aristocracy from far and near. It is known for winter sports, and over the past 20 years more than half of Germany’s gold-medal Olympic athletes have come from Thuringia.
It was in the Soviet Occupation Zone during the Cold War and has been open to the West only since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990. Today the cities are small, most around 10,000 people, with the largest being 30,000.
It boasts four universities, University of Erfurt—founded 1392, University of Jena—founded 1558, Bauhaus University Weimar—founded 1860, and Technical University—founded 1894. In the 19th century Friedrich Fröbel founded the world’s first Kindergartens in the 19th century.
Its major cities are Jena, Erfurt, Weimar, Mühlhausen, Halle, Eisenach, Arnstadt, Gotha, Nordhausen, and Thal.
Who were all these famous figures who came from Thuringia?
First, the members of the Bach family—Johann Sebastian’s grandfather, father, uncles, cousins, wives, children, and grandchildren were all musicians in the state of Thuringia.
“Bach and the Band” refers to other noted composers who worked in Thuringia who were his colleagues in music: Johann Pachelbel, who worked at Eisenach and Erfurt and Georg Philipp Telemann worked in Eisenach and Leipzig. We also need to recognize the famous organ builders, Zacharias Hildebrandt and Gottfried Silbermann.
Topping the lot was Georg Frideric Handel, who was born in the Thuringian city of Halle. Although Handel and J.S. Bach never met, these two giants of their time, born in the same year, 131 miles apart measuring the road through Jena and Leipzig, were profoundly aware of each other’s music. They attempted to meet on at least two occasions, but timing did not permit. Nevertheless, Handel and Sebastian’s youngest son came to know one another well—in London.
The miracle of Thuringia does not, however, stop with music or with the 18th century. The great poets Goethe and Schiller lived at Weimar and worked at the University of Jena. Ludwig von Beethoven was born in Thuringia, as were Robert Schumann and Richard Wagner. Lastly, in the 20th century we find the artists of the Bauhaus, who so profoundly changed the art world.
We will meet some of these towering figures again as this series progresses.