By Linda de Vries
Folks were very active in Sebastian’s little corner of the world on this day, activity spanning three centuries.
First, we return to Martin Luther. On this date in 1508 he received his Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies from the newly-founded University of Wittenberg, the center of the Protestant Reformation and the university attended by the fictional characters Hamlet, Horatio (William Shakespeare), and Dr. Faustus (Christopher Marlowe).
In 1522 Luther left sanctuary in Wartburg Castle and secretly returned to Wittenberg, where on this date he began preaching a series of eight sermons defining Lutheran values and calling for non-violent protest in attempting to reform the Church.
Leaping across time, we note that Georg Frideric Handel was born in Halle on this date in 1685, and Johann Pachelbel was buried in St. Rochus Cemetery in Nuremberg.
Last but not least, Sebastian Bach was appointed organist at St. Blasius Church in Mühlhausen on this date, and it is this event which is the source of our Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach and the Organ.
This church, built as a Catholic church in the medieval period, was dedicated to St. Blaise. When it became a Lutheran church after the Reformation, it became known as Divi-Blasii-Kirche, meaning “the church of Blaise the Divine.”
Since today in 2014 is a Sunday, it seems proper to note that Sebastian auditioned on Easter Sunday in 1707, was hired, and immediately left Arnstadt with his soon-to-be first wife.
He remained in Mühlhausen for only a year, but there he cemented his reputation as an organ specialist and identified himself even more strongly with the North German organ school.
Remember, his first influence, through his eldest brother, had been Johann Pachelbel of the South German tradition.
In 1705 while in Arnstadt, however, Sebastian had asked for leave from his employers to visit the Danish-born organist and composer, Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) at St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck.
Sebastian walked (or so it’s said) 250 miles north to hear Buxtehude play and “to comprehend one thing and another about his art.”
Sebastian overstayed his leave, though, perhaps to hear Buxtehude’s Abendmusik (“Evening Music”), a series of concerts played Sundays during Advent, the season leading up to Christmas. Music was forbidden in morning service during this part of the liturgical year, so it had become the custom to play a large concert following the afternoon service.
The elderly Buxtehude was one of the preeminent practitioners of the North German organ style, with its highly ornamented melody. You may hear it in, among other works, his chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, one of Martin Luther’s hymns that Sebastian later harmonized as well. You may hear the latter version sung by Chorale Bel Canto as part of the Whittier Bach Festival on April 5, 2014.
During his lifetime Sebastian was known as an organ virtuoso, not as a composer. An organ virtuoso needed to be an expert at improvisation. Only the amateur was provided written music. The complex North German style allowed for very imaginative playing.
The St. Blaise organ was built by the widely respected J.F. Wender, who with Sebastian was invited to consult on its restoration, a task he completed in 1709. Unfortunately, that instrument has not survived as built. The St. Blaise organ was rebuilt in 1959 according to Sebastian’s specifications and under the supervision of the famous Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a leader of the organ reform movement.
Later, Sebastian recommended his son Johann Gottfried Bernhard for the position of organist there, a position Bernhard occupied from 1735-1737.
If you’d like more information, take a look at The Organs of J.S. Bach: A Handbook, written by noted Bach scholar Christoph Wolff and published just last year. Wolff states: “The opening of Thuringia and Saxony through the fall of the Socialist government, the reunification of Germany in 1990, and the recent enlightened restorations of many surviving instruments” have again made the Bach organs available to the world of scholars and musicians. Wolff includes numerous pictures of these gorgeous instruments, as well as all the extant evaluation reports written by Sebastian.