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Bach’s long walk to genius

Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach - Credit: Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach’s trek through Germany to Lubeck is a little known chapter in an extraordinary life. CHARLIE CONNELLY learns more.

One evening in the late summer of 1705 Johann Sebastian Bach was walking across the main square in Arnstadt, Thuringia.

He was 20 and two years into his job as organist at the Neue Kirche. Arnstadt was a small, provincial town with small, provincial attitudes that Bach’s ambitions had already comprehensively outgrown.

Compounding his frustration was the – at least by his standards – poor quality of the musicians at his disposal who as part of his duties he was expected to prepare and rehearse for services and recitals. Indeed, a few days earlier he had become so incensed at the flatulent parping coming from one particular instrument that as part of an angry tirade he described its wielder as ‘ein zippel Faggotist’, a term Horatio Clare translates in Something Of His Art: Walking To Lübeck with JS Bach as ‘a prick of a bassoonist’.

This particular prick of a bassoonist was a young man named Johann Heynrich Geyersbach and the insult, unleashed in front of the musician’s peers, still rankled. The number of drinks he’d just consumed at a christening party served to stoke his ire only further and when he caught sight of Bach crossing the square the combination of resentment and beer combusted into a fiery rage. Egged on by his friends Geyersbach dashed across the cobbles and angrily confronted Bach who, being a man of forthright opinions, may well have reiterated his earlier description of the boozed-up bassoonist’s character and ability. Either way, Geyersbach produced a cudgel – in fairness to Bach definitely the action of a prick – and clouted his nemesis on the side of the head with it. The composer immediately reached for his rapier and an undignified tussle ensued before the two men were separated by passers-by, fortunately without either suffering serious injury.

It’s appropriate that Clare opens his book with this anecdote. For one thing it’s a terrific story (‘prick of a bassoonist’ is a solid gold humdinger of an insult in any century and one I intend to use from now on even for non-bassoonists), for another it immediately gives us an unexpectedly human insight into arguably the greatest composer of all time. Fortunately for his readers human insight is something Clare does very well indeed. Something Of His Art is a bit of a flaccid title for a book of great erudition, concision and depth (not to mention one with a cover so beautiful you’ll want to hang it on your wall).

With rare insight Clare follows the journey Bach made a few months after his brawl with the bassoonist when he took a month’s leave and set out to walk 230 miles north to the free Hanseatic city of Lübeck. There he planned to hear, meet and be inspired by the superstar organist and composer of the day Dieterich Buxtehude, who was pulling in bumper crowds at the city’s Marienkirche for services and the weekly concerts he gave every Sunday evening during Advent.

Long journeys made by the great, the good and the notorious are always neglected by biographers and historians which is a shame as they can often provide the perfect way in to a person’s character and future actions. Granted, there isn’t usually much in the way of documentary detail of such journeys and most biographers decide the destination is the important thing, but the time a long journey, particularly on foot, allows is perfect for reflection and rumination. Walking is good for the mind, a time for processing events and ideas, a time to interact with fellow travellers and a time for developing self-knowledge. Bach’s walk to Lübeck is glossed over in most accounts of the composer’s life, the couple of hundred miles of encounters, landscapes and meditations he experienced between Arsntadt and Lübeck generally meriting no more than a sentence or two. For Clare, however, Bach’s two-week footslog through the north German countryside is crucial to an understanding of the man, his motivations and even his music.

‘Perhaps every long-distance walk is a pilgrimage, whether the walker is a believer or not,’ he writes. ‘The reconnection with ourselves through immersion in the world is inevitably therapeutic and the deeper pleasure comes from a counterpoint: the similarity of each day in their greater rhythms and the diversity of each moment.’

Something Of His Art attempts to restore Bach the human being to his place in the story of Bach the genius. There are few larger figures looming over the cultural history of Europe than the man who gave us the St Matthew Passion, the Brandenburg Concertos and the Cello Suites, the man who even in his dotage 40 years after his Lübeck odyssey could produce A Musical Offering, a range of variations on a fiendishly difficult theme set for him by Frederick the Great of Prussia that some argue is the finest, most intricate and most significant keyboard music ever devised.

If we have an image of Bach at all it’s the 1748 portrait by Elias Haussmann of the composer painted when the sitter was 61 years old. He’s stern, dignified, fearsome and periwigged, his exalted reputation radiating from a canvas that is absolutely not a painting of someone who’d be found at the heart of a drunken brawl in a provincial town. Yet it’s precisely this combination of character aspects that Clare evokes through the prism of his solitary long-distance walk that not only gives us a more-rounded Bach than one would find in a housebrick-thick biography, it also provides a deeply personal evocation of the power of Bach’s music and an entertaining, engaging travel memoir in its own right.

Clare has a gift for phrasing. He spies a nuthatch, ‘impeccably dressed as if for the races in tones of blue-grey and yellow silk’, and when imagining the sounds Bach would have heard en route cites ‘the creak of cartwheel, the tread of horses and the tock of woodcutters’ axes’.

He also successfully resists the conceit of placing himself inside Bach’s head. While the composer is the lifeblood of the book we only see him in occasional glimpses, sitting alone and separate from the crowd in an eating house with a bowl of soup, chatting with his feet up by the fire at the house of a cousin who lived on the route, wrapping his cloak around himself during a shower of rain. At the same time Clare successfully humanises the composer, speculating as to whether he might have felt lonely on the walk and, when Clare goes clubbing with two friends during a stopover in Braunschweig, wondering whether Bach still barely out of his teens would have gone out drinking there too. ‘Perhaps he danced,’ he muses, but wisely takes that thought no further, resisting the compulsion to project himself on to the composer.

Of Bach at Arnstadt he writes, ‘he knows he has talent, perhaps enormous talent, but he cannot yet tell if the world will thwart its fulfilment,’ but that’s as far as speculation ever goes as Clare is not one for making assumptions, preferring to give us glimpses of a young man as vulnerable to loneliness, excitement, wonder at nature, drink and sexual temptation as any other on the road.

Clare evokes Bach’s journey beautifully, a landscape and people still displaying the scars and trauma of the intensely traumatic Thirty Years War that had finished a full half century earlier. He notes that Bach would have been armed against the bandits that inhabited the forests and recounts the differences in the nature he would have seen, at one point pointing out a copse of ancient oak trees that would have been saplings when Bach passed by.

Such historical context is put into sharp focus by Clare’s observations of his own journey, from underpass graffiti relating to the far right AfD and a demonstration against them in Erfurt to the brief encounters one experiences on a long walk, the ‘short friendships of minutes or hours which lighten a moment, an evening, a day’. He evokes the eeriness of the Harz mountains to great effect, where the Eastern Bloc reached its westernmost point and in whose disused mines slave labour built V2 rockets during the Second World War. We even learn that one in three boars in Saxony are still too radioactive to eat more than 30 years after the Chernobyl disaster.

‘The quietly majestic scale of Germany seems to speak of old power and new potential, something expanding and expansive,’ he writes. ‘The houses, gardens and villages, even the individual rooms, of Germany are all bigger than their British equivalents. There is just more space here, and a feeling of freedom within it.’

Clare has read widely and deeply – the book might have benefited from a bibliography, or at least some recommended further reading by the writers and biographers he cites in the text – but his research, aptly for a long journey, is worn lightly. As the journey nears its end on the Salt Road to Lübeck he finally allows himself to come to the fore of the narrative and in a beautiful, heartrending passage we learn why this journey and this composer mean so much to the author.

The Lübeck Bach finds at the end of his journey is a busy, wealthy town where waterways come together to flow out to sea and the world beyond. Within a year of his journey – he would eventually walk back to Arnstadt and brush off all complaints about being away for four months instead of the agreed one – he would be on his way to a better job in Mülhausen. Clare is sorry to leave him and sorry to leave historic Lübeck, a city where once ‘Lüneburg salt and all the spices, silks, tobaccos, wines, fish, metals, skins, furs, cloth, grain and trade goods of the world passed through it’.

We leave Clare and his book with a vision of Bach not of the grim-faced old timer of the Haussmann portrait, but a young man on the road starting out on one of the most extraordinary of European lives, fired with ambition, infused with the self-belief to seek out his hero, the muscles in his legs thrumming and the skin on his face prickling with a day’s sweat as the sun sets and he’s faced with a canopy of stars and a vision of the infinite. The possibilities he saw there were limitless.

As Douglas Adams once put it, ‘Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven, Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human, Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe’.

Something Of His Art: Walking To Lübeck With JS Bach by Horatio Clare is published by Little Toller, price £12.99.

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