Bach Today In East Germany

by Rosalyn Tureck

[Late 50s - Early 60s]

From the Rosalyn Tureck Collection,
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

Last June I made a pilgrimage to the main cities where Bach had lived and worked, all of which are now in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. This tour was devoted exclusively to research — I did not play any concerts but devoted my time to study in libraries and museums, and checking manuscripts pertaining to Bach.

As I have long studied historical sources and read as many early and recent Bach publications as possible, I was eager to visit the Bach sites personally and to see for myself what remained of his time particularly since the last war. Also, I thought it just night be possible to feel with the senses and spirit some intangible point of contact despite the two centuries of cataclysmic political upheavals and wars since Bach's death in 1750. An evanescent quality might still hover in the imponderable atmosphere, emerging like a ghost to communicate in some way its life spirit to the objective receptivity that I was bringing to my study.

I knew that much was lost and destroyed and found this to be so. Yet the actual pilgrimage yielded results rich beyond any illusory anticipation. No historical sources can ever convey the vivid reality which forces itself upon the person who is sympathetically receptive to what he sees. To walk in the very streets that Bach walked, to see the original documents pertaining to his life, to stand in the rooms into which he came, to be and play in the churches in which he worked and performed, dispels all remoteness of time, and establishes a contact which can never be experienced otherwise.

I had the great good fortune to receive the full co-operation of the Deutsche Akademie der Kunst (an institute equivalent to the French L'Academie Francaise) to which I was introduced through the good offices of Mr. Alan Bush, the English composer. The Deutsche Akademie assigned one of their members, Professor Eichler to my particular quest. He was kind enough to notify the Director of every Museum and Library in the cities which I intended to visit of my coming arrival and of the matters in which I wags interested. In all these cities the Directors had organised their days to show to me all of the sites and documents which were to be found in the town or in the town museum and churches. They also arranged for the Church organist to be on hand to perform for me on old or interesting new organs, and for me to play and inspect their mechanisms. All instruments in collections and museums were made available for me to study and play. In short, I could not have wished for more hospitable or sympathetic treatment.

As a general result of my work I found that at the present time, fresh vigour is being applied to the restoration and preservation of all sites and material pertaining to Bach. After 100 years of research with the spotlight placed upon Bach by scholars, performers and public awareness, such fresh work is only now recently completed or in process of being planned or finished. New museums, or new rooms are being built to properly house the varied possessions of each town. Epics of personal fervour in pursuit of a concrete establishment to Bach's memory are of very recent date and some even recently unresolved. But in all towns where work was completed or on the war, it was done well and in good taste.

My tour was planned for convenience in travelling. Therefore it happened to be chronologically in reverse to Bach's geographical movements, but obviously this did not matter. I began in East Berlin because of the excellent Staatsbibliothek. The music section of this library owns half the extent Bach manuscripts, and it is truly a treasure house. Dr. Karl Heins Kohler, Director of the museum, is a musicologist and a violinist. As director he has no problems of initiation. The Library is well established, its organisation runs smoothly, and the research room is a very pleasant and quiet place in which to work. Incidentally, a curious situation exists regarding the complete Berlin collection of Bach manuscripts. Before the second world war, the entire collection was housed in the Staatsbibliothek, but during the war many of the manuscripts were sent away to the University of Göttingen for safekeeping; afterwards, with the division of Germany, Göttingen was contained in the West and the Staatsbibliothek in the East. The result is that these manuscripts have never been returned. However, according to a mutual agreement they are still the property of the Berlin State Library of the DDR, although they remain housed in the Library of Göttingen University in east Germany.

We travelled by car through the DDR driven by a superb chauffeur, and accompanied by an official translator who, us it turned out, acted more as cheerful secretary, travel agent, personal maid, and general assistant, for I required little English translation. Starting with East Berlin, my planned itinerary included Potsdam, Cöthen, Leipzig, Weimar, Ohrdruf, Arnstadt, Eisenach, and Mühlhausen, in that order. However, on the way having heard of interesting Silberman organs in the vicinity of Leipzig I made side trips to the tiny villages of Störmthal and Rotha, where I played and listened to three different Silbermann organs and later to Dornheim, the scene of Bach's first marriage.

The first two towns visited outside of East Berlin, Potsdam and Cöthen, produced very little. In Potsdam nothing tangible remains of Bach's visit to Frederick II. The castle in which Bach performed [[cut marked in RT's hand] in his dusty travelling suit because Frederick was so impatient to see him that be had no time to change,] is totally destroyed. This castle where Bach performed with great triumph, where the theme of the 'Musical Offering' was created, and where Bach tried a number of Silbermann pianos is, then, gone for ever. I saw only the situation where the castle had been. It is now an unattractive area in the centre of an industrial section of the town.

Sans Souci still stands however, in a beautiful park outside the town. Although Bach never visited this little summer place, I found great pleasure in the finesse of taste which it represents in the exterior and in the individual rooms. This has a bearing on Frederick but little on Bach. On the other hand the New Palace nearby, built mainly for state occasions is a horror of architecture and interior decoration and I was pleased to think that Bach was never there. In fact, the few royal houses with which Bach had personal contact were beautiful and refined according to our knowledge and borne out by those I myself saw.

Cöthen too was a great disappointment. But it was also a very moving experience because of the story which Herr Z. Bär, the director of the Heimat Museum, had to tell. The original rooms of the Castle where Bach was employed are not preserved, and nothing of him is left anywhere. Two original wings still stand the impressive gate is still there, and the area of the courtyard is presumably unaltered. It was not a very large castle, but one can see that it had great charm. Now put to use as [a children's] an elementary school, it is pleasant to see the children playing in this courtyard where the atmosphere is heavy with the nostalgia of past elegance. A few isolated trees stand hero and there but no attempt is made to create a modern replica of the past.

This is the story that Herr Bär had to tell. As nothing was being done about preserving any [inserted by RT: interior] part of the castle, he decided to save at least one room in it as a tribute to Bach's memory. His aim focussed on retrieving the room which he believes to have been the chapel. From the architecture and the interior structure that we can see now, it appears to me to be the right room, the vaulted ceiling and the small door in the back wall for the entry of the Royal Family being typical features. It was here that Bach, appointed Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold in August 1717, would have conducted his orchestra. The chapel fell into disuse and at one time had a second floor built into it. Then it became a rubbish room and remained so for many years. When Herr Bar decided to renovate it he encountered opposition from the town council, but with patience and effort he finally gained their consent, though not their support. He said to me "I was ashamed that Cöthen, so important a town and period in Bach's life and work, should have nothing to show to his memory". He went to work, removed the second storey, and saw to the cleaning and decorating of the room which sea painted white. On seeing the completed room the council was so pleased that they decided to take it over for various town offices. Thus Herr Bar had another fight on his hands. But he finally won and since about two years ago has had full control, presenting concerts and small art exhibitions there. Today, the room has a raised platform floor at one end, [edited out] and it seats about 150 to 200 people. At the time of my visit only one grand piano of questionable appearance stood on one end of the platform. No splendour, and no decoration, but a dignified and quiet simplicity is the keynote here. In addition, Herr Bar is now in the midst of constructing a new section in the town museum which will be devoted to a few remaining architectural fragments from Bach's time.

We were shown through the St. Agnuskirche in Cöthen with great pride by the pastor. The only things of interest and beauty were the entries in the old church books relating to Bach's personal and social life. It was in this church that Bach was godfather to several of his friends' children. These people's professions were entered into the books too. They were goldsmiths and master craftsmen from a good type of bourgeois people who apparently were excellent in a secondary art medium. Today, Cöthen itself is a charming sleepy town and appears not to have changed very much since the 18th century. it seems also to have escaped injury from bombing.

Leipzig is the most rewarding in connection with Bach. In this city three main events attest to the restoration of Bach's memory since the second world war — the Bach Archiv, the Bach sarcophagus in the Thomaskirche and the redecoration of the Thomaskirche. The most dramatic success of all has been achieved through the efforts of the famous musicologist, Dr. Werner Neumann. He decided to make an international centre for Bach which would be a permanent archive, housing not only its own manuscripts and documents but also a complete catalogue of material in major libraries throughout the world. His interest is not only historical, however. He keeps up to date with current events pertaining to Bach. For instance, towards the end of my first day with him at the Archive, he played me a record in the latest "jazzed-up Bach" style, made recently in Paris. I found it rather delightful that the one record that i heard here was this most recent acquisition, for it produced quite an unexpected sound in the hushed 13th century atmosphere of the Bacharchiv. Unfortunately the record, entitled "Play Bach", consists of excruciatingly inapt performances of the more popular keyboard works, such as the Italian Concerto, incompetently performed and childishly jazzed up. I doubt that it is worth making Bach a household name at this price. At any rate the record is included in the Archive as an historical fact, and would make no doubt en excellent subject for a Doctoral thesis in 2050 on the popular taste of 1964.

Dr. Neumann is not a Leipziger himself, but has lived there for many years. His ideal wish would have been to have the Archive in the house in which Bach lived, which was actually the Thomasschule building, but this was destroyed in 1902. The sole recognition given to Bach at that time was a plaque placed outside noting that Bach had lived there. According to Dr. Neumann, the tradition is that Bach lived on the third floor and did all his composing on the second. He pointed out to me the window in the engraving, the third from the left, as belonging to the room in which Bach composed. In answer to my questions as to whether any records exist upon which this information was based, he replied "this knowledge is traditional". He spoke with great joy of the one tangible relic which he knew to be still in existence — the wooden door frame of the entrance to the Thomasschule. As I remember Dr. Neumann said that this door frame is now placed in a private house, and although he does not have it for the Archive, he knows that at least it is preserved.

After much searching for headquarters he found an exquisite house, the Gohliser Schlösschen, which in itself has nothing to do with Bach but which is eminently suited to Dr. Neumann's requirements. It is situated in Renckersrasse, in a quiet section of the city outside the bustle of Leipzig's busy centre. To arrange for the allocation of the Schlösschen as a permanent Bacharchiv required great effort, but he finally succeeded. Documents and portraits are beautifully displayed here and rooms for work are quiet and well furnished. Although this Archive owns mostly Cantata manuscripts, microfilms and photostats of manuscripts in other collections are available. A card catalogue of Bach material in other collections is kept as complete and up-to-date as possible. Programmes of interesting Bach performances, records, journals, etc., are displayed here too.

Leipzig is justly proud of the Thomaskirche, where Bach was Cantor for twenty two years. The church was redecorated last year and is in beautiful condition. Since 1949, the treasure of Bach's skeleton has been added and the sarcophagus, covered with a simple bronze plaque, lies directly in front of the altar. The story of Bach's final resting place is en epic in itself. Whether or not these, bones are really Bach's can never be absolutely ascertained. We do know that among three graves which were dug up in the Johanneskirche cemetery in Leipzig in 1894, two male skeletons and one female skeleton were found, and we also know that there are good reasons for believing that one of the two male skeletons may have been that of Johann Sebastian. After much study one of these was selected and placed in a vault in the Johanneskirche in 1898. Despite no final certainty of identification, the symbolic act of reinterrment is important and moving. However, it was not until 1949 that Leipzig paid full homage to its greatest Cantor by giving his bones their appropriate resting place in the Thomaskirche.

The Thomaskirche choir maintains a high standard. Weekly cantata performances are given in the church on Saturday afternoons, I heard one of these and was delighted with the quality of the singing. I also attended a Sunday morning service the following day which was performed in a beautiful and dignified style. On both occasions there was a very large and very reverent congregation of people of all ages. One could feel a living feeling of pride and joy in the Thomaskirche, for the church has a deep significance in the minds of the people today in its connection with Bach; perhaps, I thought, deeper than ever.

Weimar is wonderfully beautiful and almost totally frustrating, for nothing tangible is left pertaining to Bach. On our arrival at the Elephant Hotel we were informed that the restaurant in the Park Hotel next door was known as the Bach Zimmer. We went there immediately for lunch in anticipation of seeing this so-called Bach room. Total disappointment. The ordinary country dining room showed no signs of any connections with Bach.

Next to the Park Hotel stands a small one-storey building, on which a plaque has been placed saying "This is where Bach lived and where Carl Philip Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedmann were born". The house is, of course, not the original one. One is also told that Bach lived in another house as well, in a certain area, in certain street. There is no assurance whatsoever on any of these points and after a while I found myself wearying of so much conjecture. The Schloss Wilhelmsburg where Bach was employed and may have lived, was burnt on May 6th, 1774. Nothing remains, in the Heimat museum there are no mementos of Bach. However two watercolour maps painted by Johann Augustus Loris in 1837, enthralled me. They showed the old castle in which Bach had been employed. One depicts the castle as it was, with index numbers listing the identification of each section of the castle according to the royal inhabitants and general offices. The other is drawn almost identically, but this shows the castle on fire with the firemen, the fire truck, and the water hose being turned on the burning building.

The energy of the town goes into the celebration of Goethe, and it appears doubtful that any authentic remains of Bach will ever be found there. However, a very energetic man of Weimar is Professor Johannes-Ernst Kohler, the organist of the Herderkirche and a teacher at the Liszthochschule, the music conservatory. A Bach Festival is planned for September. The inauguration of the new organ in the Herderkirche took piece with three recitals played by Professor Kohler on August 23, 26, 29. Walther was the organist there at the time of Bach and as his friend Bach very likely practised in this church.

A touching incident was the account by Professor Kohler of the bells in the tower of the Herderkirche. Thirty people are required to work them. Now they are silent because there are no funds, and it was Professor Kohler's hope to find money so that they may sound again. meanwhile, he said, a small set of new bells was being rung which have no quality at all and he cannot bear to think that the beautiful old bells may remain silent, perhaps forever. His great hope was to open this year's Bach Festival with the sound of the old balls and although he might just manage the funds for this year, there were so many other financial problems due to the lack of good instruments, that he was at his wit's end as to what to do. When I asked him how much money was required for ringing the bells at the opening of the Festival, he answered "one hundred marks". I then made him a present of this amount, saying "This is to guarantee the bell ringing at the beginning of your Festival". He couldn't believe his good fortune and as a result of his delight, promised to record the bell ringing on tape and to send me a copy so that I may hear them.

The remaining cities covered Bach's childhood and growing steps to maturity. Bach spent five years of his childhood in Ohrdruf. but there is little of any value in the Town Museum. I did however make a copy of the original manuscript of the autobiography of Bach's brother Johann Christoph which is in the museum's possession. The Schloss Ohrenstein is in a state of near ruin and there is no indication of steps being taken for its restoration. Here in the old castle the director of the Heimat Museum Dr. Julius Bottcher gave me ten old maps of great interest which had been prepared for the Bach bicentenary in 1950.

Arnstadt is one of the most exciting cities to visit in connection with Bach, because it has remained almost intact and unchanged since his time. Also, many sites directly connected with Bach are still there, visible and tangible. There is the Golden Crown, the Inn where the Bach family gathered and sang their famous quodlibets. Bach may also have lodged here. The covered arcade across the road from the Bonifaciuskirche where Bach was employed as organist appears to be totally unchanged. It still has its old shops, with one notable apothecary shop which could have come straight out of the 18th century. Diagonally across from the church near the arcade is the spot where Bach fought the famous duel in his ardent youth. Houses in which several branches of the each family lived during Johann Sebastian's time, still stand unchanged, and still inhabited.

Altogether, exercise of imagination is unnecessary in Arnstadt. Most of the streets, the squares and the houses are unchanged, and if changed the modifications are slight. The town is immaculately clean and preserved in perfect condition. In contrast with quiet Cöthen, Arnstadt is lively and trim within its early setting and there is no sense of conflict between the past and the present. Arnstadt has paid tribute to Bach by changing the nave of the Bonifaciuskirche, where Bach was employed between 1703 and 1707, to Johann Sebastian Bach Kirche.

The Bacharchiv at the Heimat museum in Arnstadt owns several interesting documents. These are housed in safes in a dark room in the old museum building. Furniture consists of an old office desk, a large round table and several depressing looking chairs. But changes are being made for the better. Herr Leber, recently appointed director of the Heimat Museum, is a young energetic man. He has succeeded in retrieving a small house which will become the Arnstadt Bach Museum. The house is in the grounds of a churchyard where it is believed many of the Bach family are buried, although no one knows who or in what spots. Now, the old churchyard is simply a green lawn with a few trees. There are no markings. Would excavations be in order, or shall we leave the dead to rest? I had a sudden wish that eastern Europe had retained the Viking practice of burying the dead's possessions with the corpse for this might have been a way of identifying the graves. As it is, there is no point in investigating these graves for alas, the skeletons of the Bach family will in themselves yield no information.

When Herr Leber brought me to this house it was difficult to say whether there were two or three rooms, for at the time of my visit the area, still in the process of being built, was filled with construction materials. It was Herr Leber's hope that the rooms would be ready in time for the Weimar Bach Festival for one performance will take place in Arnstadt. The great treasure in this little museum is the original organ Tafel which Bach actually played during his employment at Bonifaciuskirche. This is the only instrument left which we know with certainty that Bach played, However, although the keyboard, stops and pedal are intact, no pipes remain. Yet I experienced a breath-taking joy in playing on this silent keyboard. With no sense of sentimentality, the thought and emotion which I felt with my fingers on the same keys that Bach touched provided me with the greatest personal experience of contact of all that East Germany offered. This Tafel will have its permanent home in the little museum where it already stood prior to the museum's completion. It was more moving to come upon it in this way, surrounded by plaster, buckets and lumber than to see it in a shiny glass-enclosed case or housed in the artificial, deadening corridors of a huge museum.

From Arnstadt I travelled to Dornheim, five kilometres away, to pay my respects to the charming little church where Bach married his first wife, Maria Barbara. Travelling through beautiful countryside we passed a few rows of cottages and stopped in front of a large farm store-house. Behind this the church stands, small, simple, unassuming. The garden space contained only weeds and a few clumps of wild grass around the rather dirty area in front of the entrance. Inside, the building was in a sorry state but preparations are being made for its repair. The floor was hardly passable due to the piles of construction materials and lumber. The interior is very simple. At the moment however, the pulpit placed high above the altar has an astonishing appearance due to its bright purple curtain. The effect is theatrical, or rather that of a circus or a punch and judy show, where one expects a clown to pop out from behind the curtain. Presumably this will be removed with the restoration of the interior. This little country church was still another symbol of the fresh interest in reviving and sustaining the memory of Bach. It will be restored to a respectable condition in its appropriate setting.

Eisenach has the same status in relation to Bach that Stratford-on-Avon has in relation to Shakespeare.. The Bachhaus is a charming old building. It is traditionally believed that the house belonged to Ambrosius the father, and that Johann Sebastian was born there. The room of his birth and the very cradle are identified, and every room has its designation and identification, There are various objects of simple furniture in the rooms which provide a period atmosphere although they cannot be authentically identified as coming from the Bach household. The ground floor contains quite a large room with a charming and generally interesting collection of instruments. Again, none of them are authenticated as Bach's own instruments, although it is said that a viola pomposa and a viola da gamba were Bach's own. A fairly large room on the second storey houses many engravings, a few manuscripts, some very interesting old maps and fascinating old books which are supposedly those which Johann Sebastian studied as a child. One of the books has its index in Bach's hand.

This house is a National Shrine and hour after hour one sees groups of visitors being shown through on a guided tour. The square near the house is filled with the parked buses which have brought them. The guide takes one through the rooms with all the definition and assurance that one finds at Stratford, yet all scholars know that nothing here is certain. It may indeed be that this was the house that Bach was born in; it is the appropriate type, unpretentious and simple. At the present the house is decked out with charming little flower gardens and appears quaint and picturesque. Herr Conrad Freyse, the director of the museum for forty years had died only two weeks before my visit. His widow was a charming but very sad woman. Her fate reminded me of that of Anna Magdalena Bach, because within a few weeks a committee was to meet and decide upon a new Director. This meant that she must give up her home and she was not sure where she would go.

I visited the Georgenkirche, where Bach was baptised. A fine tribute to his memory is hie seal which has been worked into the left section of the iron gate at the entrance to the church and into the centre tier of the organ loft. Bach's childhood school still stands. Today it is a teachers' training school. The streets are still winding and the small leaning buildings evoke an image of what the young Sebastian must have seen in his surroundings as he walked to school each day.

Eisenach has become a resort town, [...] because of [...] the beauty of the landscape and [...] the famous Wartburg Castle. The Bachhaus benefits from this situation. The castle is set on the highest of the great hills which surround the town. Dense forest and beautiful walks still remain on every side of the castle. Combined with its long and romantic history with its associations with the Minnesingers, Tannhäuser and Elisabeth and later, [Martin] Luther, an atmosphere of nostalgia and romance is inescapable. Luther's room, in which he re-wrote the Bible is carefully preserved, as is indeed the whole castle. Surely this background of fact and spirit connected with Luther and music must have impressed itself deeply into the personality of the young Bach. One cannot spend tine in Eisenach without being constantly aware of the presence of the legendary castle on the heights above, more impressive because its romance is based on fact.

Mühlhausen has a very proud history, having been a free town from 1300 till 1802. This city had the added good fortune of not having lost its finest buildings in the last war. The organist Professor Heinz Sawade, was waiting for us in the beautiful Marienkirche where the young Bach was employed as organist for a year, 1707-1708. we examined the organ very carefully both inside and out. At my request he also played each stop separately. This instrument is particularly interesting because it was built in 1958/59, according to Bach's own plan for the disposition of the organ. As a mechanical, not electric, organ, it is very successful and Mühlhausen is justly proud of the instrument.

The Bacharchiv of this city is housed in a distinguished old Town Hall, the collection itself being contained in a vaulted cellar below the ground floor. This cellar became a library in 1600 and has remained so ever since. It is maintained in beautiful condition. The walls are whitewashed and the old tradition is maintained of painting the categories of the documents on the curves of each vault section. Besides the organ at church, which is a recent acquisition, there is no need in Mühlhausen to create a Bach museum. Everything is there.

Having spent over two weeks moving from town to town, we drove back to Berlin from Mühlhausen, our last stop, in four and a half hours. Except for a few trips in his youth,Bach had spent most of his life within this small area yet the universality of his genius had not been constrained by a provincial life. His powers developed with comparatively little contact with a cosmopolitan world such as Handel knew in London. Within a confined geographical area and a strictly ordered life, Bach grew quickly to creative heights and remained there. And today, after two centuries of change. Bach is still the composer to whom the adjective "universal" most applies.

As I think back over the tour I recall Arnstadt's original charm, Muhihausen's dignity, Weimar's beauty, and Leipzig's diversity — these are outstanding memories of places. The Bach Tafel, the Thomaskirche for sheer emotional experience, the Staatsbibliothek in East Berlin and the Bacharchiv in Leipzig for intellectual pleasure and study — these are peaks in a total experience which combined every aspect of study, art, and personal identification.