I wish to hail a new book called Exploring the World of J. S. Bach: A Traveler’s Guide. It is, say the authors, “a hybrid creature, combining in varying degrees the qualities of a biography, a reference work, and a tour guide.”
Those authors are Robert L. Marshall and Traute M. Marshall, husband and wife. I have known the former for years. He is one of the most distinguished musicologists in America, a professor emeritus at Brandeis. Mrs. Marshall is a veteran writer, editor, and translator. They were ideally positioned to write this book.
They are our guides, and gurus, in Bach Country: the places where Bach (and Bachs) lived and traveled. “‘Bach Country,’” they write, “is mostly defined by the three modern German states Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia.” Publicity material says that this book stimulates “the visitor and the armchair traveler alike.” The publicity is not wrong.
The book is clear, intelligent, authoritative, and readable. Also, it is stocked with photos, which is refreshing today. Publishers are reluctant to publish them, owing to costs.
There are two main parts to this book. The first is chronological, going through all the places in which Bach lived: from Eisenach, where he was born, to Leipzig, where he died. The second part is alphabetical, chronicling all the places that Bach visited, or probably visited. There are forty-three of those.
He moved around, Bach did. In a foreword, George B. Stauffer of the American Bach Society says that the Marshalls “give us a sense of just how much time Bach spent in transit, and just how arduous many of his journeys actually were.”
When I was very young, I read that the young Bach hitchhiked hundreds of miles to hear Buxtehude play the organ. This made an impression on me. One of the first things I did when I held the Marshalls’ book was go to the index and look under “Buxtehude.” I found what I wanted in Part II of the book, under “Lübeck.”
Let me quote you a swath:
Buxtehude was the organist of St. Mary’s Church, traditionally the most important musical post in Lübeck and one he had occupied for almost thirty-eight years by the time of Bach’s visit. Buxtehude had succeeded to the position in April 1668, five months after the death of Franz Tunder (1614-67). Three months later he married Tunder’s daughter. It is not known whether the marriage had been a condition for obtaining the post. Buxtehude, for his part, laid down such a condition regarding his own successor. Whether Bach had contemplated marrying Buxtehude’s daughter at the time of his Lübeck sojourn in order to be able to follow him as organist of St. Mary’s or whether he was already betrothed by then, is unknown. At all events, Buxtehude died a little more than a year after Bach’s visit, in May 1707. A month later, Johann Christian Schieferdecker (1679-1732) assumed the post and, in August, married Buxtehude’s thirty-two-year-old daughter, Anna Margaretha.
Who says organists aren’t the marrying kind?
You may wonder whether Robert and Traute Marshall themselves have followed Bach through Bach Country. They have. Every step. I wish I had done it with them. But you can do it, in a sense, through this book.
I will make a confession—one I have made before, in The New Criterion and probably on this blog: I am not a great one for musicology. I don’t care what Brahms had for breakfast on May 5, 1868. I don’t care what the relation between Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A minor and his mother’s death is (if there is any). To me, it is a sonata in A minor.
Now, I don’t pooh-pooh those who do care. Not at all. I’m just a weirdo, basically.
For many years, I have worked at the Salzburg Festival in August. For the first seven years or so, I stayed in a hotel a few steps from the house in which Mozart was born. In the subsequent seven years or so, I have stayed in a place a few steps from the house in which Mozart grew up. Both are shrines. I have never set foot in either one of them.
But I understand the desire to know composers, as men: as men who were born, went to school, married, etc. And I esteem what the Marshalls have done. Lovers of Bach—i.e., mankind—should prize their book. I have perused it while listening to the Christmas Oratorio, a miracle, like most every other piece this man, this divine being, wrote.