Johann Sebastian Bach, born on the first day of spring 1685, died 250 years ago last year. It is extraordinary to think one quarter of a millennium has passed since he left us his beautiful legacy. Yet it is not extraordinary to believe his gifts to the world will survive far longer than another 250 years. There is absolutely no sign to suggest his popularity has faded. In fact the opposite seems to have happened. Bach's music is inspiring more people today than ever before. Sales of recordings, scores, books and memorabilia increase year upon year. Musicians long to perform his wide range of composition styles and many enthusiasts feel compelled to take a trip to his homeland. To see what Bach saw, taste the flavours of his youth, to discover the man behind the icon and to listen to his music reverberate around the very walls within which it was created is the ultimate homage to pure genius.


What to Expect

The journey begins in Bach's birthplace Eisenach. Although the official Bachhaus (Bach house) is no longer believed to be the location of his birth, it is nonetheless an interesting little museum dedicated to the composer and crammed full of fascinating artefacts. Bach lived here until the tender age of nine by which time both of his parents had died and he moved to our next stop, Ohrdruff, to live with his older brother. Driving along the edge of the Thuringian Forest between Eisenach and Ohrdruff is driving at its most pleasurable. It has the feel of a Europe from bygone years, untouched and unspoiled by the passage of time. Sadly, the lyceum school that Bach attended and the home he shared with his brother no longer exist. The only tangible remains of Bach's life in Ohrdruff is the Michaeiskirche (St Michael's Church) where his brother was organist. But it's still a picturesque little place, quintessentially old Germany and extremely peaceful.

Bach moved to Luneberg in March 1700 to continue his education, practise singing and play the organ. The Luneburg Heath is a nature lover's paradise and an alternative interest to the ancient architecture in this pretty town. Apart from a certain church square named Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Platz, there is no indication of the genius that thrived within Luneberg's boundaries. The residents of this charming Bach landmark choose to keep their cultural legacy hidden from the public gaze.

Three years later Bach took up his first serious employment as organist of the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt. The four years he spent here have been widely documented as his 'wild' years when he attended concerts and performed his own organ music. Twenty-four members of his family are buried in the Neue Church and a superb, masterfully conceived sculpture by Bernd Gobel has taken pride of place in the Market Square since 1985. The cause of Bach's wild reputation is not clear. But there is little doubt that the young genius was frowned upon in this small town and after marrying his cousin Maria Barbara he resigned his position and took up a post as organist in nearby Mulhausen.

The dark forests and stunning hills between Arnstadt and Mulhausen again make wonderful driving country. The town is the busiest so far on this Bach tour. It is also the first significant birthplace of Bach's own music. On 4th February 1708 he gave the premier performance of 'Ratswechselkantate' in the Marienkirche. This was also the period in which he developed his interest in choral music. The wildly famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the Prelude and Fuge in D Major and Bach's first cantata Actus Tragicus were all conceived here.

His first child Catharina Dorothea was born in Weimar, home to the Bach family for the next nine years. Bach reached the upper echelons of recognisable German society during this time. It was in Weimar that he wrote most of his major organ compositions before making his penultimate move to Kothen.

Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Kothen was patron to Bach from the years 1717 to 1723, employing him as Capellmaster (Choirmaster). Kothen is a small town with a good shopping centre, excellent restaurants and several commemorative tablets marking significant sites, notably the old cemetery where Maria Barbara was buried in 1720. The most famous works produced here are the six Brandenburg Concertos, finished on 24th March 1721.

The following year, Bach married gifted soprano Anna Magdalena. In 1723 they made their final move. This time, to charming Leipzig where Bach became Cantor. Today a museum in the Old Town Hall contains the room where Bach signed his employment contract and the famous Haussmann portrait hangs in the lobby. The baptismal font where his children were baptised still stands in the Thomas Church and further memorials in the shape of Bach's Window, the Bach Museum and Bach statue are dotted around the town. The ultimate memorial is of course the grave in Thomas Churchyard where Bach was buried after suffering a stroke in 1750.

Leipzig probably does the best job of remembering and honouring its most famous former resident. There is an annual Bach Festival, concerts in the Opera House and several commemorative events held regularly in St Thomas' Church. Go to the town's special Bach web site, listed below to find out dates, times and further information.

Where to stay

Bach lived his life within a small area and it is easy to stay in just one of his chosen hometowns and take daily trips to the see the others. They are all very warm, welcoming and typically German, filled with colourful fašades and narrow, winding streets. However, Weimar and Leipzig are probably the most interesting places on a cultural level. Weimar not only shares the Bach heritage, it is also the former home of fellow composer Liszt and offers visitors Liszt House Museum, art galleries, Bauhaus Museum, the city castle and the German National Theatre. Voted 'European city of culture' in 1999, Weimar has an enviable selection of fine eclectic and German traditional restaurants and good hotels.

Leipzig is bustling, lively and filled with musical venues for endless listening pleasure.

There is a selection of some of the finest accommodation available in Weimar, Eisenach and Leipzig; see pre-travel checklist below. Although it is possible to make this pilgrimage using public transport the preferred way is self-drive. Freedom to come and go as you choose, time to enjoy as much of the surrounding countryside as possible and not having to follow a strict agenda are three good reasons to pick up a hire car. For international visitors, car hire is available from the Ground Transportation Area at Berlin and Hamburg airports.

Pre-Travel Check List

General Bach information including the renowned Bach Composers competition, musical events, the Bachhaus, Eisenach, Bach festivals, societies and institutes worldwide:- http://www.jsbach.org

For information about the Bach festival Leipzig and general Bach information relating to the town: - http://www.bach-leipzig.de

Accommodation

Eisenach

Hotel Omega
Clementsrasse 31-33
99817 Eisenach
Tel: +49 3691 2550
Fax: +49 3691 255300
4-star modern hotel with a glistening glass fašade. Eye-catching and supremely comfortable.

Weimar

Flamberg Hotel Elephant
Markt 19
99428 Weimar
Tel: +49 3643 8020
Fax: +49 3643 65310
Modern elegance in the centre of the city with colour schemes that are bordering on shocking! Delightful 5-star superior accommodation.

Hilton
Belvedere Allee 26
Weimar
Tel: +49 03643 7220
Fax: +49 03643 722741
5-star exclusivity in one of Weimar's finest hotels. Situated opposite the delightful Goethe Park. Two excellent restaurants and the added luxury of a fully-equipped spa.

Leipzig

Hotel Inter-Continental Leipzig
Gerberstrasse 15
04105 Leipzig
Tel: +49 34 1988 0
Fax: +49 34 1988 1229
Very large, very comfortable with all modern conveniences amidst 5-star luxury.

Lindner Hotel Leipzig
Hans-Driesch-Strasse 27
Leipzig 04179
Tel: +49 34 1447 80
Fax: +49 34 1447 8478
4-star magic in this ever popular down town hotel. Excellent accommodation and all the facilities and comfort expected from a high stature hotel


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