The J.S. Bach Tourist

5. Lüneburg

Bach left tiny little Ohrdruf for the city of Lüneburg when he was 15-years old. Lüneburg today is a small but lively city of not more than 70,000 inhabitants. Because of its contemporary industrial insignificance, it was not bombed during the second world war, although a visit to Lüneburg makes clear that war is not the only human way to destroy historical buildings. Nevertheless, Lüneburg's glorious past is witnessed by its churches, its many stepped gables, and one of the most interesting historical town halls left in modern Germany. Lüneburg's stepped gables are made of brick, have a shape not unlike what one finds in Lübeck, but the Lüneburg variety has a very special decoration in the form of stone twisted in the form of thick pieces of rope ("Tausteine") (see picture above on the right). This type of decoration is very rare elsewhere.

Like Mozart's Salzburg, Bach's Lüneburg was built on a salt deposit, so, both musical geniuses spent part of their formative years in a salt town. Salt was a precious commodity during the Middle Ages and a main export article through nearby Hanseatic ports like Lübeck. A big salt industry gave Lüneburg its medieval wealth and a size comparable to the Leipzig of Bach's days. However, Leipzig was a city on the rise, while Lüneburg was declining due to the diminished importance of the salt industry.

In comparison to Ohrdruf, Lüneburg was a metropolis and it must have made an overwhelming impression on a 15-year-old Thuringian boy. A modern tourist, travelling by car, is overwhelmed at first by something else, namely the fact that the city is almost inaccessible by car. Downtown Lüneburg is one big pedestrian zone, a nice idea of course, but very difficult for the tired Bach tourist who wants to find a hotel not too far from Bach's Michaeliskirche or Böhm's Johanniskirche. So, the next generation of Bach tourists is advised to carefully study a map of the town before arrival in order to find a suitable parking garage.

Like many other Bach towns that I visited, Lüneburg keeps a low profile about the genius that has put it on the map of cultural history. The church square around the Michaeliskirche is called the Johann- Sebastian-Bach-Platz, but in or around the church, there is not a single further indication about what could have given the church a claim to fame. I couldn't even find a regular entrance to the church, perhaps due to the fact that it was under restoration. With some effort, I found an open door via the white building on the north side of the church (see picture on the left). There are also some remnants of an old Benedictine monastery on the north side (picture on the right below). Bach and his classmates lived in the buildings of this monastery, together with students of the more fancy Academy of Knights. According to Martin Petzoldt, Bach's school used to be at the south-east corner of the church, but nothing is left of it. The Michaeliskirche itself is a not very remarkable Gothic brick church. Unlike what you see in old paintings, its interior looks very brick-red, thanks to lavish application of brick-red paint.

That Bach wound up in Lüneburg during his formative years, was a lucky accident, because the town was in the northern Hanseatic sphere, with windows on the world like Hamburg and Lübeck. Bach used to walk to both places and allegedly underwent Italian and Dutch influences through old men like Reinken and Buxtehude. Presumably, Bach also crossed the Lüneburg Heath to the South, to the court of Celle with its French musicians. In all of this, we shouldn't forget that Bach was hardly more than a child when he attended the Michaelis school. He was making music and listening, no doubt, but taking for granted that a lively teenager has no other passions than undergoing Dutch, French and Italian influences all day long is nothing less than a lack of imagination.

It is more likely that Bach and his Ohrdruf friend Georg Erdmann enjoyed the liveliness of a bigger city, dreaming about its girls and romantic picnics on the Lüneburg Heath. Given Bach's lifelong interest in beer and wine, they perhaps also visited Lüneburg's many pubs (insofar as school discipline permitted that).

Shortly after his Lüneburg period, Bach appears on the German musical scene as an organ virtuoso of some renown. It is generally assumed that the foundation of that was laid in the Thuringian family circle, but Lüneburg must have played a crucial role as well. How is not exactly known, but it is generally assumed that the organist of the Johanniskirche, Georg Böhm played a key role in Bach's advanced musical education. Böhm was from the same Thuringian milieu as Bach and direct musical influence can be demonstrated, so, it is very likely that they were in close contact. Sebastian Bach and Georg Erdmann had made it to the Michaelis school through the intermediary of the Ohrdruf cantor Elias Herda. So, one gets the impression that there was a network of provincial Thuringians who helped each other to make headway in the economic more advanced centers of the North, not unlike what immigrants with similar background do for each other all over the world. I presume that Böhm was part of such a network and that he was even a role model for young Bach.

Böhm's church, the Johanniskirche, is the most interesting church of present-day Lüneburg. It is a Gothic brick church with a nave and two aisles on each side. This 5-nave structure (as it is also called) is very rare and can also be found in nearby Lübeck's Marienkirche (Buxtehude) and Jacobikirche, which emphasizes the close commercial and cultural connection between the two cities. The Johanniskirche has a pleasant light interior and, thanks to its very old pipes, one of the most interesting organs of Germany. The Johanniskirche is at Lüneburg's charming market square Am Sande (picture on the left).

Table of Contents

1. Introduction 2. Eisenach 3. Ohrdruf
4. Lüneburg Heath 5. Lüneburg 6. Lübeck 7. Arnstadt
8. Dornheim 9. Mühlhausen 10. Weimar
11. Köthen 12. Leipzig

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