Bach: Crossing Musical Frontiers

Personalities these days are constantly travelling from country to country, or from continent to continent, to promote their latest work. And even in days gone by artists found themselves having to leave home to seek fame and fortune. But Johann Sebastian Bach was very much an exception to this rule.

For most of Bach’s life he remained in his native Thuringia and neighbouring Saxony and he never left German-speaking lands. Admittedly, on the rare occasions that he did travel far from home, the journeys were sufficiently spectacular to have been recorded for posterity. At the age of fifteen he made a two-week journey of some 180 miles to start school in Lüneburg, and five years later he travelled some 260 miles to hear his hero Dieterich Buxtehude play the organ in Lübeck. It is thought that he undertook both these journeys mainly on foot!

Ironically, it would seem that one of the rare portraits of Bach became a far greater traveller than its subject. In order to join a prestigious music society in Leipzig, the composer had to submit a portrait of himself, so in 1746 at the age of 61, Bach sat for painter Elias Gottlob Haussmann, a fellow employee of the Polish and Saxon royal courts. Haussmann made an almost exact copy two years later and this was inherited by Johann Sebastian’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. But somehow, by the 1820s, this portrait ended up in a German junk shop.

The portrait was bought for a song by the great-grandfather of a German Jewish music teacher, Walter Jenke. Many years later – in order to escape the Nazis – Jenke, carrying the portrait in his rucksack, fled to England where he asked friends living in Dorset to look after the portrait so that it was safe from impending air raids. Amazingly those friends turned out to be the parents of a young boy by the name of John Eliot Gardiner, who grew up to become a distinguished conductor and Bach specialist!

In 1952 Jenke sold the portrait at auction to the American Bach scholar William Scheide and it crossed the Atlantic with him. Scheide died, aged 101, in 2014 and bequeathed the painting to the Leipzig Bach Archive, to which it was finally returned in 2015.

And of course, while Bach – unlike his portrait – rarely ventured far from home, his music, after centuries of relative obscurity, finally travelled all around the globe, thanks to the promotion of scholars and musicians like Gardiner. So do come and hear LCS and Hackney Singers perform Bach’s B minor Mass at the Royal Festival Hall on the 27th March, and hopefully you won’t have to travel quite so far as Bach’s portrait!


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