Site ©1996 Timothy A. Smith

Lüneburg (1700-1703)

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In 1700 Sebastian turned 15, the age when young Saxons traditionally began to support themselves. Cognizant of the inconvenience he imposed upon Johann Christoph, and mindful that his next older sibling, Jacob, had already hired himself out as an apprentice in Eisenach, Sebastian would surely have desired to seek gainful employment himself. Providentially, the subjects at which he excelled in Ohrdruf qualified him for a scholarship in the northern city of Lüneburg. Behind the scenes theology teacher, Herda, had lobbied to open a space for his outstanding student at the Michaelisschule at Lüneburg, Herda's own alma mater.

200 Mile Trek

So, in March of 1700, Johann Sebastian and a friend Georg Erdmann turned their steps toward the north, both boys carrying all their worldly belongings in a two-hundred mile trek to Lüneburg. At the Michaelisschule their duties were to sing in the church choir on Sundays plus for weddings, funerals, and festive occasions. In return, the school provided them with tuition, room, board, and a small allowance. Such was the arrangement, a good one for Sebastian, but shortlived at best. The rules were plain; scholarships at St. Michael's School were available only to "poor children possessed of good treble voices," and boy's voices do not remain treble for long.

Voice Changes

When Sebastian's voice changed, we do not know exactly, but puberty came later in those days than it does now; Erdmann, for example, was still singing treble at eighteen. It is likely that the change happened for Bach sometime in 1703, whereupon we know that he played in the orchestra and accompanied the choir on the harpsichord for awhile before quitting his career as a student.

According to convention, Sebastian's formal education had already been completed before he arrived in Lüneburg, although he continued to study the usual--theology, Greek, Latin, logic, rhetoric, and music--after his arrival. What must have interested Sebastian more than additional book learning were the musical inducements that Lüneburg offered. By this we do not mean primarily his opportunity as a chorister; rather, Lüneburg was conveniently close to significant cultural happenings in Germany of the new century.

Nearby Hamburg

Thirty miles from Lüneburg was Hamburg, in those days a center for German opera under the direction of such notables as Keiser, and, in the near future, Georg Friedrich Handel. Sebastian's first cousin Johann Ernst lived in Hamburg for six months during this period, and may have introduced him to some of Hamburg's famous musicians. In Lüneburg itself Sebastian may have studied with the renowned musician (and distant relative by marriage), Georg Böhm, organist at the Johanniskirche.

Admired Organists

It is possible that, during one of Sebastian's visits with his cousin Ernst, Böhm would have favored him to carry letters of introduction to Hamburg's Jan Adams Reincken. Whether young Bach studied the organ with Böhm or Reincken, it is difficult to say. We do know, however, that Sebastian became very close to Reincken later in life, and that his practice was to visit the elderly organist whenever he had the occasion to be in Hamburg. These visits continued to within weeks before Reincken's death at 99 years of age.

Impressive Library

A second great advantage of Lüneburg was that the city maintained a magnificent library containing musical scores dating to the beginning of the Reformation. The library was founded in 1555 by the first Lutheran cantor of St. Michael's Church, Friedrich Emanuel Praetorius (1623-95). By the time of Bach's Lüneburg sojourn the library contained more than 1000 manuscripts by some 180 composers, including: Buxtehude, Carissimi, Hammerschmidt, Kerll, Lassus, Monteverdi, Schütz, Scheidt, Schein, and Tunder, not to mention Sebastian's great uncle Heinrich and second cousin Johann Christoph (then living in Eisenach).

French Influences

The third cultural advantage of Lüneburg was its Ritteracademie, sister institution to Bach's own Michaelisschule, but where young noblemen were sent to study the French language and social graces (fencing and dancing). For young Bach, this afforded an opportunity to hear French music. It seems that on several occasions Bach also accompanied an instructor of the Ritteracademie fifty miles south, to Celle, where Duke Wilhelm of Brunswick-Lüneburg maintained a bevy of francophile musicians in the manner of Versailles.

It was probably in Celle that Sebastian Bach first heard the music of Lully, Couperin, Muffat, Fischer, and Raison. Here, too, Sebastian may have copied Nicolas de Grigny's moving collection of hymn variations for the organ, Premier livre d'orgue. Although that work did not see publication until 1711, it is known that Bach made a copy in his youth, probably from an unpublished manuscript circulating in Germany during this decade.

Early Chorale Variations

While at Lüneburg Bach continued to develop his skills as a composer. From this period there survive two chorale variations after the style of Böhm, that, while not masterpieces of the form, fill an important chronological gap in the composer's oeuvre: Christ der du bist der helle Tag, and O Gott du frommer Gott.


Hanford & Koster Lüneburg

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