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Homage to Bach
July/August 2012


An elegant tribute: Mendelssohn's monument to Bach

It was indeed a rare privilege: to hear Bach played in his own church, the Leipzig Thomaskirche, where he was Cantor and Music Director at the next-door choir school; to be shown the objects he owned — his Bibles and other books, his autograph scores, his treasure chest — by Christoph Wolff, the greatest Bach scholar alive; and to spend a few days in the old city of Leipzig which was Bach's home for the last 27 of his 65 years.

I was there during the Bach Festival in June for a   Liberty Fund conference on "Bach and the Idea of Sacred Music: Opening Up to Freedom". The theme was right for Leipzig because this was the place where the demonstrations began in the autumn of 1989 that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall; the protestors first gathered at the Nikolaikirche, the other great city church where Bach first performed his St John Passion.

Bach has an appeal to people of every time and place. Hence it was right, too, that the 16 participants in our colloquium came from all over the world; that they included philosophers, writers, an archaeologist, a Dominican friar and a Lutheran pastor as well as musicians and musicologists; and that our discussions, while rooted in texts that we had all read in advance, could range freely and embrace the whole of Western civilisation.

Needless to say, we came to no conclusion, reached no consensus, other than to rejoice in and give thanks for the music that had brought us all together. The ways in which we see, hear and understand Bach have been evolving ever since his death, but his contemporaries already agreed that he had set a standard in every branch of music he composed that has never been surpassed.

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