Celebrating Christmas with the Bachs

24 Dec

Shimmering melodies that float. Powerful chords that shake the earth. The panoply of sound that an organ can produce is truly impressive. In this episode, we'll listen to an organ concert that took place at the St. Thomas Church as part of the Leipzig Bach festival.


Johannes Lang, who has been the St. Thomas organist since 2021, created a program spotlighting Johann Sebastian Bach's 17th- and 18th-century relatives who had an influence on him and his music.

Among other music, we'll also be listening to a timeless classic from Johann Sebastian Bach: his Fantasy and Fugue in G minor. It's one of his most popular pieces, even though we don't know whether the two parts actually belong together, since Bach is thought to have composed them at different times. The fugue dates back to about 1720, while the fantasy was probably written later.

The illustrious Bachs

Heinrich Bach is considered a musical founding father of the Bach family. Starting in 1641, he spent more than 50 years as the organist in Arnstadt, a town in central Germany. We're going to hear two arrangements of chorales by Heinrich Bach in this episode.

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In the  second half of the 17th century, Heinrich Bach's second son, Johann Michael, began his musical career as an organist. Johann Michael was the father of Maria Barbara Bach. She, in turn, was Johann Sebastian Bach's second cousin and later became his wife.

And if you thought that was complicated: The first Johann Christoph Bach — not to be confused with Johann Sebastian's brother of the same name — was the brother of Johann Michael Bach and a well-respected organist in Eisenach.

The greatest composer in the Bach family

Johann Christoph Bach is considered the greatest composer among the Bach family members of his generation. He married a certain Maria Elisabetha Wedemann, whose sister, Catharina Wedemann, was the mother of Maria Barbara, who became the wife of Johann Sebastian Bach. 

Then there was Johann Sebastian Bach's brother. That Johann Christoph Bach was the organist of Ohrdruf, a small city in the present-day state of Thuringia. He was also an avid collector of pieces for keyboard instruments.

He gathered musical manuscripts from across Germany, compiling them into what today is known as the "Andreas Bach Book." (It's named after one of its later owners.) When the extended Bach family would get together for their annual family reunion, they would perform pieces from this book. Today, it is in the collection of the Leipzig City Library.

Johann Sebastian composed a capriccio in E to honor Johann Christoph, who was 14 years his senior. After the death of their parents in 1694 and 1695, Johann Christoph took in his younger brother and provided for him for five years. He also gave him organ lessons.


Family connections to Bach

Then there was Johann Bernhard Bach, an organist in the city of Eisenach, in western Thuringia. Johann Bernhard lived from 1676 to 1749, which made him a contemporary of Johann Sebastian. It would be more than a little complicated to explain how exactly they were related, so let's just it leave at they were cousins.

Organist Johannes Lang also has a family connection to Bach, though it's not a blood relationship. Instead, it has to do with the post of organist at St. Thomas Church, as he explains: "I've always had multiple connections to Leipzig. For instance, my great grandfather, Günther Ramin, served as the St. Thomas organist and also as the music director, so I knew about Leipzig through my family. My grandfather was also born in the very building we're sitting in, one floor up, to be more precise."

Johannes Lang's office in the administrative building of St. Thomas Church, where he gave this interview, sits directly under his grandfather's former apartment.

Bach as the Thomaskantor

Bach spent 27 years in Leipzig as the music director of St. Thomas Church. Two of his compositions we're going to hear have additional ties to the eastern German city. First up will be an arrangement of his Toccata in D minor by the composer Max Reger, who died in Leipzig in 1916. Max Reger was so taken by Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata in D minor that, about 200 years after the composer's death, he wrote a version for Romantic organ in order to bring out the piece's dynamic contrast.

The main organ of St. Thomas Church is an example of a Romantic organ. It was built between 1886 and 1889 by Wilhelm Carl Friedrich Sauer, one of the most important German organ builders. Known today as the Sauer organ, after its builder, it is the largest Romantic organ in the eastern state of Saxony.

After that comes the Prelude and Fugue in G minor, which we heard at the start of the show. But this time, it will be in an arrangement by Karl Straube, who took up the position of St. Thomas music director in Leipzig in 1918. 

Johannes Lang will perform the final two concert pieces on this instrument, starting with the Toccata in D minor, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach and arranged by Max Reger. Johannes Lang is very familiar with Karl Straube, who held the position of St. Thomas music director right before Lang's great-grandfather, Günther Ramin. When Lang wanted to play music by Straube as an organ student, his teachers told him that no one played this music nowadays. 

But Lang thinks it has something special: And with that, our show today comes to a close. Thanks to producer Gaby Reucher and sound engineer Christian Stäter. I'm Cristina Burack, and I hope you enjoyed the diverse selection of organ works that we heard by Johann Sebastian Bach and members of his extended family. If there is anything you'd like to share, drop us a line at music@dw.com. And join us for more classical music in the next Deutsche Welle Festival Concert.


Author Gaby Reucher

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