Bach’s great pilgrimage

Two hundred miles is some distance on foot. Google maps tells us it will take you about 77 hours. Assuming say an average of 5-6  hours of actual walking a day that would take around two weeks. What is more, imagine the circumstances – it is 1705, it’s northern Europe, October, the nights are pulling in, cold weather, terrible road conditions and where to stay!


This is the very journey that J S Bach made from his home church in Arnstadt to Lübeck to meet and hear the fabled Dietrich Buxtehude – in his day the greatest organ composer in the world. Bach was 20 years old, Buxtehude was 68, and Bach had to apply for special permission for 4 weeks leave until November to make the journey. 


It was not the first time Bach had embarked on an epic journey to broaden his musical experiences. When he was just 15 he had walked a similar distance with his schoolfriend Georg Erdmann to be enrolled in the prestigious St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg.

Young Bach

However, we know that once he arrived in Lübeck and met the great man face to face Bach was in no hurry to leave and he ended up staying for nearly four months. When he got back to Arnstadt he was summoned by the church authorities to explain himself. The following year, after a series of disagreements he moved on to a new position in Mülhausen.

What probably kept Bach in Lübeck was that Buxtehude had composed some very large works for chorus and orchestra in a major series of concerts known as Abendmusik. Unfortunately none of it survives today but it must have been enough of a draw to entice Bach to overstay his leave – whatever the consequences back home.

Marienkirche, Lübeck

The Marienkirche in those days was the wonder of North Germany. On the west wall was a magnificent and enormous organ and the church had four galleries, all filled with musicians.

Other evidence suggests another possible reason for his extended stay – a woman! Buxtehude was keen to marry off his daughter – although apparently not young, particularly attractive or possessing an overwhelming personality! 

But by all accounts she had become part of a package deal in which Buxtehude’s job and her hand in marriage went together! Although probably tempted, Bach did have his eye on another young woman at the time who he would marry shortly afterwards – his second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach.

Maria Barbara Bach

Whatever the reason, one thing was clear, Bach was changed by the journey – not least in the way he was accompanying the hymns, which seems to have been rather off-putting for the congregation. A surviving chorale prelude from this period gives an indication of the unpredictable manner in which he would vary and extend phrases, making it difficult for the singers to know when to come in on the next line! However, the experience of this musical pilgrimage was to affect his writing for the rest of life.

Musica Poetica presents The 250 Mile Walk on Saturday 15 October in a fascinating exploration of the music of Buxtehude and Bach at St Michael’s Church, Highgate.

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