At the age of 18, Bach was offered the job of organist at St. Boniface’s Church in Arnstadt. In spite of a rather generous salary for so young a musician, he bristled at the poor quality of singers in his choir and the appointment only lasted a few years. In October 1705 Bach requested leave to travel to the northern city of Lübeck to hear the great organist and composer, Dieterich Buxtehude, and “take in all I can of his art.” Granted four weeks off, he set out for Lübeck to meet his idol, traversing the 260 miles in early winter and reportedly on foot! Instead of a month, Bach ended up staying three months before returning to Arnstadt a changed man; he had found his inspiration.
While Bach undoubtedly longed to meet the famous organist, Buxtehude’s Abendmusik concerts at St. Mary’s church were likely what precipitated the teenaged Bach’s road trip. Under Buxtehude’s watch, the Abendmusik concerts—privately funded musical programs featuring a highly skilled group of municipal players performing stunning, new instrumental and vocal works by the town’s famous music master—had developed into significant annual attractions. In 1697, several years before Bach’s visit, a travel writer noted the organist and his concerts as one of Lübeck’s principal draws:
“On the west side, between the two pillars under the towers, one can see the large and magnificent organ, which, like the small organ, is now presided over by the world-famous organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude. Of particular note is the great Abend-Music, consisting of pleasant vocal and instrumental music, presented yearly on five Sundays between St. Martin’s and Christmas, following the Sunday vesper sermon, from 4 to 5 o’clock, by the aforementioned organist as director, in an artistic and praiseworthy manner. This happens nowhere else.”
Though not bound by liturgical concerns, the Abendmusiken occurred each year on the final two Sundays of Trinity and first three Sundays of Advent, so roughly once a week from throughout November and December, excluding the week of Christmas. The events had begun under the stewardship of Buxtehude’s predecessor, Franz Tunder, but developed considerably in the late seventeenth century and continued long after Buxtehude’s death. In 1752, one writer recounted the history of the concerts, especially their development over the years from humble beginnings:
“In former times the citizenry, before going to the stock market, had the praiseworthy custom of assembling in St. Mary’s Church, and the organist [Tunder] sometimes played something on the organ for their pleasure, to pass the time and to make himself popular with the citizenry. This was well received, and several rich people, who were also lovers of music, gave him gifts. The organist was thus encouraged, first to add a few violins and then singers as well, until finally it had become a large performance, which was moved to the aforementioned Sundays of Trinity and Advent. The famous organist Diederich Buxtehude decorated the Abendmuisken magnificently already in his day. His successor, Mr. Schiefferdecker, did not fail to maintain the reputation of these concerts and even augment it. But our admirable Mr. Kuntze has brought them to the highest level. He has gotten the most famous singers [both male and female] from the Hamburg opera; he has even employed Italian women.”
Like most musically inclined Germans in the early 1700s, Bach knew about the Abendmusik concerts and undoubtedly timed his visit to Lübeck accordingly. He also must have known that a four-week leave would not be adequate to fully take in the concerts, but he failed to mention this detail before leaving. Bach was not entirely happy with his post in Arnstadt, so missing more than a month of work bothered him less than it upset his employers. Interestingly, however, when Bach returned and was reprimanded, his most serious offense was not his AWOL status; it was for introducing strange notes and musical gestures into his services in January and February 1706! The experience of hearing and playing Buxtehude’s music in the Abendmusiken (some have suggested that he performed in some of the concerts) had inspired Bach and directly influenced his musical voice and ambition.
This July, ABS will celebrate this and other similar occurrences in the career of J.S. Bach during the ABS Festival & Academy, subtitled “Bach’s Inspiration.” The Festival opens with a fantastic two-part survey of the influences upon Bach along with examples of the master’s works. These two concerts, “Bach’s Inspiration – I & II”