I’ve been off my bike (actually my father’s) for a bit now, but I haven’t been far from the border. In fact, I crossed it by bus just a little over a week ago, together with ten of the best travel companions you could imagine – a group of New Hampshire PBS members traveling in the footsteps of Martin Luther and J.S. Bach.
Martin Luther, in case this is not at the forefront of your mind, was the theology professor who dared to point out some inconsistencies in the teachings of the Church 500 years ago this year, in October 1517 – the teachings of the Catholic Church, which was then the only one around. His points were not well taken by the pope and the emperor at the time, but thanks to a new technology (the printing press) they spread like wildfire. Much turmoil ensued, including a war (the Thirty Years’ War) and a peasants’ uprising that was brutally beaten down. Besides the split of the church into Catholic and Protestant, Luther’s work had profound effects within and outside the church, in education, language, music, politics, and art (to name but a few realms), within and far beyond Germany. While his courage and steadfastness were legendary (how many of us would be able to stand up to the immense power of the Holy Roman Empire?) and his thinking profound and far-sighted (insisting that girls should receive an education was not a common position at the time), Luther was not without faults. His anti-semitic writings later in life are shocking and provide yet another reminder that (we) humans are rarely as clear-cut as we might like.
Both Luther and Bach spent much of their lives in Thuringia, Saxony, and Saxony-Anhalt – all federal states that were behind the Iron Curtain for the first half of my life. Had it not been for the Peaceful Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall, chances are I would never have visited any of these places, or taken American groups to see them. In fact, being able to explore eastern Germany has been one of the great unexpected gifts of my life. The town of Eisenach – located less than 10 km from the former border – is one of the places for which I have discovered a great fondness. Even without the legacies of Luther, Bach, and other impressive people (like Elisabeth of Thuringia), it would be an attractive place with its pedestrian-friendly city center, cafes, bookstores and, fortunately for me a few weeks ago when I needed new brake pads, a bike shop.
Martin Luther went to school in Eisenach in the late 1400’s and returned there in 1521 to escape the wrath and the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor, hiding in Wartburg Castle and using his time of confinement to translate the New Testament into German – a German that bridged the many regional dialects spoken at the time and thus had a profound influence on the German language.
Some 200 years after Luther’s school years, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach in 1685. Not only was he steeped in Luther’s teachings, he also literally followed in his footsteps – as boys, Bach and Luther went to the same school and both sang in St. George’s Church, where Bach was also baptized. Luther had given singing and music a central place in Protestant church life. Bach was a man of deep faith (he signed all his compositions with the words “Soli Deo Gloria” – to the glory of God alone) and, in addition to his other many professional duties, composed cantatas and oratorios based on many of the church songs Luther had written 200 years earlier. To find out more about Bach’s influence on music far beyond the baroque, see this article in The Guardian. For an immediate impression of his music, see and hear this YouTube video.
Translations of the Luther quotes above:
- May each person act as though through him/her, God wanted to accomplish a great deed.
- It is a lesser damage to lose one’s property than it is to lose a good friend.