I love it when the last few pages of a read work as a springboard into the next one. Such was the case with Cólm Toíbin’s The Magician, which sees Thomas Mann wandering alone through the streets of his home town, Lübeck, meditating on the famous journey that J S Bach made in 1705. Bach, then only 20 years of age, decided to walk 250 miles from Arnstadt in Thüringia to Lübeck in Schleswig-Holstein, to visit his – nowadays we would say idol – the Baroque composer, Dieterich Buxterhude. His objective was to persuade Buxterhude to teach him some trade secrets. The rest they say is history.
In 2017 Horatio Clare followed in Bach’s footsteps, producing the 5 part radio series “Bach Walks”, and then in 2018, this travel memoir, the cover of which so beautifully reproduces the start and end points of the journey: the beautiful Thuringian forest on the back cover, the spired skyline of Hanseatic Lübeck, with the Marienkirche, where Buxterhude worked, standing tall and centre on the front cover.
Not that Clare walked all the way. There wasn’t time for that. So he and his production team chose strategic sections along Bach’s presumed route and started to walk. The resulting book tells the associated stories: of Bach, of the places, of their own experiences. There are surprises aplenty. Who knew, for instance, that Bach was a wild child. (Relatively speaking – you can’t really compare a wild child of the early C18th with one from the C21st century.) But the fact remains that Bach asked his employers at the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt for four weeks leave, and then didn’t return for months. The itinerary itself is fascinating, and such a temptation to myself, as you can see from my annotations to Ed Kluz’s map.
Set in my favourite country, taking me through areas I haven’t visited (yet), this was always going to be a book for me, but it is more than that. It is one I adore. You know that I’m a tree person, don’t you? Well, judging by the lyric quality of his prose, so is Clare. This is the Thuringian forest in autumn:
The ash trees and hazels are turned and shedding, there are four inches of shed leaves underfoot, summer’s burned plans, and a huge grey heron sweeps over the river. The poplars are magnificent, a line of trees brushed like a giant jump hedge, entirely bare like witches’ brooms, echoing the sweeps of the mares’ tails, the high alto-cirrus in the blue above them. What fillips of sudden joy he must have experienced on his way.
What fillips of sudden joy I experienced when reading this: the walks in the woods, the recognition of favourite landmarks. I thank the blogger (sorry, I’ve forgotten who it was) who brought the book to my attention way back in 2018. It may only be 96 pages long, but these are 96 pages I’ll read time and time again. Whenever I’m feeling homesick.