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St. John Church, Lüneburg

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote, “While a student in Lüneburg, my father had the opportunity to listen to a band maintained by the Duke of Celle, consisting mostly of Frenchmen, and therefore he acquired a thorough grounding in the French taste, which in those regions was something quite new.” It was through the work of French dancing masters that Germans were first exposed to the esthetics developed by artists employed by Louis XIV, and in his Von der Nachahmung der Franzosen of 1687, Christian Thomasius suggested that, “If one wishes to copy the French, one should seek to improve one’s honesty, learning, beauté d’esprit, good taste and gallantry.” To this end, the Ritterschule, a school for aristocrats featuring lessons in the French language, fencing, riding and courtly dance, was established at the former St. Michael monastery in Lüneburg, and within this same building, fifteen year old Johann Sebastian began attending the Partikularschule, a Latin school for commoners. While the pupils of the two schools ate and lived apart, they were instructed in the same academic subjects by the same faculty, and therefore Bach was surely exposed to at least some aspects of the noblemen’s French curriculum.

Greatest exposure to French music and performance practice, however, was probably gained from Bach’s contact with organist Georg Böhm at St. John Church, the largest church in Lüneburg that still dominates the main market square of this city located in Lower Saxony. Although the modified Renaissance instrument was in bad repair and lacked an independent pedal division, it was suitable for introducing Bach to the French genre of stylized dance movements as well as a broad sample of North German chorale variations and preludes and fugues. A decade after Bach’s 1702 departure from Lüneburg, the organ was renovated and enlarged with two pedal towers, and in the twentieth century its Baroque specification was carefully restored by Rudolf von Beckerath after nearly three centuries of constant use.

The organ at St. John Church can be heard in an online performance of Bach’s chorale prelude An Wasserflüssen Babylon (BWV 653).

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