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Ohrdruf (1695-1700)

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Although Ambrosius had remarried soon after the death of his wife, Sebastian's stepmother was unable to keep the family together after Ambrosius himself had passed away. In March of 1695 Sebastian and Jacob were consigned to the care of their elder brother Johann Christoph. When the Bachs had lived in Erfurt that brother had been a pupil of Johann Pachelbel, whose excellent training had qualified Johann Christoph for a position, in 1690, as organist at the Church of St. Michael in Ohrdruf. It is to this city that ten-year-old Sebastian was sent after the loss of his parents. In the year of Sebastian's arrival in Ohrdruf, brother Christoph and his wife were preparing for the birth of their own first child. The financial strain upon the couple must have been enormous, but they appear to have welcomed it with gracious confidence.

A New Curriculum

While in Ohrdruf Sebastian studied at the Klosterschule, famous in the region for having adopted curricular reforms advocated by Jan Amos Komensky (Comenius). Not neglected in the new curriculum was the Lutheran emphasis upon Holy Scripture. Sebastian soon came under the tutelage of Elias Herda, recent graduate of the University of Jena, who helped his student squeeze a six-year course of theology into four. Also included in the curriculum were four to five hours of music study per week. Johann Sebastian excelled in the new environment and quickly rose to the head of his class.

Music at Ohrdruf

Sebastian's musical training in Ohrdruf was not confined to the school. Brother Christoph's library contained manuscripts by the masters of imitative polyphony: Pachelbel, Kerll, Froberger and tribe. An unauthenticated story from this period represents Sebastian, over a span of six months, as having repeatedly sneaked into his brother's study on moonlit nights to copy an album of organ music to which, for whatever reason, access had been denied. While the story may be fiction, there can be little doubt that in Ohrdruf Sebastian Bach was repeatedly exposed to the masters of method and literature for the organ. This exposure equipped the precocious youth with a bookish fondness for fugue and chorale variation that would continue to fascinate him late in life even after those techniques had fallen out of favor with most of his contemporaries.

Student Composition

There exists from Ohrdruf days a whimsical fugue, for the clavier, thought to be one of Sebastian's first. The fugue's G-Major subject (right) strongly hints of A minor at its tail, a mistake at which the mature composer would surely have blushed. Nonetheless there is a certain youthful charm to the work.

An Act of Kindness

Although Sebastian's brother is primarily remembered for his act of kindness, Johann Christoph's gift to the world weighed more than beneficent provision of bed and board to his younger sibling. Contrary to Forkel's assertion that Sebastian's keyboard studies were delayed until Lüneburg, it is likely that such training actually began in Ohrdruf, under the guidance of his brother.

But Johann Christoph's greatest contribution was probably that of a role model. Sebastian appears to have been sufficiently impressed by the status of his brother--the organist--to aspire to a similar status, if not to become the preeminent organist of the eighteenth century. But, for now, as young Sebastian's feet could barely reach the pedals of that grand instrument, he must have contented himself listening to big brother practice preludes and fugues while tentatively orchestrating his own prelude: studying the harpsichord...and occasionally pilfering copies of forbidden organ scores by moonlight.


Hanford & Koster Ohrdruf

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