Literary breaks

Nine Leagues From Here

In Johann Sebastian Bach’s Footsteps

By Célia Houdart 06 March 2019


© Anne Van Aerschot

Nine Leagues From Here

In 1705, Johann Sebastian Bach went on foot to Hamburg to hear the organist Johann Reinken, thus walking 45km. It is with a march that the dance begins in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Concertos Brandebourgeois, the title of the ballet inspired by the eponymous score of the German composer which is to be performed from 7th to 14th March. Writer Célia Houdart slipped into the rehearsal studios in Brussels where the lines formed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s dancers reminded her of the route covered by the young Johann Sebastian and inspired a story.

Day-break in Luneburg. In the sky, the clouds are fringed with gold. Already people are stirring in the streets of the town. Water carriers, barbers, liveried servants, coachmen, cobblers, shopkeepers, fish-wives, vendors of herbs and cress. In a square courtyard, in front of a stable, a young man is grooming a horse whose harness is hanging from a hook fixed on the door. Channels of stinking black mud; hot water splashing from the buckets that the boys are delivering to the laundresses. At the crossroads, the bright, regular striking of a blacksmith’s hammer and the sound of a woman singing through a half-open window can be heard, and everywhere the familiar noise of people going about their daily morning occupations: sweeping in front of the shop, washing down a terracotta tiled floor, rolling along a barrel, bringing in the firewood.

Johann Sebastian carries a bundle containing a change of clothes, a small woollen blanket and, wrapped in a cloth, two slices of bread and a piece of Harzer Roller, a rolled curd cheese flavoured with cumin seeds. The young man has also brought a quill pen, some paper and ink in a small portable glass inkwell, in case he wants to jot something down, an air, a melody, or transcribe a few bars of organ music tomorrow during the concert. He is wearing shoes of goatskin covered by gaiters. He leaves the town suburbs, accompanied for a good while by a little troop of stray dogs with their puppies. Less noise. More trees and wind. The criss-cross flight of starlings. Now it is open countryside. The road is long. But Johann Sebastian is used to it. He likes to walk. He likes to walk for hours. It leaves him time to look at the landscape, to compose, dream.

The first timid signs of spring. Hedges of flowering hawthorn. Bluebells growing in the woods. At the entrance to a farm, a pile of manure mixed with straw is steaming. A sow whose ears flop over her eyes, but who picks up every scent, forages in the pile, making sure there is nothing in it for her. Ducks walk walk in a line in front of her. Johann Sebastian advances. He would like a closer look at the silky plumage of the ducks with its greenish bronze shimmer but the sow grunting amongst the dry leaves has made them fly away.

Just beyond the farm there is a fork in the road. The two branches look the same. The young man hesitates, he does not know which way to go. Then he espies, on the horizon, the moving sails of a windmill. It’s that way, it all comes back to him. He took this road a few years previously with his brother, Johann Christoph. Now he is in the wilds. The air smells good. On the road side, the grass is covered with dew. On the ground lies a leather strap in the shape of an S, the colour of roasted coffee. Part of the strap from a trunk? The handle of a satchel? The shoulder strap from a rifle lost by a soldier joining his battalion. In the time it has taken to reflect on these hypotheses, the leather snake is already far behind the young man. He advances quickly. He hears his own breathing, the regular sound of his footsteps on the ground. Mentally, he transcribes the rhythm.

An hour passes. Then he sees a cart approaching slowly, drawn by a donkey. An increasingly ringing sound of iron wheels on the stony road. A man is walking beside the donkey with a switch in his hand. Behind the animal is piled a mountain of bundles secured with cords. A compact and colourful assortment of fabrics, of clothes. Johann Sebastian thinks to himself that he is probably a rag-and-bone man. The man halts his donkey. He raises his wide-brimmed hat, revealing a scar that slashes across his forehead. Seeing that this old wound excites the curiosity of the young walker, the man mutters something inaudible and quickly rams his hat back on his head. Then, in a slightly hoarse voice, he asks the young Johann Sebastian where he is going.

“To Hamburg.”

“It’s a long way yet.”

“I know. A little over nine leagues.”

“About eight hours. If you walk at a good pace. But with your young legs...”

“I shall stop somewhere before nightfall.”

The animal nudges the man’s right flank with his muzzle. He bares his teeth and begins to nibble at the fabric of his garment.

“Are you hungry?” the man asks his donkey.

He turns round and takes several leafy branches of hazel from his cart that he places on the ground. The donkey immediately begins to graze on the bouquet of tender green with a mixture of avidity and greed.

The two men take up the thread of their conversation again.

“You can sleep just this side of Winsen at Ramstein’s, it’s a good inn.”

“It’s been recommended to me.”

“You’ll see, the service is good. And the landlady leaves the bottle of Schnapps on the table.”

The man strokes his donkey between his ears. Then, checking that the harness is still on his withers, he continues:

“And what are you going to do in Hamburg?”

“Listen to Master Reinken.”

“A learned man?”

“Yes, in a way. And you?”

“I travel all over these parts. I’m from Arnstadt. Do you know it?”

“There is a brand new organ in Arnstadt. I dream of playing it.”

Seeing that he was dealing with a musician, the Rag-and-bone-man began to whistle a popular tune, a dance that Johann Sebastian instantly recognises. They smile at each other. The donkey and the man set off once more.

Towards midday, the young man is hungry. He stops on the edge of a pine forest and finds a large flat stone on which to sit. The sun warms him. He devours his meal. He chases away a little wasp, the first of the season, with his hand. He drinks some water from a leather gourd. The meal has made him feel heavy. He is a bit tired. He stretches out on a carpet of pine needles a little farther on. He dozes for half an hour in the profound and wonderful silence.

He sets off again, surprised to meet no one, when he distinguishes numerous silhouettes working in the fields. Odour of dandelion flowers and ceps mixed with pine resin.

Suddenly a huge racket. A mastiff emerges from the bushes, approaches the young man and sniffs at his feet and calves. He is intimidating. Johann Sebastian remains calm, this is no time to get bitten. A hound that has lost the pack? The beast departs as quickly as it came.

It rained the day before. Here and there, the road is still sodden. And the sky is reflected in the large pools of water in the fields below.

Johann Sebastian thinks of a trio sonata he has copied out. A piece by François Couperin, the composer he so admires and who has just entered the service of Monsieur the Duke of Orleans, at the Chateau of Saint-Maur. He can hear the harpsichord part in his head.

Crack! The snapping of a whip from a postilion behind the young man. Suddenly a coach passes close by him, drives through a puddle and splashes mud on his clothes.

At that same moment, the alliance between France, Spain and Bavaria is being signed. But here, no one yet knows, only after a few days will the news reach Michaelisschule, Johann Sebastien’s parish choir school, which takes in impoverished boys with beautiful voices.

A young woman emerges from a field carrying a wooden basket of grain. The young man asks her how far it is to Ramstein. She replies that the inn is barely ten minutes away, after the next bend, on the banks of the Elbe.

A little later, Johann Sebastian is standing beneath the inn sign which shows a bunch of grapes, Muscat from Hamburg. He cleans his shoes on the boot-scraper. Pots of geraniums are arrayed on the window sills. Inside, the inn is dark. There is a long table and two big benches, that is all. An ageing landlady who is rather deaf welcomes the young man. He enquires, raising his voice a little, if he can spend the night. He is not rich. The woman tells him he can sleep in the barn, on a pile of dry hay. The youth accepts.

In the fireplace of the dining room a fire is burning. The walls are blackened with soot. Vegetables steaming. The old woman is already preparing supper. She removes the wax that has dripped down the candlestick and scrapes off the little spots of wax staining the table with a fingernail. The landlady’s hands are wrinkled and covered with little scratches. She busies herself with a sigh, explaining that she is alone, because her husband is spending a week at his sister’s bedside: she is suffering from Stone Man Syndrome. In the fireplace a precariously balanced log falls. On a board, the head of a big fish with rows of sharp teeth gazes at the young visitor with a menacing air. That is for tomorrow’s soup, the old landlady tells him.

A coachman and his son arrive noisily. The former reproaches the latter with having injured their horse when removing his bit. Johann Sebastian dines with them on soup and a bit of a plump chicken larded with bacon fat and spit-roasted.

The coachman asks the young man where he is going:

“To Hamburg. I am going to hear Adam Reinken at Saint Catherine’s Church.”

“The famous organist?”

“Do you know him?”

“Of course. My father does his bookbinding for him. Sometimes I drive him to Lubeck for concerts or when he has to see his friend...”


“Yes. Buxtehude.”

On hearing these names, Johann Sebastian curls up his toes from sheer emotion. Meanwhile, the coachman’s son finishes the bottle of Schnapps.

That night, the young Johann Sebastian is awakened by the hooting of owls. He burrows deeper into the hay, blotting out the sound a little, and goes back to sleep.

The following morning, he washes in the Elbe. The river is stirred up in sluggish eddies. Prudently, the young man remains on the banks on a little slope like a beach. A mixture of sand and gravel. The water is cold. Johann Sebastian begins by washing his feet and then his calves. The cold soothes some of his aches and pains: a tight-feeling muscle above his ankle and a corn on his foot that sometimes hurts with a shooting pain.

The young man advances in the water, stopping when it reaches his torso. He keeps his shirt on. He tilts his head slowly back, wets his hair then the back of his head, raises his head. The contrast between his body temperature and that of the water provokes an influx of blood and sensation in all his limbs. He swims with a vigorous breast stroke. Dives underwater. Which he loves. He strikes out quite quickly towards the shore. Clinging to the reeds, little translucent clusters shine, doubtless a shoal of fish. On the bank, the young man lifts a large stone to see what is underneath. He disturbs a crayfish. Gently, he puts the stone back. He tells himself that in this spot in July one would be devoured by mosquitoes.

Sitting on the trunk of an elm while his shirt is drying on the grass, his shoulders, back and buttocks wrapped in a little blanket, Johann Sebastian thinks of the concert he will listen to later that morning.    

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