Erfurt is the extremely old Thuringian town, (first mentioned in 742), replete with incidents from Martin Luther’s early life. In 1505, near Erfurt, Luther was caught in a terrifying storm where lightning almost killed him. He survived, and pledged to become a monk. He joined Erfurt’s Saint Augustine cloister, and began his life as a devout monk. Poverty, chastity and obedience were important vows, but discussion was allowed in the study halls, easily visited today, and where we can literally walk on floors unchanged for over 500 years.
Luther visited Rome and was shocked to see how the clergy there behaved – far removed from his ideas of piety. At about this time, the selling of indulgences became a plague back in Germany were sinners were told they could buy forgiveness, for their past sins, future sins and even for sins of deceased relatives.
Luther was aghast at these practices and ended up condemning them in his famous 95 Theses, nailed, according to legend, onto the doors of the Wittenberg Cathedral, 500 years ago.
Soon after, Luther was excommunicated and lived as an outlaw. His allies ‘kidnapped’ him and took him to hide in Wartburg Castle high above Eisenach. There, Luther translated the entire New Testament, choosing a somewhat common German dialect at the time, Chancellery Saxon. Today Wartburg Castle is a UNESCO heritage site and one can visit the cell where Luther did his translating, and where an original first edition of his Bible is kept in the case on his desk. We were at the castle at the end of the day, when all the visitors had left. Situated high above Eisenach, the castle become quiet – the only sound being that of birds singing. It was easy to imagine the atmosphere during the 10 months of exile that Luther spent here.
Fate was on Luther’s side, due to his profound knowledge of the Bible, his studies in Latin and Greek and his keen ear for spoken German. Luther’s German version of the Bible was an instant bestseller. A second addition was required two months later. Fortunately, Guttenberg had invented the printing press 70 years prior and Luther had full access to the printing press and published on a massive scale.
An excellent museum, the Luther House explains Luther’s life as he progressed from his days as a devout monk ending up as a leader of the Reformation. A clever, modern digital display allows visitors to insert coins and receive electronic promises of forgiveness, that is indulgences, going forward hundreds of years! So, more than 500 years the legendary ditty, ‘with every coin that rings, a soul from purgatory springs’, er, rings as strangely as ever.
It was at this museum that I learned that the current Pope, Francis, had pardoned Martin Luther explaining that he was an important church reformer, and that (he, Francis) ‘didn’t believe that Martin Luther’s intentions were wrong.’
Just up the street from Luther House, (where, Martin Luther lived as a student), is Bach House. Hard to believe, but like Luther, Bach is also intrinsically tied to Eisenach, as both men went to the same Latin school, although over 200 years apart.
Bach was born in Eisenach into a family of talented musicians who had played the organ in the Main Cathedral here for four generations. At Johann Sebastian Bach’s baptism, in nearby St. George’s Church, the organ music was played by his uncle. His father was the town’s piper, whose duties included sounding the bugle twice daily from the town hall, still located behind St. George’s Church.
Such was the renown of Bach that his Bach House museum here, has, itself, been going strong for more than 100 years, and is housed in one of Eisenach’s oldest buildings. The museum is a paradise for lovers of Bach’s music.
Very complete explanations following the evolution of Bach’s music are included in a huge modern display on the top floor with music samples, scores and historic details. The connection between Bach’s music and Martin Luther’s is also shown in detail. Luther’s hymns often appear in Bach’s works, such as in ‘The Magnificat’, and in his ‘Christmas Oratorio.’
In the old barn of the Bach House (remember animals lived on the main floor, below the human inhabitants at the time), live concerts are given daily. We witnessed a lively and educational performance of keyboard instruments used in Bach’s time and since. The curator played on all five and mentioned that the second organ, (originally from nearby Weimar) had, in his mind at least, been played by Bach.
Other instruments included a very modern-looking portable keyboard, (almost soundless) that Bach might have used when composing. Another was a compact three-legged ‘Spinette’ whose feather quills created a less harsh harpsichord-like sound.
It was an early spring day when we attended the concert and birds sang mightily in the ancient courtyard outside the old barn, as if hoping to accompany the great master’s work.
A permanent collection of unique instruments is found, such as a violine, with a built in trumpet (from 1717), a huge black Russian bassoon called Serpent – think a somewhat uncoiled black snake, and a huge Glass Harmonica (1775) where large glass plates were played with moistened fingers, not unlike today when you can produce sounds with moist fingertips on wine glasses.
Go to Eisenach. Johann Sebastian Bach and Martin Luther fans will be in heaven there.
MORE INFORMATION ABOUT GERMANY
Guide in Eisenach
Ms. Ina Conrad phone 49(0) 171234 1846
Article By Bruce Sach and Carole Jobin
Editors Note: Leading picture is statue of Martin Luther, the great Reformer in Eisenach where he studied before entering a religious order. The statue is in Eisenach. (Carole Jobin/Vacay Network)