Let’s start at the very beginning…
How far back do you want to go? Staying on topic, how about the genesis of J.S. Bach’s musical métier. I think most people with either a music education or long-time interest in classical music know that J.S. had composer sons, including C.P.E., J.C., and W.F. (I am being just a little silly here; Wilhelm Friedemann, the eldest, is not generally known by his initials.) What I didn’t know before is that music was the Bach family business long before J.S. came along and that our hero was the scion of a deeply rooted musical family in the German state of Thuringia.
Thuring-who-a? Color me ignorant, but that would be terra incognito to me.
Thuringia: “Green heart of Germany,” Lutheran heartland and “Freistaat Thüringen” (Free State of Thuringia). During my limited youthful travels in Germany, Thuringia was not even on my radar, probably because it was part of the DDR, East Germany. Since reunification, it has remained a relatively poor state economically, cherished for its scenic beauty. In the cultural sphere, Thuringia has some truly impressive name-dropping rights: Martin Luther, Goethe, Schiller, Bauhaus, and (of course!) Bach.
Veit Bach (d. 1619) was a baker — a “white-bread baker” to be exact, a fact that sent me on a web odyssey in search of bread history (Digression danger alert! Did you know Germany produces more varieties of breads than any other country?) — who fled Hungary because he was a Lutheran. He settled in Wechmar, a village in Thuringia, presumably because of the aforementioned Lutheran heartland attribute. His predilection for music was expressed through the cittern, a type of lute, and family lore described him strumming along to the rhythm of the millstone while the flour was being milled.
I’ve inserted a link to a short recording of cittern music from the time, found on The Renaissance Cittern Site:
Viet’s son Johannes (Hans) Bach (d. 1626) was the first professional musician in the family. I’ve seen him described as “itinerant,” meaning that he traveled around to different neighboring towns from his home base in Wechmar, including Eisenach, Arnstadt, and Erfurt. (This is not so different from modern professional life; freelance musicians in Washington State might work in Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, Yakima and Walla Walla, putting lots of miles on their cars.) By the time of Viet’s great-grandson Johann Ambrosius (1645-1695), the father of Johann Sebastian, the Bach family so dominated the musical life of the region that when one of J.S.’s uncles died while in the service of the Count of Schwarzburg in Arnstadt, the Count purportedly proclaimed, “We must get another Bach.” A city council document from Erfurt in 1716 refers to “town musicians or so-called ‘Baachen.'”
In our day, the music of J.S. Bach is synonymous with classical music, but in his own day, the name Bach was synonymous with musician.