The J.S. Bach Tourist

11. Köthen

Köthen, like Arnstadt, has 33.000 inhabitants nowadays, and is less than 25 miles away from Halle, where Georg Friedrich Händel was born and where Sebastian Bach in vain sought to meet his famous colleague in 1719. Before we went to Köthen, we tried to visit Weissenfels (where Anna Magdalena was from), but a serious traffic jam prevented us from entering its center. Like in Thuringia, many roads are under reconstruction in Sachsen-Anhalt, which results in lots of detours and delays. What we saw of Weissenfels looked quite shabby and also the Schloss seemed to be in bad shape. More than 40 years of economic stagnation left its mark everywhere, particularly in the bad state of maintenance of historical monuments. Köthen would be no exception in this respect.

The environment of Köthen is similar to the Leipzig area, rather flat with slightly rolling landscapes at best. Here, we are definitely not in beautiful Thuringia anymore. Before you enter Köthen (from the direction of Zörbig), you pass through a somewhat run-down industrial zone. For us, this came as a surprise, because from Bach biographies you get the impression of an arcadian and quiet court environment. Of course, there was an industrial revolution after Bach's time, but it was a surprise nevertheless.

Upon entering Köthen, you do not see any signs saying "To the Bach Sites". As a Bach tourist, you are therefore pretty much on your own in Köthen. In fact, we did not see any tourists at all in Köthen. It is just a place that is skipped altogether by tourists, which is also clear from the fact that you cannot buy a single post card in the main shopping street (eventually, I found some in a book store). In this respect (and others as well), Köthen reminded us of Ohrdruf. For a European born in the 1940s, visiting such small East German towns is an amazing experience, a form of time travel back to the 1940s after the war, when most of Europe had a similar low level of economic activity. Many streets in Köthen still have those old-fashioned brick-pavements (sometimes in an incredibly bad state of maintenance), which mostly disappeared elsewhere in Western Europe. At the same time, you see new shops and all kinds of reconstruction projects as signs of newly gained economic hope for this part of Germany.

Due to a complete lack of clues, we could not immediately find our Bach sites, but at some point at the major shopping street, I saw the the phallus-like towers of Leopold's castle (see the pictures on the right, here and at the top of the page). We were at the castle in a few minutes now, and we could even park our car on its premises.

The castle complex has a Bach Saal and a music school, but everything happened to be closed when we arrived (so that we didn't see the chapel, which was restored in baroque style in the 1960s). Somebody was filming the towers, so, perhaps there was exactly one other Bach tourist there (I am too shy to ask a complete stranger: "Hey you, are you a Bach tourist too?" A Bach tourist is not a generally understood concept anyway, certainly not in Köthen).

The whole complex is in the process of being restored right now. The Bach part is partially finished, while the opposite wing is still in its much more shabby (let us say, more authentic) state. In the latter part, there happened to be a museum, so I climbed many flights of stairs to find out that it was not a Bach museum, but an ornithology museum. The rest of this building was filled with municipal services. In general, the whole complex is more dominated by an atmosphere of city administration than by any sign of Bach worship. Well, there is another commemorative tablet near the tower of the Bach wing, which tells you about the immortal masterpieces created there (shown on the left here). You get the distinct impression that the city officials going in and out these buildings couldn't care less.

Just to regain some Bach feeling, I went up and down the stairs in the tower next to the tablet, under the assumption that this much hadn't changed here since Bach's time (Bach must have gone up and down the same stairs). I was thinking of Bach's child who was born here and who was named after Leopold. Leopold August Bach might have been another great composer, but we will never know, because the infant died after ten months. Maria Barbara, Bach's wife, died nine months later (July 1720).

I also had hoped to find some clue here as to the question at which point Anna Magdalena entered Bach's life (this minor obsession is part of my personal "Bachforschung"). Since everything was closed, I could not ask anybody. According to Martin Petzoldt's Bachstätten Aufsuchen (p. 67), she arrived at the Köthen court in the summer of 1721 (just before the first real evidence of courtship). According to other biographers, however, she arrived a year earlier. Whatever the truth, it seems out of the question that she was hired without the approval of Herr Capellmeister Johann Sebastian Bach.

Due to another major traffic jam near Leipzig, we arrived so late in Köthen that we missed several important Bach monuments here. It is not known where Bach lived in Köthen, but for a long time it was believed that he lived in Wallstrasse 25 (which has a memorial). Maria Barbara was buried in the Old Cemetery, which is called Friedenspark nowadays.This site is honored with another commemorative tablet. Unfortunately, we also missed the (supposedly) nice Bach exhibition at the local historical museum.

So, we had little time in Köthen and missed a lot. But I will never forget this strange combination of time travel, economic backwardness, and contrast between any lofty Bach thoughts and the Kafkaesque and indifferent city officials and ornithologists that had taken over the palace of Leopold and Sebastian, presumably ignorant of the sublime music that was created here. To my surprise, at the exit, I found a color version of the famous Merian engraving of the complex in the 17th century, which is shown here on the right. There are still gardens surrounding the Schloss complex, not in baroque style anymore, but still enjoyable.

Practical Information

Without traffic jams, Köthen is less than an hour away from Leipzig by car and half an hour from Halle. Addresses: Schloss: ask or look for the towers. Historisches Museum Köthen and Bach-Gedenkstätte, Landkreis Köthen/Anhalt, Schloszplatz 4/PF 1255, Tel: (03496) 212546 u. 214068. Open: Tue-Fri 9:00 - 12:00 and 13:00 - 16:30. Sun 10:00 - 12:00 and 13:00 -16:30 (Mon closed).

Table of Contents

1. Introduction 2. Eisenach 3. Ohrdruf
4. Lüneburg Heath 5. Lüneburg 6. Lübeck 7. Arnstadt
8. Dornheim 9. Mühlhausen 10. Weimar
11. Köthen 12. Leipzig

Further information:

Go to the map or Bach's biography (Köthen).

Go to the J.S. Bach Home Page