Bach’s Amazing Journey

In the autumn of 1705, when Johann Sebastian
Bach was 20, he set out to travel over 275 miles
(each way) on foot from Arnstadt, Thuringia, in
the heart of what is now Germany, to Lübeck,
near the Baltic coast. He undertook this
extraordinary journey in order to meet and study
the music of Lübeck’s famous organist, Dietrich

Christoph, dear brother, I am hale and pray
That Ohrdruf’s churchmen treat you with good will.
I write you now in dread of condemnation
But duty-bound to share this information:
I’ve left my post in Arnstadt—just until
I meet the great composer of our day.

I speak of Buxtehude, brilliant master
Of preludes, fugues and sacred choral hymns.
He dwells a two-week walk far to the north
In Lübeck whither I now venture forth
On foot. I’ll not complain of aching limbs
Nor how a horse might help me get there faster!

I am impelled to seek the Maestro’s teaching
And edify my art through his keen skill.
For Advent he has several concerts planned.
I shall attend to hear his works first-hand.
I pray my soul, attentive to God’s will,
Finds Him through music, ever higher reaching!

You scold I’ll lose my post as organist.
Well Arnstadt’s elders did approve my leave,
But four short weeks from church is all they’ll bless.
My absence must be sixteen weeks—no less.
They may indeed dismiss me. But don’t grieve—
For other needful churches must exist!

My failure to seek Buxtehude now
Would cost my learning from God’s own musician
Whose compositions capture the divine!
I am but twenty. He is sixty-nine.
His winter skirts the spring of my ambition
As he steps forth to take his final bow.

My purse holds just twelve thalers. But my heart
Rejoices just as Zion’s watchmen cry!
It’s possible my plans could all unravel
It’s true that there are fearsome risks to travel
But still the Holy Spirit bids me try.
And what, Christoph, would you do for your art?

I know you think too much is sacrificed—
That my strange pilgrimage should be arrested
But I am driven, seeking what I should.
This wandering shall do my spirit good—
My forty years of desert where I’m tested
And, proving faith, may hear the voice of Christ.

Don’t wonder further why a Bach should plod
These weary miles answering a call
Despite the cost, the burdens and the pain.
My answer, Christoph, in words clear and plain
Is Soli Deo gloria—My all
Is to give forth my very best for God.


Poet’s Notes
Soli Deo gloria means Glory to God alone. Johann Sebastian Bach inscribed these words on each piece of music that he composed.

Bach’s brother, Johann Christoph Bach, was 14 years his elder and head of the Bach family after Bach’s mother and father died in 1694 and 1695 respectively.

Arnstadt’s church fathers rebuked J.S. Bach upon his return from Lubeck for his unauthorized leave of absence and his unfamiliar innovations in music. In particular they criticized him for making “strange variations in the chorale, mixing many outlandish tones in it so that the congregation has become confused thereby.” Bach left Arnstadt in 1706 upon obtaining a new position at Blasius Church in Mühlhausen.

In 1935, Arnstadt’s “New Church” was renamed “Bach Church.”



On Singing Bach’s Mass in B Minor

The harmonies are so intense they burn—
As if the Holy Ghost composed this Mass
And meant it to ignite the soul, to turn
The devil’s weapons into fragile glass

That shatters from these echoes of God’s mind!
There is no room for evil in the wake
Of soul-sung notes and heartfelt words combined.
The music is so beautiful I shake

With wonder at the power of the Trinity
As if Christ whispered to the great Baroque
Composer who wrought disciplined-divinity
And built cathedrals with each brilliant stroke

Of quill to manuscript. As trumpets blare
The melody, our counter-song’s a nod
Not only to the brotherhood we share
But to the very glory of how God

Breathed into life a masterpiece not meant
For Leipzig only or the German nation
But for mankind. Just listen! Heaven sent
Such genius as composed this vast creation—

A mass which breathes of Life for those who pray,
And weep and strive and yearn and vocalize—
It feeds us as we bow our kyrie
And bids us in our suffering to rise,

Our searching souls aspiring ever higher
To cut through time and space as with a sword!
We pray as if with voices cleansed with fire
For Bach’s work sings the glory of the Lord.



Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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33 Responses

  1. James Sale

    Wonderful Brian – superb celebration of JS Bach, my favourite composer and I think the greatest of them all – so many lost works of his, and yet still hundreds that are masterpieces. Beethoven is great, but Bach is greater; when you hear the 9th Symphony, you hear amidst the joy, Beethoven’s joy – his personality writ large in the work; but when you hear Bach you find the same kind of impersonality that Shakespeare evinces in most of his great works. It comes from a deeper source: listening to the St John Passion is listening to music pure, distilled, sublime and removed from mere personality contamination. As Dylan Thomas said, Bach is best! You’ve done a great job celebrating him; I especially like “As if Christ whispered to the great Baroque
    Composer who wrought disciplined-divinity …” Exactly.

    • Jeremiah Johnson

      Why did Beethoven get rid of his chickens?

      Because they kept saying, “Bach. Bach. Bach . . . . “

      • Brian A Yapko

        Thank you for making me laugh, Jeremiah. I’ve much needed a good dose of humor and this has helped.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you very much, James. I love your analysis on one of the major differences between Bach and Beethoven. I agree that Bach is indeed the greater of the two since his music transcends personality completely in contrast to Beethoven who aggrandizes and attempts to universalize it. Perhaps that is a good way of looking at the differences between the Baroque and the Romantic periods of music.

  2. Cynthia Erlandson

    I, too, believe Bach to be the greatest composer who has ever lived; and you have done him great honor in these glorious poems. Mass in B minor is so profound: “soul-sung notes and heartfelt words combined,” indeed. And Bach’s trip to hear Buxtehude’s music is such a good subject for a poem, and beautifully carried out. “His winter skirts the spring of my ambition” is brilliant. And I love the structure into which you’ve built the poem. Thank you for a wonderful beginning of this day.

    • Julian D. Woodruff

      “His winter skirts the spring …”–my favorite line too, Cynthia.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you so much, Cynthia! I love this Mass and am glad that so many others are moved by it as well. I’m especially pleased that you liked my “winter’ skirts” line because, even though I knew what I wanted to say, I had a difficult time articulating it. Some poems flow, some really require some elbow-grease in the fine-tuning.

  3. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Masterful poems honoring a great music master! I have been in choirs singing with such great harmony that the hairs stood up on the back of my head. That is what it must be like to be in an orchestra playing Bach pieces. Bach tunes are what I call influencers, to use the new vernacular, that crossed over into more recent rock and roll. I remember reading a list of some 28 songs and albums that are composed in a “Bachian” way. The one I most remember is “Whiter Shade of Pale” by the British group, Procol Harum, with the great organ music. You made magnificent use of words and phrases in constructing these great poems.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you very much, Roy! I like the “influencer” term you coined. Yes, Bach’s music is extraordinarily influential in all areas of music from classical composition and keyboard study (as from the Well-Tempered Clavier) to the melodies of many pop pieces ranging from The Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto” to Jethro Tull. All musical roads lead to Bach.

  4. Paul Freeman

    As always, an education, Brian. I’ll have a little listen to Bach while I’m working today.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you very much, Paul. Then I have succeeded in what I set out to do!

  5. Jeremiah Johnson

    I’ll echo Cynthia on the “winter skirts” line – positively Shakespearean in its echo (at least to my ear) of “Now is the winter of our discontent” – which is, of course, spoken by a figure obsessed with personal ambition and NOT with the glory of God!

    “On Singing” reminded me of the opening chapters of Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion”, when Iluvatar (God) creates the universe by means of a choral masterpiece and Melkor (Lucifer) tries to usurp the music with his own discordant melody, which is then triumphantly overridden and transformed by Iluvatar’s new melody.

    For me, one of the greatest joys in any art is the drawing of connections to other works. Thanks for stirring up some good ones!

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you very much, Jeremiah, for your kind words and especially for noting the Shakespearian echo of the “winter skirts” line. Obviously, Richard III has nothing in common with Bach of Buxtehude but when I considered the age gap between the two composers, the winter/spring imagery seemed appropriate — especially given the approach within the poem of the Advent season. I also much appreciate your discussion of connections. I agree fully and love to invoke references and echoes of other works in my poetry.

  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    Writing any ekphrastic poem (celebrating a work of art, whether painting or sculpture or fine metalwork) is always difficult. But it is most especially so when attempting to capture the beauty of a piece of music. “On Singing Bach’s Mass…” is a real achievement.

    The dramatic monologue on Bach’s journey to Lubeck is well wrought and impressive. I particularly like stanza 5, and Cynthia has pointed out the utter perfection of the line “His winter skirts the spring of my ambition.”

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you very much indeed, Joe. I did endeavor to write “On Singing Bach’s Mass” with considerable enjambment so that it would have the forward-motion propulsion characteristic of Baroque music. I’m glad to hear that it worked. I’m also pleased that you liked my dramatic monologue. I could not think of how to present such a story other than as an epistle — a form which I believe is underused in poetry.

  7. Julian D. Woodruff

    “His winter skirts the spring …”–my favorite line too, Cynthia.

  8. James A. Tweedie


    My first hearing of the B minor was the Nikolaus Harnoncourt recording with original instruments. Your marvelous poem captures some of the same transcendent joy and dumbfounded awe I felt on that first hearing–a spiritual and emotional response that repeats itself with every hearing since.

    I agree that trying to “capture” the genius of Bach in words of any kind is a daunting task, but, although no poet could ever hope to equal the music, you have reflected its glory and the glory it offers to God in a way that exhibits skill, diligence and–dare I say it–inspiration of the highest order.

    I have been listening to the Harnoncourt Mass as I have typed this comment and thank you so very much for leading me back to the first and greatest of the three Bs.

    I should also mention that I found the form and execution of your first poem to be both innovative and successful.

    • Brian A Yapko

      James, I’m thrilled to receive this generous comment for which I thank you. To have a poem described as showing “inspiration of the highest order” is a compliment I will long treasure. But, of course, one of the extraordinary qualities of Bach is to inspire listeners and performers of him to reach high and to give whatever they can to God. I am most pleased that my work inspired you to listen to the Mass itself. I consider it a pillar of Western culture.

  9. Evan Mantyk

    By the way, I believe Brian is away on vacation and may not respond now.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you, Evan, for giving readers a head’s up on the reason for my “radio silence.” I was on a tour of Mexico for a little over two weeks (Mexico City to Guadalajara and through Mexico’s colonial towns). It was a trip with many spectacular moments and many unexpected, somewhat dismaying challenges. I’m grateful to be home and slowly getting back into the swing of things. And thank you for accepting these poems for publication!

  10. Yael

    Thank you very much for these delightful musical poems Brian, I really enjoyed reading and pondering them. As a result I’m now listening to the Mass in B minor (H Moll) of course, which is a most amazing and uplifting experience and no doubt divinely inspired.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you so much, Yael! I love your usage of proper German musical terminology. Yes, H Moll is how B Minor is referred to in German-speaking countries and is the usage Bach himself would have known. By whatever name, Bach’s Mass is indeed amazing, uplifting and divinely inspired.

  11. C.B Anderson

    These are so good, Brian, that I may now inform you that you are now a Master Wordsmith — three strikes and you’re in. But you knew that already. Seriously, I can’t imagine taking on such a subject in my own pedestrian work, but I will continue to look to yours as a model worth imitating. Write on!

    • Brian A Yapko

      C.B., I am very grateful for this generous comment! I don’t think I’m much of a model, but I appreciate the thought. And I must say… your work is anything but pedestrian. You are a poet who I always learn much from. In fact, my use of enjambment in “On Singing Bach’s Mass in B-Minor” is very much a skill I’ve learned from your unfailingly amazing work.

  12. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, I can only echo the praise of all on this page… and I’ll go on to say, ‘On Singing Bach’s Mass in B Minor’ strikes me as one of your finest.

    As ever, I am wholly impressed by your the smooth progression of language within the constraints of form, and I love your use of internal rhyme: “I speak of Buxtehude, brilliant master / Of preludes, fugues and sacred choral hymns” being a prime example. Like others, I am in awe of the unforgettable “His winter skirts the spring of my ambition”.

    Your excellent employment of enjambment at the end of every stanza in ‘On Singing Bach’s Mass in B Minor’ is remarkable. It allows the music of this fine poem to flow and to soar… seamlessly. The poem is a prime example of linguistic beauty… a musical composition of words that has raised my spirit to radiant realms and left me dazzled. I believe the poems have a far greater impact when read together… to witness the miraculous result of such an arduous journey in magnificent poetry is a privilege. Brian, you are a true master of your craft!

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you so much, Susan! In many ways “Bach’s Mass” was very experimental for me since I’ve never been particularly adept at enjambment or motivated to even try. But this particular musical poem called for it (Bach’s music has a perpetual motion quality enjambment mirrors) and I’m glad that I have apparently succeeded in what I set out to do! I agree regarding the reading of the two poems together. In fact, you’ve accurately reconstructed my mind-set. I wrote the “Bach’s Amazing Journey” poem first after reading about his pilgrimage to meet Buxtehude. After writing it I felt dissatisfied — as if this poem gave the “how” and “why” but it was missing the “what” — the glory of Bach’s actual creation. So that’s when I decided to write the highly subjective ekphrastic poem on the B-minor Mass. I had hoped the two would work as a set and am delighted to hear that they do! Thank you again, Susan!

  13. Margaret Coats

    “Bach’s Amazing Journey” is a pilgrimage lyric, worth comparing to others of the kind. Note the speaker’s reference to his “strange pilgrimage” in stanza 7, and reflect on how he justifies travel for music education ultimately by its divine goal. Note as well that the poem is a dutiful explanation to the head of the speaker’s family, such might be expected from a person trying out a religious vocation despite family opposition. The length of the journey and the meager resources are less amazing than they might seem because of European pilgrimage culture. Arnstadt to Lubeck on foot is quite a trek, but not much, compared to what pilgrims walked for centuries to reach Rome or Compostela. And there are hundred of lesser destinations. The twelve thalers would be stretched by food and lodging offered along the way from persons who understood the young man’s sacred purpose. That still happens; donors feel they share the merit of a pilgrim’s exertions. Parts of Germany still have little shelters in fields along any pilgrim “weg,” sometimes marked with a picture of a wayfarer using a walking staff. What makes Bach’s pilgrimage amazingly difficult is travelling not in the milder weather of recognized “pilgrim season” (Easter through mid-June), but the plan to arrive in Lubeck in late November for Buxtehude’s Advent concerts. Bach wisely hopes to stay for the winter months before returning. Brian, you capture the sacred and secular motives, the recognition of risks, and the felt need for sacrifice, all of which contribute to the sturdy pilgrim confidence behind this endeavor.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you very much, Margaret, for your insightful and informative comment regarding the pilgrimage lyric. I honestly was not aware that this was a genre of poetry but am glad to know that my work fits into a larger tradition. I saw the work primarily as fitting into the epistle form as in Browning’s “An Epistle of Karshish” (shortened title.) I am especially delighted by your placing Bach’s pilgrimage within the larger context of pilgrim culture in Europe. You mention Rome and Compostela… I wonder if such pilgrimages were more common in the Catholic world as opposed to Bach’s Lutheran/Protestant world? Along these lines, did the pilgrimages to Canterbury slow once England joined the Reformation? This discussion has made me more interested in learning about the history of pilgrimages in Europe.

      As a point of trivia, in researching this poem, I discovered that the German unit of currency, the “thaler” (15th to 19th century in various German states), is the etymological source of our word “dollar.”

      Concerning the reference to the “strange” pilgrimage, the adjective “strange” is Bach’s projection of how he thinks his uptight brother will judge his risky venture. I believe Bach himself would think that this pilgrimage — ostensibly professional in nature but, ultimately, with a deep spiritual agenda — is the most rational thing in the world for him to undertake. He starts with an almost legal argument to his brother emphasizing the practical reasons for his quest to meet Buxtehude, but ultimately cannot help but gush about the fact that his real motive is to seek God’s true inspiration. I embedded three Biblical references here to anchor Bach’s spiritual journey in his Christian faith: Zion’s watchmen (an Easter egg for those familiar with Cantata 140), the reference to the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert, all culminating with the very voice of Christ. You clearly understand the interplay of sacred and secular motives here which I hope many other poets and artists may relate to as well in the creation of a work of art. The focal point of the work is the challenge to his brother: “And what, Christoph, would you do for your art?” A legitimate question to ask any would-be artist or writer.

      While offering details on the poem, a quick mention regarding the ABCCBA rhyme scheme — it is meant to visually (and only metaphorically) echo a musical scale.

      Thank you again, Margaret, not only for your insightful comment but for allowing me to explain better some of the details of the work.

  14. Joshua C. Frank

    The first is good, but it’s the second I love, showing the beauty of Bach’s music. Having listened to Bach many times, I agree that his music must have been written under the influence of the Holy Spirit, “As if Christ whispered to the great Baroque/Composer who wrought disciplined-divinity/And built cathedrals with each brilliant stroke.” Some of our poets right here have also written things that gave me that thought (you know who you are), making this a perfect subject for a poem.

    Interestingly, we Catholics have a saying similar to “Soli Deo Gloria.” For us, it’s “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam” (“To the greater glory of God”), or “AMDG” for short.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you very much, Josh! I’m pleased not only that you like it but that you recognize the intersection between different forms of art — here music and poetry/prose (linked with my word-choice “manuscript” rather than “parchment”) and less subtly the reference to those cathedrals which brings in engineering and architecture. One can never quite predict what might “ignite the soul.”

      Thank you also for educating me regarding the Catholic analog to Bach’s credo.

  15. Margaret Coats

    I haven’t yet commented on the “Singing” poem because the two deserve separate consideration. This is Brian’s personal exposition of his experience, which is a spiritual one although it most likely occurred in a concert rather than a Mass. It is a sad thing that today one is very unlikely to hear any orchestral Mass performed as liturgy. I sing Gregorian chant Masses in church once or twice a week, and for special occasions I’ve done some full liturgical Masses in polyphony, but I have managed only one performance of an early 20th century organ Mass as a real Mass. Can you imagine the expenses and organization and time required to prepare an orchestral Mass? You were fortunate to have the opportunity, Brian.

    In fact, you were more fortunate than Bach himself, who apparently never heard the full B minor (H moll) Mass in concert or in church. I am intrigued that you experienced it as fire, especially, it seems, as purgative fire. I am glad you mention the particular effect of the Kyrie, during which you say you bow. You must mean an interior bow, as neither a choral director nor a church choirmaster would put up with singers bowing while they sing. But each portion of the Mass should have its own effect, depending on the words. In the Kyrie, we beg for mercy, which would make bowing appropriate (one Italian director I worked with said we should NOT sing any Kyrie standing tall and proud like Mussolini). Your saying that the Mass “feeds” you there implies a consciousness of receiving mercy.

    It must be difficult to express the total effect of the piece! Bach’s B minor may be the Mass most often performed in concert today, but looking at what classical music sites say, the others we are most likely to hear are nearly all Requiems (Mozart, Faure, Durufle, Verdi, Brahms). Clearly, there is something missing in our era–although the most popular Mass after Bach’s is the original polyphonic Mass by Machaut.

    I should mention, in addition to the cleansing fire, the life and sense of universality you feel in singing the Bach Mass. Yours is an excellent poem in the attempt to give us the effect of the whole upon a person who may represent others (though in these cases, emotions are unique and personal). Much attempted, and much achieved!

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you, Margaret, for this comment on “On Singing Bach’s Mass” and the insights you bring regarding singing liturgical music and how it may subjectively affect the soul. I have not sung the entirety of the Mass — only excerpts with an amateur choir at a church in Oregon. But I can say that the joy of singing Bach — for me — is unlike that of singing any other composer. The closest thing I can compare it to is singing the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which I did twice with the Oregon Symphony in 2013 and 2014, but Beethoven — to me — is not nearly as satisfying as Bach. I think Beethoven’s work is brilliant. However, the Ode to Joy’s harmonies and peculiar interchange between soloists, duets and chorus has a disjointed quality that is never, ever present in Bach. And, of course, Beethoven is far more Deist — maybe even secular humanist — than Christian.

      I’m quite certain that you are right regarding great and lengthy masses which do not get performed in church anymore but are relegated to the concert hall. Attention spans have diminished severely in the last three hundred years and it’s difficult to imagine a four hour church service to accommodate performance of the B-Minor! Mozart’s Requiem is probably 45 minutes or so and even that is likely too long for most services. A relatively short cantata may still work, however.

      My use of fire in this poem is both experiential and symbolic. The symbolism is obviously that of the Holy Spirit, which is often depicted as fire and which, for me, goes back to Moses and the burning bush, but even moreso the tongues of fire that baptize the apostles in Acts which we memorialize with Pentecost and, equally relevant, John the Baptist, who says that the Messiah will baptize with both spirit and fire. As for my subjective experience, I can’t say I felt like I was burning, but I felt cleansed and great warmth. Indeed, I must say that I deeply felt the presence of God. The Pentecost connection struck me when writing this poem, not because it’s about that event in the Bible but because the idea of a gathering of people all being struck by the Holy Spirit at the same time and in the same cause pulled me in.

      You are quite right about that internal bow for the Kyrie — we stand tall with diaphragms in good working order while endeavoring to NOT imitate Mussolini.

      What is particularly important about the subjective experience in this poem, is the idea of spiritual warfare. No one has yet commented on the spiritual destruction of satan’s weapons, or the spiritual sword in the last stanza. Fire in this poem does not only cleanse — it is a spiritual force against evil. Subjectively, when singing (or listening to) works as monumental and spiritual as Bach’s piece, one’s loins are well-girded to fighting the devil in all of his aspects. To strengthen one’s spiritual spine — that is what great art has the potential to do!


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