I was a part-time pilgrim on John Eliot Gardiner’s extraordinary year-long journey, from Christmas 1999 to New Year’s Eve 2000, when he took Johann Sebastian Bach on the road. Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, with his fifteen-member Monteverdi Choir and the twenty instrumentalists of the English Baroque Soloists, performed in Britain, Europe, and the United States all of JSB’s 198 surviving sacred cantatas on the liturgically appropriate days for which they were composed.
At the time, I was engaged on a smaller, more personal devotional journey. The 2000 Melbourne Festival was marking the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death with a substantial program of his works. It seemed a good idea to write about JSB from the point of view of his heartland. That’s why, on a Saturday after Easter, I was in the Peterskirche in Görlitz, a small town on the German–Polish border – the latest stop on Gardiner’s pilgrimage and, indeed, mine. The pilgrims played three cantatas, the town choir joining in the chorales. The minister described the event as one of the greatest days in the cathedral, which is saying something, since there has been a church on that site since the thirteenth century.