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article image'Iconic' Bach portrait set for public gaze after return to Germany

By AFP     Jun 12, 2015 in World

The best-known portrait of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach goes on public display for the first time in centuries Friday in his former home city after an odyssey sparked by the Nazis' rise.

The 1748 oil painting by Elias Gottlob Haussmann shows the bewigged composer aged around 60 holding the score to one of his canons.

It will be unveiled in a ceremony at around 5:30 pm (1530 GMT) in the eastern city of Leipzig, accompanied by a choir.

"Bach is coming home!" announced the Leipzig Bach Archive in April.

The work, valued at $2.5 million (2.2 million euros), has returned to the city after 265 years.

Bequeathed by its US philanthropist owner to the archive, it is often considered the most authentic depiction of the Baroque period composer and appears in many biographies.

"The portrait, which probably everyone has already seen once in their life, is an icon of music history and, to judge by the sources, is the only true portrayal of the composer," said the Bach museum.

"All the portraits of Bach known today stem from this one painting."

US businessman and philanthropist William Scheide -- who struck it rich at a young age from oil and devoted his life to musicology and rare books -- died in November at the age of 100 and left the painting to the Leipzig Bach Archive.

Now the archive -- located in a 16th century building opposite Leipzig's imposing St Thomas Church, where Bach served as cantor for 27 years -- will put it on permanent public display for the first time since the 18th century.

The city's annual Bach Festival also begins Friday and runs until June 21.

Best known for composing The Brandenburg Concertos, Bach was once described by the 18th century composer Ludwig Van Beethoven as "the immortal god of harmony".

- 'Bach's gaze' -

Haussmann, a Leipzig painter, produced two versions of the portrait but this one, the second, is in much better condition.

The painting's history makes for colourful and beguiling reading.

It was owned from the early 19th century by the Jewish Jenke family from Breslau, now Wroclaw in western Poland, the museum said.

Walter Jenke, a descendant of the buyer, fled Germany in the 1930s when the Nazis came to power.

The portrait was put for safekeeping during World War II at the country home of friends, the Gardiner family, in the southwestern English county of Dorset, away from German bombs.

In another twist to the portrait's tale, English conductor John Eliot Gardiner, the Bach Archive's president, grew up with the painting.

"I literally grew up under Bach's gaze," he said in a statement in April, when he brought his Monteverdi Choir to serenade the portrait at Scheide's home in Princeton, New Jersey, in the presence of the philanthropist's widow Judith.

Gardiner said it was "gratifying" to see the journey of the portrait, for which Bach posed in Leipzig, coming full circle.

Gardiner's book on Bach, "Music in the Castle of Heaven", was published in 2013.

Scheide bought the painting at an auction in 1952. Decades later, in 1985, had expressed a wish to see it return home one day, the museum said.

In February, Princeton University announced that Scheide, an alumnus, had donated his collection of rare books and manuscripts valued at some $300 million.

The collection also includes the first six printed editions of the Bible and an original printing of the US Declaration of Independence.

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