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The Johann Sebastian Bach biography

(b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750)


Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.

The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach's works were under way; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.








1. Childhood.

The parents of Johann Sebastian were Johann Ambrosius Bach (11) and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt (1644–94), daughter of a furrier and town councillor in Erfurt, Valentin Lämmerhirt (d 1665). Another Lämmerhirt daughter became the mother of Bach’s cousin J.G. Walther, suggesting that Lämmerhirt blood was perhaps not unimportant for the musical talents of the Bach family’s greatest son. Elisabeth’s elder half-sister Hedwig Lämmerhirt was the second wife of Ambrosius Bach’s uncle, Johann Bach (4), organist of the Predigerkirche in Erfurt. Elisabeth and Ambrosius, who had worked in Eisenach since 1671 as Hausmann and also as a musician at the ducal court of Saxe-Eisenach, were married on 8 April 1668, and had eight children, five of whom survived infancy; as well as Johann Sebastian, the last, these were three sons (nos.22, 71 and 23) and a daughter, Maria Salome. The date of Johann Sebastian’s birth, 21 March 1685, was carefully recorded by Walther in his Lexicon, by Sebastian himself in the family genealogy, and by his son as the co-author of the obituary. It is supported by the date of baptism (23 March; these dates are old-style) in the register of St Georg. His godfathers were Johann Georg Koch, a forestry official, and Sebastian Nagel, a Gotha Stadtpfeifer. The house of his birth no longer stands; it is not the handsome old structure (Frauenplan 21) acquired by the Neue Bachgesellschaft in 1907 as the ‘Bachhaus’ and established as a Bach Museum. He would have been born in the house in the Fleischgasse (now the Lutherstrasse) that Ambrosius Bach bought in 1674 after gaining Eisenach citizenship.

After the time of the Reformation all children in Eisenach were obliged to go to school between the ages of five and 12, and (although there is no documentary evidence of it) Sebastian must have entered one of the town’s German schools in 1690. From 1692 he attended the Lateinschule (as had Luther, also an Eisenach boy); this offered a sound humanistic and theological education. At Easter 1693 he was 47th in the fifth class, having been absent 96 half-days; in 1694 he lost 59 half-days, but rose to 14th and was promoted; at Easter 1695 he was 23rd in the fourth class, in spite of having lost 103 half-days (perhaps owing to illness, but probably also to the deaths of his parents). He stood one or two places above his brother Jacob, who was three years older and less frequently absent. Nothing more is known about his Eisenach career; but he is said to have been an unusually good treble and probably sang under Kantor A.C. Dedekind at St Georg, where his father made instrumental music before and after the sermon and where his relation (2) Johann Christoph Bach (13) was organist. His musical education is matter for conjecture; presumably his father taught him the rudiments of string playing, but (according to Emanuel) he had no formal tuition on keyboard instruments until he went to Ohrdruf. He later described Johann Christoph as ‘a profound composer’; no doubt he was impressed by the latter’s organ playing as well as by his compositions.

Elisabeth Bach was buried on 3 May 1694, and on 27 November Ambrosius married Barbara Margaretha, née Keul, the daughter of a former mayor of Arnstadt. Aged 35, she had already been twice widowed. Her first husband had been a musician, Johann Günther Bach (15), and her second a theologian, Jacobus Bartholomaei (both marriages had taken place in Arnstadt), and she brought to her third marriage two little daughters, Catharina Margareta and Christina Maria, one by each of her earlier husbands. A month before Ambrosiuss own second marriage, on 23 October 1694, he and his family had celebrated the wedding of the eldest son, Johann Christoph (22) in Ohrdruf. The music on that occasion was by Ambrosius Bach, Johann Pachelbel from nearby Gotha and other friends and family members. This was probably the only occasion on which the then nine-year-old Sebastian met Pachelbel, his brother’s teacher. Barely three months after re-marrying, on 20 February 1695, Ambrosius Bach died after a long and serious illness. On 4 March the widow appealed to the town council for help; but she received only her legal due, and the household broke up. Sebastian and Jacob were taken in by their elder brother Johann Christoph, organist at Ohrdruf.

Both were sent to the Lyceum. Jacob left at the age of 14 to be apprenticed to his father’s successor at Eisenach; Sebastian stayed on until 1700, when he was nearly 15, and thus came under the influence of an exceptionally enlightened curriculum. Inspired by the educationist Comenius, it embraced religion, reading, writing, arithmetic, singing, history and natural science. Sebastian entered the fourth class probably about March 1695, and was promoted to the third in July: on 20 July 1696 he was first among the seven new boys and fourth in the class; on 19 July 1697 he was first, and was promoted to the second class; on 13 July 1698 he was fifth; on 24 July 1699 second, and promoted to the first class, in which he was fourth when he left the school on 15 March 1700 and went to Lüneburg.

In the obituary Emanuel stated that his father had his first keyboard lessons from Christoph, at Ohrdruf; in 1775, replying to Forkel, he said that Christoph might have trained him simply as an organist, and that Sebastian became ‘a pure and strong fuguist’ through his own efforts. That is likely enough; Christoph is not known to have been a composer. Several early biographers told the story of how Christoph would not allow his brother to use a certain manuscript; how Sebastian copied it by moonlight; how Christoph took the copy away from him; and how he did not recover it until Christoph died. Emanuel and Forkel assumed that Christoph died in 1700, and that Sebastian, left homeless, went to Lüneburg in desperation. Later authors, knowing that Christoph lived on until 1721, and that the brothers had been on good terms, have tended to reject the story – perhaps unnecessarily, for it may illustrate contemporary attitudes to discipline and restraint. In fact, the story fits in well with the little that is known of the Ohrdruf years, and with the idea that Sebastian taught himself composition by copying. Most probably he recovered his copy when he went to Lüneburg. As for its contents, Forkel implied that it contained works by seven famous composers, three of them northerners. He probably misunderstood Emanuel’s reply to another of his questions; according to the obituary, the manuscript was mainly southern (Froberger, Kerll, Pachelbel) – as one would expect, since Johann Christoph had been a Pachelbel pupil. (A good idea of its contents can be obtained from a manuscript collection compiled in 1692 by another of Pachelbel’s pupils, J.V. Eckelt.) The larger of the two organs at Ohrdruf was in almost unplayable condition in 1697, and Sebastian no doubt picked up some of his expert knowledge of organ building while helping his brother with repairs.

No documentary evidence exists to establish when Bach started to compose, but it is reasonable to suppose that it was while he lived in Ohrdruf – not least because other contemporaries, and his own sons in due course, began composing original music before reaching the age of 15. The earliest organ chorales in the Neumeister manuscript, as well as such works as bwv749, 750 and 756, provide plausible examples of pieces composed before and around 1700. They are characterized by sound craftsmanship, observance of models provided by Pachelbel (his teacher’s teacher) and everywhere the sense of an endeavour to break away from musical conventions and find independent answers.


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2. Lüneburg.

According to the school register, Sebastian left Ohrdruf ‘ob defectum hospitiorum’ (‘for lack of board and lodging’); clearly Christoph no longer had room for his brother. Since the latter’s arrival he had had two children; by March 1700 a third was expected; and (if local tradition can be trusted) his house, now destroyed, was a mere cottage. The brothers’ problem seems to have been solved by Elias Herda, Kantor and a master at the Lyceum. He had been educated at Lüneburg, and no doubt it was he who arranged for Sebastian to go north; probably he similarly helped Georg Erdmann, a fellow pupil of Sebastian’s, three years older, who left the school just before Bach (for the same reason). According to the obituary they travelled together. They must have reached Lüneburg before the end of March for both were entered in the register of the Mettenchor (Matins choir) by 3 April 1700 and probably sang in it within a matter of days for Holy Week and Easter.

The Michaeliskirche, Lüneburg, had two schools associated with it: a Ritteracademie for young noblemen, and the Michaelisschule for commoners. There were also two choirs: the ‘chorus symphoniacus’ of about 25 voices was led by the Mettenchor, which numbered about 15, and was limited to poor boys. Members of the Mettenchor received free schooling at the Michaelisschule, up to 1 thaler per month according to seniority, their keep, and a share in fees for weddings and other occasions (Bach’s share in 1700 has been put at 14 marks). From the arrangement of the pay-sheets it has been deduced that they were both trebles. Bach was welcomed for his unusually fine voice; but it soon broke, and for eight days he spoke and sang in octaves. After that he may or may not have sung, but no doubt he made himself useful as an accompanist or string player. As the last extant pay-sheet is that for 29 May 1700, no details are known; but it is clear that the school was short of instrumentalists at just this time.

At school, Bach’s studies embraced orthodox Lutheranism, logic, rhetoric, Latin and Greek, arithmetic, history, geography and German poetry. The Kantor was August Braun, whose compositions have disappeared; the organist, F.C. Morhard, was a nonentity. The organ was repaired in 1701 by J.B. Held, who had worked at Hamburg and Lübeck; he lodged in the school, and may have taught Bach something about organ building. There was a fine music library, which had been carefully kept up to date; but whether choirboys were allowed to consult it is uncertain. If Braun made good use of it, Bach must have learnt a good deal from the music he had to perform; but his chief interests probably lay outside the school. At the Nikolaikirche was J.J. Löwe (1629–1703), distinguished but elderly. The Johanniskirche was another matter, for there the organist was Georg Böhm (1661–1733), who is generally agreed to have influenced Bach. It has been argued that the organist of the Johanniskirche would not have been accessible to a scholar of the Michaelisschule, since the two choirs were not on good terms, and that Bach’s knowledge of Böhm’s music must have come later, through J.G. Walther. But Emanuel Bach stated in writing that his father had studied Böhm’s music; and a correction in a note to Forkel shows that his first thought was to say that Böhm had been his father’s teacher. This hint is supported by the fact that in 1727 Bach named Böhm as his northern agent for the sale of Partitas nos.2 and 3. That seems to imply that the two were on friendly terms; it is likelier that they became so between 1700 and 1702 than at any later date.

Bach went more than once to Hamburg, some 50 km away; probably he visited his cousin Johann Ernst (25), who was evidently studying there about this time. The suggestion that he went to hear Vincent Lübeck cannot be taken seriously, for Lübeck did not go to Hamburg until August 1702, by which time Bach had almost certainly left the area. He may have visited the Hamburg Opera, then directed by Reinhard Keiser, whose St Mark Passion he performed during the early Weimar years and again in 1726; but there is no solid evidence that he was interested in anything but the organ and in particular the organist of St Katharinen, J.A. Reincken, whose influence on the young Bach as both theorist and practitioner it would be difficult to overestimate. Marpurg’s familiar anecdote makes the point neatly: how Bach, returning almost penniless to Lüneburg, once rested outside an inn; how someone threw two herring heads out on the rubbish heap; how Bach – a Thuringian, to whom fish were a delicacy – picked them up to see if any portion were edible; how he found that they contained two Danish ducats, and was thus able not only to have a meal, but also ‘to undertake another and a more comfortable pilgrimage to Herr Reincken’.

J.A. Reincken (?1623–1722), a pupil of Sweelinck and organist of St Katharinen since 1663, was a father figure of the north German school. Böhm may have advised Bach to hear him; and his showy playing, exploiting all the resources of the organ, must have been a revelation to one brought up in the reticent tradition of the south. As for the organ itself, Bach never forgot it; in later years he described it as excellent in every way, said that the 32 Principal was the best he had ever heard, and never tired of praising the 16 reeds. Whether he actually met Reincken before 1720 is uncertain. If he did, Reincken might have given him a copy of his sonatas; Bach’s reworkings of them (the keyboard pieces bwv954, 965 and 966) are more likely to have been made soon after 1700 than 20 years later, when Bach no longer needed to teach himself composition.

The market-place in Lüneburg had been graced since the end of the 17th century by a palace used for the visits of the Duke of Celle-Lüneburg and his court; the principal ducal residence and seat of government lay in Celle, some 80 km to the south. The duke, married to Eléonore d’Olbreuse, a Huguenot of noble birth, was a pronounced francophile and maintained an orchestra consisting largely of Frenchmen, which played in both Celle and Lüneburg. Thomas de la Selle, dancing-master at the Ritteracademie next door to Bach’s school in Lüneburg, was also a member of the Celle orchestra. Emanuel Bach knew that his father was often able to hear this ‘famous orchestra’ and thus to become acquainted with French taste. It cannot be ruled out that Bach occasionally helped out as an instrumentalist when the court orchestra played in the ducal residence in Lüneburg.

The date of Bach’s departure from Lüneburg is not known, but we may suppose that he completed his final school year after two years and left school at Easter 1702. It seems unlikely that he remained in Lüneburg for any length of time after that, for he left without hearing Buxtehude and took extraordinary pains to do so in winter 1705–6. He probably visited relatives in Thuringia after Easter 1702. All that is definitely known is that he competed successfully for the vacant post of organist at St Jacobi in Sangerhausen (the organist was buried on 9 July), but the Duke of Weissenfels intervened and had J.A. Kobelius, a somewhat older man, appointed in November. Bach is next heard of at Weimar, where he was employed at the court as a musician for the first two quarters of 1703; the court accounts have him down as a lackey, but he described himself as a ‘Hofmusikant’ (court musician) in the Ursprung. This was at the minor Weimar court, that of Duke Johann Ernst, younger brother of the Duke Wilhelm Ernst whom Bach served from 1708 to 1717. Possibly the Duke of Weissenfels, having refused to accept Bach at Sangerhausen, found work for him at Weimar; another possibility is that Bach owed his appointment to a distant relation of his, David Hoffmann, another lackey-musician.

Of the musicians with whom Bach now became associated, three are worth mentioning. G.C. Strattner (c1644–1704), a tenor, became vice-Kapellmeister in 1695, and composed in a post-Schütz style. J.P. von Westhoff (1656–1705) was a fine violinist and had travelled widely, apparently as a diplomat, and is said to have been the first to compose a suite for unaccompanied violin (1683). Johann Effler (c1640–1711) was the court organist: he had held posts at Gehren and Erfurt (where Pachelbel was his successor) before coming in 1678 to Weimar, where about 1690 he moved to the court. He may have been willing to hand over some of his duties to Bach, and probably did something of the kind, for a document of 13 July 1703 at Arnstadt, where Bach next moved, describes Bach as court organist at Weimar – a post that was not officially his until 1708.


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3. Arnstadt.

The Bonifaciuskirche at Arnstadt had burnt down in 1581, and was subsequently rebuilt in 1676–83; it then became known as the Neue Kirche, and so remained until 1935, when it was renamed after Bach. In 1699 J.F. Wender contracted to build an organ, which by the end of 1701 had become usable; on 1 January 1702 Andreas Börner was formally appointed organist. The organ was complete by June 1703, and was examined before 3 July; there were more examiners than one, but only Bach was named and paid, and it was he who ‘played the organ for the first time’. The result was that on 9 August Bach was offered the post over Börner’s head; at the same time, ‘to prevent any such collisions as are to be feared’, Börner was given other work. Bach accepted the post ‘by handshake’ on 14 August 1703. The exact date of his removal to Arnstadt is not known, nor is his address. As his last board and lodging allowance was paid to Feldhaus, he probably spent at least that year in either the Golden Crown or the Steinhaus, both of which belonged to Feldhaus. Considering his age, and local standards, he was well paid; and his duties, as specified in his contract, were light. Normally, he was required at the church only for two hours on Sunday morning, for a service on Monday, and for two hours on Thursday morning; and he had only to accompany hymns. He thus had plenty of time for composition and organ playing, and he took as his models Bruhns, Reincken, Buxtehude (all northerners) and certain good French organists. There is no evidence as to whether he took part in the theatrical and musical entertainments of the court or the town.

Bach was in no position to put on elaborate music at Arnstadt. The Neue Kirche, like the other churches, drew performers from two groups of schoolboys and senior students. Only one of these groups was capable of singing cantatas; it was supposed to go to the Neue Kirche monthly in the summer, but there does not appear to have been a duty roster. The performers naturally tended to go to the churches that had an established tradition and friendly organists; and Bach had no authority to prevent this, for he was not a schoolmaster and was younger than many of the students. Further, he never had much patience with the semi-competent, and was apt to alienate them by making offensive remarks. One result was his scuffle with J.H. Geyersbach (b 1682). On 4 August 1705 he and his cousin Barbara, elder sister (aged 26) to his future wife, fell in with six students who had been to a christening feast; one of these was Geyersbach, who asked why Bach had insulted him (or his bassoon), and struck him in the face with a stick. Bach drew his sword, but another student separated them. Bach complained to the consistory that it would be unsafe for him to go about the streets if Geyersbach were not punished, and an inquiry was held. The consistory told Bach that he ought not to have insulted Geyersbach and should try to live peaceably with the students; further, he was not (as he claimed) responsible only for the chorales but was expected to help with all kinds of music. Bach replied that if a musical director were appointed, he would be willing enough.

Bach, unimpressed, asked for four weeks’ leave, and set off for Lübeck – ‘what is more, on foot’, says the obituary, adding that he had an overwhelming desire to hear Buxtehude. Dates and distance cast some doubts on his straightforwardness. He left Arnstadt about 18 October, and was therefore due to be back, or well on his way back, by about 15 November; he would thus have been unable to hear even the first of Buxtehude’s special services, which were given on various dates from 15 November to 20 December. Perhaps, like Mattheson and Handel before him, he went primarily to see if there was any chance of succeeding Buxtehude, and was put off by the prospect of marrying Buxtehude’s daughter, aged 30; in any case, by 1705 there was a rival in the field. However that may be, he stayed almost three months at Lübeck, and was absent altogether for about 16 weeks, not returning to Arnstadt until shortly before 7 February 1706, when he communicated.

On 21 February the consistory asked Bach why he had been away for so long; his replies were unsatisfactory and barely civil. They next complained that his accompaniments to chorales were too elaborate for congregational singing, and that he still refused to collaborate with the students in producing cantatas; further, they could not provide a Kapellmeister for him, and if he continued to refuse they would have to find someone more amenable. Bach repeated his demand for a musical director, and was ordered to apologize within eight days. From the next case that the consistory heard that day it seems that there had been actual ‘disordres’ in the church between Bach and the students. There is no evidence that Bach apologized, and the consistory dropped the matter for eight months. They brought it up again on 11 November, and Bach undertook to answer them in writing. They also accused him of inviting a ‘stranger maiden’ to make music in the church, but for this he had obtained the parson’s permission. The girl in question cannot have been his cousin and future wife, for she had long been resident in Arnstadt and therefore would be unlikely to be described as a stranger.

Neither Bach nor the consistory took further action; no doubt they saw that the problem would soon solve itself. Probably Bach had come back from Lübeck with exalted ideas about church music, requiring facilities that Arnstadt could not provide. His ability was becoming known; on 28 November he helped to examine an organ at Langewiesen. Forkel said that various posts were offered to him; and with the death of J.G. Ahle, on 2 December, a sufficiently attractive vacancy seemed to have arisen.


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4. Mühlhausen.

Ahle had been a city councillor of Mühlhausen, organist of St Blasius and a composer of minor rank. Musical standards had fallen during his tenure of office, but the post was a respectable one and various candidates gave trial performances. One was to have been J.G. Walther, the future lexicographer; he sent in two compositions for 27 February 1707 (Sexagesima), but withdrew after being told privately that he had no hope. Bach played at Easter (24 April) and may have performed Cantata No. 4. At the city council meeting on 24 May no other name was considered, and on 14 June Bach was interviewed. He asked for the same salary that he was receiving at Arnstadt (some 20 gulden more than Ahle’s); the councillors agreed, and an agreement was signed on 15 June. At Arnstadt his success became known; his cousin Johann Ernst (25) and his predecessor Börner applied for the Neue Kirche on 22 and 23 June. He resigned formally on 29 June, and presumably moved to Mühlhausen within a few days. It was perhaps in July that he wrote Cantata No. 131; this was clearly intended for a penitential service, perhaps connected with a disastrous fire of 30 May. It was not Bach’s own Pastor Frohne who commissioned this cantata, but Pastor Eilmar of the Marienkirche – a fact whose possible significance will be seen later. Bach’s responsibilities in Mühlhausen included also the convent of Augustinian nuns where there was an organ by Wender without pedals; his principal duty there was to play for special services.

On 10 August 1707 Tobias Lämmerhirt, Bach’s maternal uncle, died at Erfurt. He left Bach 50 gulden, more than half his salary, and thus facilitated his marriage to Maria Barbara (b 20 Oct 1684), daughter of (3) Johann Michael Bach (14) and Catharina Wedemann. The wedding took place on 17 October at Dornheim, a village near Arnstadt; the pastor, J.L. Stauber (1660–1723), was a friend of the family and himself married Regina Wedemann on 5 June 1708. Pupils began to come to Bach at about this time, or perhaps even earlier. J.M. Schubart (1690–1721) is said to have been with him from 1707 to 1717, and J.C. Vogler (1696–1763) to have arrived at the age of ten (at Arnstadt), to have left for a time, and to have returned from about 1710 until 1715. These two were his immediate successors at Weimar; from their time onwards he was never without pupils.

On 4 February 1708 the annual change of council took place, and Cantata No. 71 was performed. It must have made an impression, for the council printed not only the libretto, as was usual, but also the music. Bach next drew up a plan for repairing and enlarging the St Blasius organ; the council considered this on 21 February, and decided to act on it. Cantata No. 196 may have been written for Stauber’s wedding on 5 June. At about this time Bach played before the reigning Duke of Weimar, Wilhelm Ernst, who offered him a post at his court. On 25 June Bach wrote to the council asking them to accept his resignation.

No doubt the larger salary at Weimar was an attraction, particularly as Bach’s wife was pregnant. But it is clear, even from his tactful letter to these councillors who had treated him well, that there were other reasons for leaving. He said that he had encouraged ‘well-regulated church music’ not only in his own church, but also in the surrounding villages, where the harmony was often ‘better than that cultivated here’ (Spitta found a fragment, bwv223, at nearby Langula). He had also gone to some expense to collect ‘the choicest sacred music’. But in all this members of his own congregation had opposed him, and were not likely to stOp. Some people no doubt disliked the type of music that he was trying to introduce. Further, Pastor Frohne may have distrusted his organist; an active Pietist, he was at daggers drawn with the orthodox Pastor Eilmar of the Marienkirche – Bach had begun his Mühlhausen career by working with Eilmar, and they had become intimate enough for Eilmar and his daughter to be godparents to Bach’s first two children.

The council considered his letter on 26 June and reluctantly let him go, asking him only to supervise the organ building at St Blasius. However badly Bach may have got on with his congregation, he was evidently on good terms with the council. They paid him to come and perform a cantata at the council service in 1709, and possibly also in 1710 (all trace of these works is lost). In 1735 he negotiated on friendly terms with the new council on behalf of his son Johann Gottfried Bernhard (47). He is not known to have been paid for supervising or opening the St Blasius organ, but he may have done so.


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5. Weimar.

When he announced his resignation from Mühlhausen, Bach said that he had been appointed to the Duke of Weimar’s ‘Capelle und Kammermusik’, and it was long thought that he did not become organist at once. In fact, Weimar documents show that on 14 July 1708, when his ‘reception money’ was paid over, he was called ‘the newly appointed court organist’, and that he was almost always so called until March 1714, when he became Konzertmeister as well. Effler, it seems, was pensioned off on full salary (130 florins); on 24 December 1709 he received a small gift as ‘an old sick servant’, and he died at Jena on 4 April 1711.

It is said that Bach wrote most of his organ works at Weimar, and that the duke took pleasure in his playing. His salary was from the outset larger than Effler’s (150 florins, plus some allowances); it was increased to 200 from Michaelmas 1711, 215 from June 1713, and 250 on his promotion in 1714. On 20 March 1715 it was ordered that his share of casual fees was to be the same as the Kapellmeister’s. Moreover, he seems to have had a fair amount of spare time, in which, for instance, to cultivate the acquaintance of Telemann while the latter was at Eisenach (1708–12). Together with the violinist Pisendel he copied a concerto in G of Telemann’s (D-Dl), probably during Pisendel’s visit to Weimar in 1709.

Six of Bach’s children were born at Weimar: Catharina (bap. 29 Dec 1708; d 14 Jan 1774); (8) Wilhelm Friedemann (45) (b 22 Nov 1710); twins (b 23 Feb 1713; both died in a few days); (9) Carl Philipp Emanuel (46) (b 8 March 1714); and Johann Gottfried Bernhard (47) (b 11 May 1715). The various godparents show that Bach and his wife kept in touch with relations and friends from Ohrdruf, Arnstadt and Mühlhausen, besides making fresh contacts at Weimar; it is noteworthy that Telemann was godfather to Emanuel.

On 13 March 1709 Bach, his wife, and one of her sisters (probably the eldest, Friedelena, who died at Leipzig in 1729) were living with Adam Immanuel Weldig, a falsettist and Master of the Pages. They probably stayed there until August 1713, when Weldig gave up his house, having secured a similar post at Weissenfels. Weldig was godfather to Emanuel; Bach (by proxy) to a son of Weldig’s in 1714. Weldig’s house was destroyed in 1944; where Bach lived before and after the given dates is not known.

Since 29 July 1707, J.G. Walther (the lexicographer) had been organist of the Stadtkirche; he was related to Bach through his mother, a Lämmerhirt, and the two became friendly. On 27 September 1712 Bach stood godfather to Walther’s son. Forkel told a story of how Walther played a trick on Bach, to cure him of boasting that there was nothing he could not read at sight. Their relations did not deteriorate, as Spitta supposed; in 1735 Bach negotiated on Walther’s behalf with the Leipzig publisher J.G. Krügner, and Walther’s references to Bach in his letters to Bokemeyer carry no suggestion of any coolness. From one such letter it seems that during his nine years at Weimar Bach gave Walther some 200 pieces of music, some by Buxtehude, others compositions of his own.

Of Bach’s pupils, Schubart and Vogler have already been mentioned. The pupil for whom Bach was paid by Ernst August’s account in 1711–12 was not Duke Ernst August himself but a page called Jagemann. J.G. Ziegler (1688–1747) matriculated at the University of Halle on 12 October 1712, but before that he had studied with Bach for a year or so, and had been taught to play chorales ‘not just superficially, but according to the sense of the words’; Bach’s wife stood godmother to his daughter in 1718, and in 1727 Bach employed him as agent, in Halle, for Partitas nos.2 and 3. P.D. Krauter of Augsburg (1690–1741) set out for Weimar in March 1712, and stayed until about September 1713. Johann Lorenz Bach (38) probably arrived in autumn 1713; he may have left Weimar by July 1717. Johann Tobias Krebs (1690–1762) studied with Walther from 1710, with Bach from about 1714 until 1717. Johann Bernhard Bach (41) worked with his uncle from about 1715 until March 1719, alongside Samuel Gmelin (1695–1752), who appears to have left in 1717. C.H. Dretzel of Nuremberg (1697–1775) may have been briefly with Bach. In 1731, when applying for a post, T.C. Gerlach (1694–1768) implied that Bach had been teaching him by correspondence for 14 years, but his confused phraseology should not be taken literally.

The specification of the organ in the castle chapel, published in 1737, has not always been reprinted correctly; in any case, it does not represent the organ that Bach left in 1717. Extensive alterations were made in 1719–30. Still less does the specification represent the organ that Bach was faced with in 1708, for he himself made even more extensive alterations in 1713–14. The organ is said to have been built by Compenius in 1657–8. It was overhauled in 1707–8, and a Sub-Bass added, by J.C. Weishaupt, who carried out further maintenance work in 1712. A contract for alterations had however been signed on 29 June 1712 with H.N. Trebs (1678–1748), who had moved from Mühlhausen to Weimar in 1709. Bach and he had worked together on a new organ at Taubach in 1709–10, opened by Bach on 26 October 1710; in 1711 he gave Trebs a handsome testimonial, and in 1713 he and Walther became godfathers to Trebs’s son. Bach and Trebs collaborated again about 1742, over an organ at Bad Berka. Trebs’s new organ was usable during 1714; he had done 14 days’ tuning by 19 May, and was paid off on 15 September. Of this rebuild nothing is known, except that either Bach or the duke was determined that the instrument include a Glockenspiel; great trouble was taken over obtaining bells from dealers in Nuremberg and Leipzig, and it seems that the original set of 29 (a number hard to account for) had to be replaced because of difficulties over blend and pitch. In 1737 the organ had a Glockenspiel on the Oberwerk, but alterations had been made in 1719–20 and it does not follow that the Glockenspiel of 1714 was on a manual.

In December 1709 and February 1710 Bach was paid for repairing harpsichords in the household of the junior duke, Ernst August and Prince Johann Ernst. On 17 January 1711 he was godfather to a daughter of J.C. Becker, a local burgher. In February 1711 Prince Johann Ernst went to the University of Utrecht. From 21 February 1713 Bach was lodged in the castle at Weissenfels. Duke Christian’s birthday fell on 23 February, and it is now known that Cantata No. 208 was performed in this year, not in 1716. The earlier date is stylistically suitable; moreover, it is compatible both with the watermark of the autograph score and with the fact that in this score Bach contradicted sharps by flats rather than by naturals – an old-fashioned habit that he gave up progressively during 1714.

About May 1713 the young prince returned from Utrecht, apparently with a good deal of music, for in the year from 1 June there were bills for binding, copying and shelving (some of the music came from Halle). In February 1713 he had been in Amsterdam, and may have met the blind organist J.J. de Graff who was in the habit of playing recent Italian concertos as keyboard solos. This may have given rise to the numerous concerto arrangements made by Walther and Bach.

On 7 September 1713 Bach was probably at Ohrdruf, standing godfather to a nephew; and on 6 November he took part in the dedication of the new Jakobskirche at Weimar (there is no evidence that he composed any of the music). On 27 November he was at Weimar, as godfather to Trebs’s son. At about this time he seems to have gone to Halle, perhaps to buy music, and to have become accidentally involved with the authorities of the Liebfrauenkirche. The organist there (Zachow, Handel’s teacher) had died in 1712, and the organ was being enlarged to a three-manual of 65 stops. The story has to be pieced together from hints in an incomplete correspondence; but it looks as if the pastor, J.M. Heineccius, pressed Bach to apply for the vacant post. Bach may have been involved in planning the enlargement of the organ, when Zachow became incapacitated; at all events, he stayed in Halle from 28 November to 15 December at the church authorities’ expense. He also composed and performed a cantata (lost), attended a meeting on 13 December 1713, was offered the post, and let the committee suppose that he had accepted it, although he had not had time to find out what his casual fees would amount to. On 14 December they sent him a formal contract. Bach replied on 14 January 1714, saying cautiously that he had not been released from Weimar, was uneasy about his salary and duties, and would write again within the week. Whether he did so is not known; but on February the committee resolved to tell him that his salary was not likely to be increased. Thus at Halle he could expect a slightly smaller salary than he was already getting; the attraction was the organ, more than twice as large. Bach must then have approached the duke, for on 2 March, ‘at his most humble request’, he became Konzertmeister (ranking after the vice-Kapellmeister), with a basic salary of 250 florins from 25 February. In finally refusing the Halle post, he probably mentioned that figure, for the committee accused him of having used their offer as a lever to extract more money from the duke. This he denied on 19 March, in a letter so reasonable and so obviously honest that he remained on good terms with Halle and was employed there as an organ examiner in 1716. Gottfried Kirchhoff had meanwhile been appointed organist on 30 July 1714.

Few cantatas (apart from the secular No. 208) can be ascribed to these early Weimar years. Nos.18, 54 and 199 appear to date from 1713 and clearly have no specific connection with the cantatas composed with an eye to the church calendar from March 1714 onwards. The work performed at Halle in December 1713 was formerly thought to be No. 21 (see F. Chrysander: G.F. Händel (Leipzig, 1858–67/R)). The idea that it was No. 63 no longer stands up, although the forces required for that work make it extremely unlikely that it was written for the Weimar court; a performance in Halle at Christmas 1715 is conceivable.

On 23 March 1714 it was ordered that cantatas should in future be rehearsed in the chapel, not at home or in lodgings; and on Palm Sunday, 25 March, Bach performed No. 182. This was the fourth Sunday after his appointment as Konzertmeister, when he had become responsible for writing a cantata every four weeks. As he evidently hoped to complete an annual cycle in four years, he did not keep strictly to this rule; having written a cantata for Advent Sunday in 1714, he wrote for the last Sunday after Trinity in 1715, and for the second Sunday in Advent in 1716 (in 1717 he was in prison). Apart from such intentional irregularities, there are gaps in the series, and the strange thing is that these gaps became suddenly more numerous after the end of 1715. One of the gaps is accounted for by the death at Frankfurt on 1 August 1715 of the musically gifted Prince Johann Ernst, plunging the duchy into mourning from 11 August to 9 November 1715, when not a note of music might be played. From 1717 there are no cantatas at all. A tentative explanation will be suggested for this; but it is hard to see why Bach’s usual allowance of paper was paid for on 16 May 1716 when he is not known to have performed any church cantatas between 19 January and 6 December.

On 4 April 1716 Bach, like the librettist Salomo Franck and ‘the book-printer’, was paid for ‘Carmina’, bound in green taffeta, that had been ‘presented’ on some unspecified occasion – perhaps on 24 January when Duke Ernst August had married Eleonore, sister of the Prince of Cöthen. Ernst’s birthday was celebrated in April; two horn players from Weissenfels came to Weimar, possibly brought over for a repeat performance of Cantata No. 208. Meanwhile, the new organ at Halle had been making progress, and on 17 April the council resolved that Bach, Kuhnau of Leipzig and Rolle of Quedlinburg should be invited to examine it on 29 April. They all accepted; each was to receive 16 thaler, plus food and travelling expenses. The examination began at 7 a.m., and lasted three days – until some time on 1 May, when the experts wrote their report, a sermon was preached and fine music was performed. On 2 May the organist and the three examiners met the builder to discuss details. The council, who behaved liberally, gave a tremendous banquet, whose date is usually given as 3 May (1 May seems more likely).

On 31 July 1716 Bach and an Arnstadt organ builder signed a testimonial for J.G. Schröter, who had built an organ at Erfurt. In 1717 Bach was mentioned in print for the first time: in the preface to Mattheson’s Das beschützte Orchestre, dated 21 February, Mattheson referred to Bach as ‘the famous Weimar organist’ saying that his works, both for the church and for keyboard, led one to rate him highly, and asked for biographical information.

It is against this background that Bach’s departure from Weimar has to be considered. In 1703 he had been employed by Duke Johann Ernst; since his return in 1708, by Duke Wilhelm, Johann’s elder brother. The brothers had been on bad terms, and when Johann Ernst died in 1707 and his son Ernst came of age in 1709, things became no better. For some time the ducal disagreements do not seem to have affected Bach; perhaps they were kept within bounds by Superintendent Lairitz, and Ernst’s younger half-brother (Johann, the composer) may have had some influence. But the latter died in 1715, Lairitz on 4 April 1716, and the new superintendent certainly failed to cope with the ‘court difficulties’; like the rest of Wilhelm’s household, he was forbidden to associate with Ernst. The musicians, though paid by both households, were threatened with fines of 10 thaler if they served Ernst in any way.

No extant Bach cantata can be securely dated between 19 January and 6 December 1716; it may seem unlikely that this long, continuous gap was due to casual losses. It is tempting to suppose that Bach found his position embarrassing (owing to his early connection with the junior court) and expressed disapproval of Duke Wilhelm’s behaviour by evading his own responsibilities. In fact, Bach does not seem to have disapproved of the duke’s behaviour until he discovered that a new Kapellmeister was being sought elsewhere. Drese senior died on 1 December 1716; his son, the vice-Kapellmeister, was by all accounts a nonentity. Bach produced Cantatas nos.70a, 186a and 147a for 6, 13 and 20 December (three successive weeks, not months), but there were no more, as far as is known. By Christmas, Bach may have found out that the duke was angling for Telemann. Negotiations with Telemann came to nothing; but apparently Bach now set about looking for a post as Kapellmeister. He was offered one by Prince Leopold of Cöthen, brother-in-law to Duke Ernst (Bach and the prince had probably met at Ernst’s wedding in January 1716) and the appointment was confirmed on 5 August 1717. No doubt Bach then asked Duke Wilhelm’s permission to leave, and no doubt he was refused – the duke being annoyed because his nephew had obviously had a hand in finding Bach a job that carried more prestige and, at 400 thaler, was better paid.

The duke and Bach must nevertheless have remained on speaking terms for the time being, for at some date hardly earlier than the end of September Bach was in Dresden and free to challenge the French keyboard virtuoso Louis Marchand. Versions of this affair differ, but according to Birnbaum (who wrote in 1739, probably under Bach’s supervision), Bach ‘found himself’ at Dresden, and was not sent for by ‘special coach’. Once there, some court official persuaded him to challenge Marchand to a contest at the harpsichord; the idea that they were to compete at the organ seems to have crept in later. Whatever may be the truth about these and other details, it is universally agreed that Marchand ran away.

On his birthday, 30 October 1717, Duke Wilhelm set up an endowment for his court musicians; and the second centenary of the Reformation was celebrated from 31 October to 2 November. Presumably Bach took part in these ceremonies, though there is no evidence that he set any of the librettos that Franck had provided. Emboldened, perhaps, by the Marchand affair, he then demanded his release in such terms that the duke had him imprisoned from 6 November until his dismissal in disgrace on 2 December. The Cöthen court had paid Bach 50 thaler on 7 August. Some have supposed that this was for travelling expenses, and that Bach had his wife and family moved to Cöthen soon after; but it seems unlikely that the duke would have allowed them to move until he had agreed to let Bach go. The younger Drese became Kapellmeister in his father’s place and Bach’s pupil J.M. Schubart became court organist. The post of Konzertmeister disappeared.


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6. Cöthen.

Except during the few last months of his Weimar period, Bach had been on good terms with Duke Wilhelm; but his relations with that martinet must always have been official. At Cöthen, until the end of 1721, things were different; Prince Leopold was a young man who, as Bach himself said, loved and understood music. He was born in 1694, of a Calvinist father and a Lutheran mother. The father died in 1704, the mother ruled until Leopold came of age on 10 December 1715. There was no court orchestra until October 1707, when Leopold persuaded his mother to take on three musicians. While studying in Berlin in 1708, he met A.R. Stricker; from the end of 1710 to 1713 he was on the usual grand tour, during which he studied with J.D. Heinichen at Rome. He returned capable of singing bass, and of playing the violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord. The Berlin court orchestra had broken up in 1713, and from July 1714 he employed Stricker as Kapellmeister and his wife as soprano and lutenist; by 1716 he had 18 musicians. In August 1717 Stricker and his wife seem to have resigned, leaving the prince free to appoint Bach.

At Cöthen the St Jakob organ was in poor condition. The court chapel was Calvinist; it had an organist, but no elaborate music was performed there, and the two-manual organ had only 13 or 14 stops, though it may have had a complete chromatic compass to pedal e and manual e. The Lutheran St Agnus had a two-manual organ of 27 stops, again with an exceptional pedal compass. There is not the slightest reason to suppose that Bach wrote any particular work to exploit these pedal compasses, but no doubt he used one or both of the organs for teaching and private practice. He communicated at St Agnus, and took part in the baptisms at the court chapel, but had no official duties in either. He may, however, have been involved in the affair of May 1719, when a cantata was put on for the dedication festival of St Agnus, and 150 copies of (presumably) the libretto were printed. The printer’s bill for one thaler and eight groschen was endorsed by the pastor: ‘The churchwardens can give him 16 groschen; if he wants more, he must go to those who gave the order’.

Bach’s basic salary, 400 thaler, was twice Stricker’s, and extra allowances made it up to about 450. Only one court official was paid more, and there is other evidence that Bach was held in high esteem. On 17 November 1718 the last of his children by his first wife (a short-lived son) was named after the prince, who himself was a godfather. Bach’s residence in Cöthen is not definitely known, but it seems likely that he began as a tenant in Stiftstrasse 11; in 1721, when that house was bought by the prince’s mother for the use of the Lutheran pastor, he moved to Holzmarkt 10. The orchestra needed a room for their weekly rehearsals; the prince supplied it by paying rent to Bach (12 thaler a year from 10 December 1717 to 1722). Presumably there was a suitable room in Bach’s first house. Whether he continued to use that room after his move in 1721, and why he was not paid rent after 1722, is not clear.

The date of the first rent payment suggests that Bach and his household moved to Cöthen a day or two after he was released from prison (2 December); and that, after hasty rehearsals, he helped to celebrate the prince’s birthday on 10 December. That would normally have been his duty. The court accounts suggest that something connected with the birthday was either printed or bound in 1717, as also in 1719 and 1720 (Anh.7); Bach certainly wrote a cantata in 1722, and Cantatas nos.66a and Anh.5 in 1718. In 1721 there may have been no birthday celebrations, for the prince was married, at Bernburg, the next day. Cantata No. 173a was undoubtedly a birthday work, but Bach probably wrote it after he had left Cöthen; 36a, an arrangement of 36c (1725), was performed at Cöthen on 30 November 1726, for the birthday of the prince’s second wife.

New Year cantatas also were expected. No. 134a dates from 1719, Anh.6 from 1720, Anh.8 from 1723. There is no evidence for 1718, 1721 or 1722; printers’ and binders’ bills paid on 5 January 1722 may have been for music performed in December 1721. Bach may well have been unable to put on a wedding cantata, but there seems no reason why he should not have offered something for the prince’s birthday. Nos.184 and 194 (Leipzig, 1724, and Störmthal, 1723) seem to be arrangements of Cöthen works, and so perhaps are parts of No. 120. Whether or not Bach performed a cantata at Cöthen on 10 December 1717, he was at Leipzig on 16 December examining the organ at the university church (the Paulinerkirche). The work had been done by Johann Scheibe, with whose son Bach was later in dispute. Bach is not known to have done any other work of this kind while at Cöthen.

On 9 May 1718 the prince went to drink the waters at Carlsbad for about five weeks, taking with him his harpsichord, Bach and five other musicians. Early in 1719 Bach was in Berlin, negotiating for a new harpsichord. About this time he seems to have been busy composing or buying music, for between July 1719 and May 1720 some 26 thaler were spent on binding. During 1719 Handel visited his mother at Halle, only some 30 km away; it is said that Bach tried, but failed, to make contact with him. Bach also disregarded a renewed request from Mattheson for biographical material.

W.F. Bach was nine in 1719; the title-page of his Clavier-Büchlein is dated 22 January 1720. In May Bach again went to Carlsbad with the prince. The date of their return does not seem to have been recorded; but apparently it was after 7 July, for that was the date of Maria Barbara’s funeral, and there is no reason to doubt Emanuel’s story that his father returned to find her dead and already buried. His wife had been nearly 36. Her death may well have unsettled Bach, and even led him to think of returning to the service of the church; but there was a more practical reason for his taking an interest in St Jacobi at Hamburg. The organist there, Heinrich Friese, died on 12 September 1720; Bach had known Hamburg in his youth, and must have been attracted by the organ, a four-manual Schnitger with 60 stops. There is no evidence that Bach was actually invited to apply for the post; but he may well have made inquiries of his own.

At all events, his name was one of eight being considered on 21 November, and he was in Hamburg at about that time. A competition was arranged for 28 November, but Bach had had to leave for Cöthen five days before. Three candidates did not appear, and the judges were not satisfied with the other four. An approach was made to Bach, and the committee met on 12 December; as Bach’s reply had not arrived, they met again a week later, when they found that Bach had refused. Perhaps he was unable, or unwilling, to contribute 4000 marks to the church funds, as the successful candidate actually did.

From the way in which the committee kept the post open for Bach, one may suppose that they had heard his recital at St Katharinen. Exactly how this performance was arranged, no-one knows; but in the obituary Emanuel stated that Bach played before the aged Reincken, the magistracy and other notables; that he played for more than two hours in all; and that he extemporized in different styles on the chorale An Wasserflüssen Babylon for almost half an hour, just as the better Hamburg organists had been accustomed to doing at Saturday Vespers. As a fantasia on this chorale was one of Reincken’s major works, this may seem a tactless choice; but the obituary makes it clear that the chorale was chosen by ‘those present’ and not by Bach himself. Reincken is reported to have said, ‘I thought this art was dead, but I see it still lives in you’, and showed Bach much courtesy. A later remark of Mattheson’s has been taken to imply that Bach also played the G minor Fugue bwv542, but there are good reasons to doubt it.

During 1720 Bach made fair copies of the works for unaccompanied violin, and must have been preparing the Brandenburg Concertos, whose autograph full score was dedicated on 24 March 1721 to the Margrave Christian Ludwig, before whom Bach had played in Berlin while negotiating for the new Cöthen harpsichord, between June 1718 and March 1719. What he played is not known; but he was invited to send in some compositions. As he himself said, he took ‘a couple of years’ over this commission, and then submitted six works written to exploit the resources of Cöthen. Such resources do not seem to have been available to the Margrave of Brandenburg, and it is not really surprising that he did not thank Bach, send a fee or use the score.

One of Bach’s friends at Cöthen was the goldsmith C.H. Bähr; Bach stood godfather to one of Bähr’s sons in 1721, and deputized for a godfather to another in 1723. About the beginning of August 1721 he gave a performance of some unspecified kind for Count Heinrich XI Reuss of Schleiz; this may have been arranged by J.S. Koch, the Kantor there, who had held a post at Mühlhausen, though possibly not in Bach’s time there. On 15 June 1721 Bach was the 65th communicant at St Agnus; one ‘Mar. Magd. Wilken’ was the 14th. This may well have been Bach’s future wife – the mistake in the first name is an easy one – but Anna Magdalena makes no formal appearance until 25 September, when Bach and she were the first two among the five godparents of a child called Hahn. This baptism is recorded in three registers. In two of them Anna is described as ‘court singer’, in the third, simply as ‘chamber musician’ (Musicantin). In September Anna was again a godmother, to a child called Palmarius; again the registers differ in describing her occupation. Her name does not appear in court accounts until summer 1722, when she is referred to as the Kapellmeister’s wife; her salary (half Bach’s) is noted as paid for May and June 1722.

Practically nothing is known of her early years. She was born on 22 September 1701 at Zeitz. Her father, Johann Caspar Wilcke, was a court trumpeter; he worked at Zeitz until about February 1718, when he moved to Weissenfels where he died on 30 November 1731. The surname was variously spelt. Anna’s mother (Margaretha Elisabeth Liebe, d 7 March 1746) was daughter of an organist and sister of J.S. Liebe who, besides being a trumpeter, was organist of two churches at Zeitz from 1694 until his death in 1742. As a trumpeter’s daughter, Anna may well have met the Bach's socially. The stories that she was a public figure, having sung at Cöthen and the other local courts since the age of 15, have been discredited; they are said to have arisen through confusion with her elder brother, a trumpeter. However, she was paid for singing, with her father, in the chapel at Zerbst on some occasion between Easter and midsummer 1721. By September 1721, aged just 20, she was at Cöthen, well acquainted with Bach (aged 36), and ready to marry him on 3 December. The prince saved Bach 10 thaler by giving him permission to be married in his own lodgings. At about this time Bach paid two visits to the city cellars, where he bought first one firkin of Rhine wine, and later two firkins, all at a cut price, 27 instead of 32 groschen per gallon.

On 11 December 1721 the prince married his cousin Friderica, Princess of Anhalt-Bernburg. The marriage was followed by five weeks of illuminations and other entertainments at Cöthen. This was not however an auspicious event for Bach: he was to leave Cöthen partly because the princess was ‘eine Amusa’ (someone not interested in the Muses) and broke up the happy relationship between Bach and her husband. Perhaps her unfortunate influence had made itself felt even before she was married.

A legacy from Tobias Lämmerhirt (Bach’s maternal uncle) had facilitated Bach’s first marriage; Tobias’s widow was buried at Erfurt on 12 September 1721, and Bach received something under her will too, though not in time for his second marriage. On 24 January 1722 Bach’s sister Maria, together with one of the Lämmerhirts, challenged the will, saying that Bach and his brothers Jacob (in Sweden) and Christoph (at Ohrdruf) agreed with them (Christoph had died in 1721). Bach heard of this only by accident; and on 15 March he wrote to the Erfurt council on behalf of Jacob as well as himself. He objected to his sister’s action, and said that he and his absent brother desired no more than was due to them under the will. On 16 April Jacob died; and the matter seems to have been settled on these lines towards the end of the year. Bach’s legacy must have amounted to rather more than a year’s pay.

In summer 1722 there was no Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Zerbst, and Bach was commissioned to write a birthday cantata for the prince; for this he was paid 10 thaler in April and May. The birthday was in August, and payments made during that month presumably refer to the performance. If so, the work, which seems to have disappeared, was scored for two oboes d’amore and ‘other instruments’.

Several didactic works for keyboard belong to the Cöthen period. One is the Clavierbüchlein for Anna Magdalena Bach. 25 leaves are extant, about a third of the original manuscript; there is a kind of title-page, on which Anna Magdalena (probably) wrote the title and the date and Bach (certainly) noted the titles of three theological books. Despite the sceptics, it remains reasonable to suppose that Bach gave the book to his wife early in 1722. It seems to have been filled by 1725. The autograph of Das wohltemperirte Clavier (book 1 of the ‘48’) is dated 1722 on the title-page but 1732 at the end. The writing is uniform in style, and for various reasons it is incredible that he did not finish the manuscript until 1732. This handsome fair copy was preceded by drafts, like those in W.F. Bach’s Clavier-Büchlein (begun in 1720); and some of the movements look earlier than that. Presumably Bach brought them together for convenience, partly to serve as the last step in his keyboard course, partly to exhibit the advantages of equal temperament. As in book 2, no doubt Bach transposed some of the pieces to fill gaps in his key scheme; the odd pairing of the prelude in six flats with the fugue in six sharps suggests that the former was originally in E minor, the latter in D minor.

The title-page was almost certainly the only part of the Orgel-Büchlein that Bach wrote while at Cöthen, but as another educational work it is best mentioned here. It was meant to be a collection of chorale preludes, not only for the ordinary church seasons but also for occasions when such subjects as the Lord’s Prayer, or Penitence, were being emphasized. The paper is of a kind that Bach used, as far as is known, only in 1714. A few items date from about 1740; in the rest, the writing resembles that of the cantatas of 1715–16. Of the 164 preludes Bach allowed for, he completed fewer than 50. Last in this group of works come the Inventions and Sinfonias, whose autograph fair copy is dated ‘Cöthen, 1723’. Its contents had already appeared, in earlier versions and under different titles, in W.F. Bach’s Clavier-Büchlein of 1720.

The story of Bach’s move to Leipzig begins with the death of Kuhnau, Kantor of the Thomasschule there, on 5 June 1722. Six men applied for the post, among them Telemann, who was still remembered for the good work he had done at Leipzig 20 years before. He had been doing a similar job at Hamburg for about a year, and was probably the most famous of German musicians actually living in Germany. One of the Kantor’s duties was to teach Latin. Telemann refused to do that; nevertheless, he was appointed on 13 August. But the Hamburg authorities would not release him, and offered to increase his pay; in November he declined the Leipzig post. At a meeting on 23 November Councillor Platz said that Telemann was no loss; what they needed was a Kantor to teach other subjects besides music. Of the remaining five candidates, three were invited to give trial performances; two dropped out, one because he would not teach Latin. By 21 December two Kapellmeisters had applied, Bach and Graupner. The other candidates were Kauffmann of Merseburg, Schott of the Leipzig Neukirche, and Rolle of Magdeburg. Of the five candidates, Graupner was preferred; he was a reputable musician, and had studied at the Thomasschule. He successfully performed his test (two cantatas) on 17 January 1723. But on 23 March he too withdrew, having been offered more pay at Darmstadt. Meanwhile, Bach had performed his test pieces (Cantatas nos.22 and 23) on 7 February 1723. Rolle and Schott had also been heard, and possibly Kauffmann too. The Princess of Cöthen died on 4 April, too late to affect Bach’s decision. On 9 April the council considered Bach, Kauffmann and Schott. Like Telemann, none of them wished to teach Latin. Councillor Platz said that as the best men could not be got, they must make do with the mediocre. The council evidently resolved to approach Bach, for on 13 April he obtained written permission to leave Cöthen. On 19 April he signed a curious document that reads as if he were not yet free from Cöthen, but could be free within a month; he also said he was willing to pay a deputy to teach Latin. On 22 April the council agreed on Bach, one of them hoping that his music would not be theatrical. On 5 May he came in person to sign an agreement; on 8 and 13 May he was interviewed and sworn in by the ecclesiastical authority; on 15 May the first instalment of his salary was paid; and on 16 May he ‘took up his duties’ at the university church, possibly with Cantata No. 59. With family and furniture, he moved in on 22 May, and performed Cantata No. 75 at the Nikolaikirche on 30 May. On 1 June, at 8.30 a.m., he was formally presented to the school.

This story has been told in some detail, because it throws light on the circumstances in which Bach worked at Leipzig. To him, the Kantorate was a step downwards in the social scale, and he had little respect for his employers. To the council, Bach was a third-rater, a mediocrity, who would not do what they expected a Kantor to do – teach Latin, as well as organize the city church music. The stage was set for trouble, and in due course trouble came. Councillor Platz on Telemann is curiously echoed by Councillor Stieglitz, ten days after Bach’s death: ‘The school needs a Kantor, not a Kapellmeister; though certainly he ought to understand music’.


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7. Leipzig, 1723–9.

The position of Kantor at the Thomasschule, held conjointly with that of civic director of music, had been associated with a wealth of tradition since the 16th century. It was one of the most notable positions in German musical life both in this and in the esteem it commanded; and there can be little doubt that the general attractiveness of the position in itself played a part – very likely the decisive part – in Bach’s decision to move from Cöthen to Leipzig. His subsequent remark about the social step down from Kapellmeister to Kantor must be seen in the context of his later disagreements with the Leipzig authorities, as indeed the letter in question (to Erdmann, a friend of his youth, on 28 October 1730) makes unequivocally clear. In any event, Bach was not the only Kapellmeister to apply for the post. The duties were incomparably more varied and demanding than those in Cöthen or Weimar (to say nothing of Mühlhausen or Arnstadt) and more or less corresponded to those undertaken by Telemann in Hamburg. It cannot have been mere chance that Bach wanted to tackle a range of duties comparable with those of his friend. Above all he must have preferred the greater economic and political stability of a commercial metropolis governed democratically to the uncertainties of the court of an absolute prince, where personal whim often held sway. The university – the foremost in the German-speaking world at the time – must have been another special attraction in the eyes of a father of growing-up sons.

The ‘Cantor zu St. Thomae et Director Musices Lipsiensis’ was the most important musician in the town; as such, he was primarily responsible for the music of the four principal Leipzig churches – the Thomaskirche, the Nikolaikirche, the Matthäeikirche (or Neukirche) and the Petrikirche – as well as for any other aspects of the town’s musical life controlled by the town council. In carrying out his tasks he could call above all on the pupils of the Thomasschule, the boarding-school attached to the Thomaskirche, whose musical training was his responsibility, as well as the town’s professional musicians. Normally the pupils, about 50 to 60 in number, were split up into four choir classes (Kantoreien) for the four churches. The requirements would vary from class to class: polyphonic music was required for the Thomaskirche, Nikolaikirche (the civic church) and Matthäeikirche, with figural music only in the first two; at the Petrikirche only monodic chants were sung. The first choir class, with the best 12 to 16 singers, was directed by the Kantor himself, and sang alternately in the two principal churches, the Nikolaikirche and Thomaskirche; the other classes were in the charge of prefects, appointed by Bach, who would be older and therefore more experienced pupils of the Thomasschule.

Musical aptitude was a decisive factor in the selection of pupils for the Thomasschule, and it was the Kantor’s responsibility to assess and train them. This was furthered by the daily singing lessons, mostly given by the Kantor. There was also instrumental instruction for the ablest pupils, which Bach had to provide free of charge but was thus enabled to make good any shortage of instrumentalists for his performances. Indeed, the number of professional musicians employed by the town (four Stadtpfeifer, three fiddlers and one apprentice) was held throughout his period of office at the same level as had obtained during the 17th century. For further instrumentalists Bach drew on the university students. In general the age of the Thomasschule pupils ranged between 12 and 23. Remembering that voices then broke at the age of 17 or 18, it is clear that Bach could count on solo trebles and altos who already had some ten years’ practical experience – an ideal situation, impossible in boys’ choirs today.

As far as church music was concerned, Bach’s duties centred on the principal services on Sundays and church feasts, as well as some of the more important subsidiary services, especially Vespers. In addition, he could be asked for music for weddings and funerals, for which he would receive a special fee. Such additional income was important to Bach, as his salary as Kantor of the Thomaskirche and director of music came to only 87 thaler and 12 groschen (besides allowances for wood and candles, and payments in kind, such as corn and wine). In fact, including payments from endowments and bequests as well as additional income, Bach received annually more than 700 thaler. Further, he had the use of a spacious official residence in the south wing of the Thomasschule, which had been renovated at a cost of more than 100 thaler before he moved in in 1723. Inside the Kantor’s residence was the so-called ‘Komponirstube’ (‘composing room’), his professional office containing his personal music library and the school’s. The buildings of the old Thomasschule were, scandalously, demolished in 1903 to make room for what is now the senior minister’s quarters; it was also then that the west façade of the Thomaskirche was rebuilt in the neo-Gothic style.

During his early Leipzig years, Bach involved himself in church music with particular thoroughness and extreme energy. This activity centred on the ‘Hauptmusic’ composed for Sundays and church feasts. The performance of a polyphonic cantata, with a text related as a rule to the Gospel for the day, was a tradition inherited from previous Kantors. Even so, Bach engaged on a musical enterprise without parallel in Leipzig’s musical history: in a relatively short time he composed five complete (or nearly complete) cycles of cantatas for the Church year, with about 60 cantatas in each, making a repertory of roughly 300 sacred cantatas. The first two cycles were prepared immediately, for 1723–4 and 1724–5; the third took rather longer, being composed between 1725 and 1727. The fourth, to texts by Picander, appears to date from 1728–9, while the fifth once again must have occupied a longer period, possibly extending into the 1740s. The established chronology of Bach’s vocal works makes it clear that the main body of the cantatas was in existence by 1729, and that Bach’s development of the cantata was effectively complete by 1735. The existence of the fourth and fifth cycles has been questioned, because of their fragmentary survival compared with the almost complete survival of the first, second and third; but until a positive argument for their non-existence can be put forward the number of five cycles, laid down in the obituary of 1754, must stand. Compared with the high proportion of Bach’s works of other kinds that are lost (orchestral and chamber music, for instance), the disappearance of about 100 cantatas would not be exceptional. (The preservation of Bach’s works is discussed below, §11; see §15 for the correspondence of excess chorales in the Breitkopf collection of 1784–7 to the number of lost cantatas.)

The first cycle begins on the first Sunday after Trinity 1723 with Cantata No. 75, which was performed ‘mit gutem applausu’ at the Nikolaikirche, followed by No. 76, for the second Sunday after Trinity, performed at the Thomaskirche. The two largest churches in Leipzig are both Gothic in style, and in Bach’s time they contained stone and wooden galleries. The choir lofts were on the west wall of the nave above the council gallery. The organs too were in the choir lofts (the ‘Schüler-Chor’): the Nikolaikirche and the Thomaskirche each had a three-manual organ with 36 and 35 stops respectively (Oberwerk, Brustwerk, Rückpositiv, Pedal). The Thomaskirche had a second organ, fitted to the east wall as a ‘swallow’s nest’, with 21 stops (Oberwerk, Brustwerk, Rückpositiv, Pedal); this fell into dilapidation and was demolished in 1740. The organs were always played before cantata performances, during which they would provide continuo accompaniment; they were played by the respective organists at each church; during Bach’s term of office these were Christian Heinrich Gräbner (at the Thomaskirche until 1729), J.G. Görner (at the Nikolaikirche until 1729, then at the Thomaskirche) and Johann Schneider (at the Nikolaikirche from 1729). Bach himself, who had not held a regular appointment as an organist since his time in Weimar, directed the choir and the orchestra, and would not normally be playing the organ. However, he frequently must have directed his church ensemble from the harpsichord, as is documented for the performance of bwv198 in 1727. At any rate, the harpsichord was often, if not regularly, employed as a continuo instrument in addition to the organ.

The cantata was an integral part of the Leipzig Lutheran liturgy. It followed immediately on the reading from the Gospel, preceding the Creed and the sermon (the second part of a two-part cantata would follow the sermon, ‘sub communione’). Apart from organ playing and the congregational singing of hymns, selected by the Kantor, the other musical constituent of the liturgy was the introit motet, which would be taken from the Florilegium Portense (1618) by Erhard Bodenschatz, a collection mainly drawn from the 16th century (Lassus, Handl etc.), and was performed a cappella with harpsichord continuo. Services began at 7 a.m. and lasted three hours; this allowed a mere half-hour for the cantata, and Bach rarely overstepped this duration. The normal performing forces consisted of some 16 singers and 18 instrumentalists; the precise number varied according to the work, but it was rare for the total number of singers and players to fall below 25 or to exceed 40 (the figure required on exceptional occasions, like the St Matthew Passion, which demanded two Kantoreien and double the normal number of instrumentalists). Ordinarily the performing forces consisted of four groups: pupils from the Thomasschule (the first Kantorei); the eight salaried town musicians, until 1734 headed by J.G. Reiche and thereafter by J.C. Gentzmer; University students (principally Bach’s private pupils); and additional assistants (probably regularly including one or two paid soloists) and guests.

Bach took up his additional duties as musical director to the university, a post traditionally held by the Thomaskantor, in summer 1723, perhaps as early as 16 May, with the performance of Cantata No. 59 in the university church, the Paulinerkirche, but in any event by 9 August, when he performed the Latin Ode bwv Anh.20 (now lost) at the university’s festivities marking the birthday of Duke Friedrich II of Saxe-Gotha. The major part of his duties for the university comprised the musical provisions for the so-called quarter-day orations and the ‘old’ services in the Paulinerkirche, employing pupils from the Thomasschule and town musicians on the four major festivals of Christmas Day, Easter Day, Whit Sunday and Reformation Day; Bach was paid 2 thaler and 6 groschen on each occasion. He carried out the most important of his civic duties for the first time on 30 August 1723, when he introduced Cantata No. 119 as part of the annual celebration of the change of town council. The enormous scope of Bach’s new responsibilities, as well as his vast workload, may be gauged from the fact that the day before (14th Sunday after Trinity) Cantata No. 25 was heard for the first time, and the first performance of No. 138 (for the 15th Sunday) was soon to follow.

September 1723 saw the start of Bach’s protracted wrangle with the university. In a written request for payment, he laid claim to the traditional right of the Thomaskantor to be responsible for the ‘old’ services and the quarter-day orations. The university, however, wanted to combine these duties with responsibility for the ‘new’ services (normal Sundays and holy days), which it had in April 1723 entrusted to J.G. Görner, organist of the Nikolaikirche, together with the title of ‘Musikdirektor’. On 28 September Bach’s request was turned down, and he was paid only half the fee. He would not give in, and turned to the Elector of Saxony in Dresden with three petitions. Following the intervention of the Dresden court, the university decided to put Görner in charge of the ‘new’ services only, and awarded Bach his traditional rights with payment as before. Thereafter, as the regular fee payments prove, Bach retained responsibility for the ‘old’ services and quarter-day orations until 1750.

About 2 November 1723 Bach inaugurated a new organ (which he had previously appraised) in Störmthal, outside Leipzig, with Cantata No. 194. Then, from the second Sunday in Advent to the fourth, came his first break in the weekly routine of composing and performing cantatas; in Leipzig, unlike Weimar, this period was a ‘tempus clausum’, as was Lent up to and including Palm Sunday. On Christmas Day figural music returned, in a particularly splendid manner, with Cantata No. 63 and the D major Sanctus bwv238 at the main service and the Magnificat bwv243a at Vespers; these were Bach’s first large-scale compositions on Latin texts such as were customary in Leipzig on major feast days. At this point in the calendar his duties were unimaginably heavy, yet he carried them out with incomparable creative vigour, producing Cantatas nos.40 and 64 for the feasts of St Stephen and St John the Evangelist, No. 190 for New Year, No. 153 for the Sunday after New Year (2 January 1724), No. 65 for Epiphany (6 January) and No. 154 for the following Sunday (9 January); after that, normal weekly services were resumed.

During the next ‘tempus clausum’ Bach composed his first large-scale choral work for Leipzig, the St John Passion, first performed at Vespers in the Nikolaikirche on Good Friday (7 April). This Vespers service had been introduced specially for the performance of a Passion only in 1721; in that year Kuhnau’s St Mark Passion (now lost) had been performed. Performances alternated annually between the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche, an arrangement to which Bach strictly adhered. There is no documentary evidence of a Passion performance under Bach’s direction on Good Friday 1723, from which the older dating of the St John Passion derives. The work had several further performances, each time in a greatly altered version (see §14): on 30 March 1725 (in a second version adapted to the annual cycle of cantatas), probably on 11 April 1732 (in a third version) and on 4 April 1749 (fourth version); in about 1739 Bach undertook a revision of the work which remained unfinished.

With the first Sunday after Trinity 1724 (11 June) Bach began his second cycle; these were chorale cantatas. Not least because it included works composed at Weimar, the first cycle had been thoroughly heterogeneous in character, both musically and textually, but Bach gave the new cycle a unifying concept, with all the works based on texts, and their melodies, from the hymnbook. Unfortunately this series of chorale cantatas, beginning with No. 20, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, and its programmatic overture, was interrupted early in 1725 and Bach did not complete the cycle. On 25 June he was in Gera for the dedication of the organ at the Salvatorkirche. In July he went to Cöthen with Anna Magdalena for a guest appearance as a performer; he had retained the title of Court Kapellmeister there, and it lapsed only on the death of Prince Leopold in 1728. There is evidence of further visits to Cöthen, with Bach performing alongside his wife (who sang as a soprano), in December 1725 and January 1728. During 1725 Bach started to prepare a second Clavierbüchlein for Anna Magdalena. On 23 February 1725 he performed Cantata No. 249a at the Weissenfels court for the birthday of Duke Christian; this was the original version of the Easter Oratorio bwv249, first given at Leipzig the following 1 April. No. 249a represents the beginning of a long-standing collaboration with the fluent Leipzig poet Christian Friedrich Henrici (Picander), the chief supplier of texts for Bach’s later Leipzig vocal works.

Bach produced congratulatory cantatas for two Leipzig University professors in May and August (nos.36c and 205). On 19–20 September he played on the Silbermann organ at the Dresden Sophienkirche before the local court musicians, thus continuing his practice of giving virtuoso organ performances on concert tours – and undoubtedly in Leipzig, too, although he no longer held a post as organist. His favourite instrument in Leipzig was evidently the great organ of the Paulinerkirche built by Johann Scheibe in 1716, with 53 stops, three manuals (Hauptwerk, Seitenwerk and Brustwerk) and pedals; Bach had been one of its examiners in 1717. Early in 1726 – during the third cycle, which had started in June 1725 – there was an interruption of Bach’s production of cantatas, for reasons that remain obscure: between February and September 1726 he performed 18 cantatas by his cousin (6) Johann Ludwig Bach (3/72). In particular, between Purification and the fourth Sunday after Easter, he performed none of his own music at the main Sunday services; even on Good Friday he used a work by another composer, Reinhard Keiser’s St Mark Passion, which he had performed once before, in Weimar. Difficulties with performers may have been partly responsible; the instrumental forces required in J.L. Bach’s cantatas are more modest than those Bach himself normally used. Even apart from this, however, the pattern of Bach’s cantata production – as far as can be judged from the available material – changed during the third cycle; there are considerable gaps as early as the period after Trinity Sunday 1725, and it seems that the third cycle, unlike the first two, extended over two years. In the gaps, cantatas by other composers and further performances of Bach’s own works were given.

Michaelmas 1726 saw the appearance in print of Partita No. 1, under the general title of Clavier-Übung: with this Bach began his activity, later to increase in scope, as a publisher of keyboard music. Partita No. 1, published singly, was followed by nos.2 and 3 (1727), No. 4 (1728), No. 5 (1730) and No. 6 (1730 or 1731; no copy is known). Evidently the series was originally planned to comprise seven partitas. There are early versions of nos.3 and 6 in the second book for Anna Magdalena of 1725. Bach sent No. 1, with a dedicatory poem, to the Cöthen court as a form of congratulation on the birth of an heir, Prince Emanuel Ludwig (born 12 September 1726). In December 1726, on the installation of Dr Gottlieb Kortte as university professor, Bach produced a more sizable occasional work, the dramma per musica, Cantata No. 207.

In 1727 Bach composed two extremely important works. The St Matthew Passion, for double choir to a libretto by Picander, was performed on Good Friday (11 April; there is evidence that it was repeated in the Thomaskirche in 1729, 1736 and 1742; see §14). The other work was the Trauer Ode (Cantata No. 198), performed in October at a memorial ceremony, planned by the university, on the death of the Electress Christiane Eberhardine, who had remained a Protestant when her husband, August the Strong of Saxony, converted to Roman Catholicism. For this Bach was commissioned to set a text by the Leipzig professor of poetry, Johann Christoph Gottsched. This became a somewhat controversial affair, as the university director of music, Görner, felt he had been slighted. Bach however retained the commission and performed the two parts of his work, ‘composed in the Italian manner’, directing it from the harpsichord, in the university church, on 17 October. Between 7 September 1727 and 6 January 1728 there was a period of national mourning, with no other musical performances.

In September 1728 a brief dispute with the church authorities flared up. The sub-deacon, Gaudlitz, demanded that he himself should choose the hymns to be sung before and after the sermon at Vespers; as it was usual for the Kantor to select these hymns, Bach felt that his rights had been encroached upon. The dispute was settled in the sub-deacon’s favour. Bach must have seen this as a setback, for once again his grievances had not been met; but his relations with the ecclesiastical authorities were on the whole good throughout his time at Leipzig. His relations with the town council and the head teachers of the Thomasschule went less smoothly, and were to become even more difficult in the 1730s. Documents dealing with the various disputes show Bach to have been a stubborn defender of the prerogatives of his office who frequently reacted with excessive violence and was often to blame if there was a negative outcome. It would be wrong, however, to draw hasty inferences about Bach’s personality and his relations with the world about him. It is unfortunate that about a half of Bach’s surviving correspondence is concerned with generally trivial but often protracted disputes over rights. This material is extant in public archives, while utterances of kinds not appropriate to archival preservation, which might have complemented this rather austere view of his personality, have survived in only small quantity. From Bach’s behaviour during these disputes it can be seen that, under pressure, he would defy bureaucratic regulations in order to preserve his independence and to clear himself an artistic breathing-space. His taking over of the collegium musicum in 1729, to be directed under his own management, must be seen in this context, as it represents something more than an incidental biographical fact.

Early in 1729 Bach spent some time at the Weissenfels court in connection with the birthday celebrations in February of Duke Christian, with whom he had long been associated. On this occasion the title of court Kapellmeister of Saxe-Weissenfels was conferred on him (his Cöthen title had lately expired); he retained the title until 1736. At the end of March he went to Cöthen to perform the funeral music for his former employer; only the text survives of this large-scale work in four parts (bwv244a), but much of its music can be reconstructed as it consists of parodies of bwv198 and 244. On 15 April (Good Friday) the St Matthew Passion was performed again at the Thomaskirche. On the second day of Whit week (6 June), what was probably the last cantata of the Picander cycle was performed, No. 174. The manuscript, uniquely for Bach, is dated (‘1729’); perhaps this represents some sort of final gesture after a heavy, six-year involvement in cantata composition.

Beside the production of cantatas, Passions and other vocal occasional works, both sacred and secular, instrumental music retreated to the background during Bach’s first years in Leipzig. Apart from some keyboard and Chamber music (including the sonatas for harpsichord and violin bwv1014–19) there appear to have been only a relatively small number of organ works (preludes and fugues, trio sonatas) which are hard to date individually but will have been primarily connected with Bach’s activities as a recitalist.

In June 1729 an invitation to visit Leipzig was delivered to Handel, then in Halle, by Wilhelm Friedemann, in place of his father who was ill at the time; but nothing came of it. Thus Bach’s second and last attempt to establish contact with his highly esteemed London colleague met with failure. Significantly, in both cases the initiative was taken by Bach.


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8. Leipzig, 1729–39.

On his appointment as director of the collegium musicum, decisive changes came about in Bach’s activities in Leipzig; and at the same time new possibilities were opened up. The collegium had been founded by Telemann in 1702 and had most recently been directed by G.B. Schott (who left to become Kantor at Gotha in March 1729); it was a voluntary association of professional musicians and university students that gave regular weekly (and during the fair season even more frequent) public concerts. Such societies played an important part in the flowering of bourgeois musical culture in the 18th century, and with his highly reputed ensemble, in such an important commercial centre as Leipzig, Bach made his own contribution to this. He took over the direction before the third Sunday after Easter – in other words, by April 1729 – and retained it in the first place until 1737; he resumed it for a few more years in 1739. He must have had strong reasons for wanting to take on this fresh area of work in addition to his other duties. To some extent it is possible to guess those reasons. For six years he had immersed himself in the production of sacred music, and he had created a stock of works sufficient to supply the requirements of his remaining time in office. In his efforts to provide sacred music that was at once fastidious and comprehensive he had met with little appreciation from the authorities, and no additional facilities (for example, much needed professional instrumentalists) had been placed at his disposal: it would be understandable if he now felt resigned to the situation. Further, as a former Kapellmeister, he must have been attracted by the prospect of working with a good instrumental ensemble, and another important incentive must have been the thought that, as director of the collegium, he would be able to establish a wholly independent musical praxis, in accordance with his own ideas. It is not known whether the new position brought him some additional income.

Nothing, unfortunately, is known about the programmes of the ‘ordinaire’ weekly concerts. But the surviving performing parts for such works as the orchestral suites bwv1066–8, the violin concertos bwv1041–3 and the flute sonatas bwv1030 and 1039 demonstrate that Bach performed many of his Cöthen instrumental works (some in revised form) as well as new compositions. The seven harpsichord concertos bwv1052–8, collected together in a Leipzig manuscript, also belong in this context. Bach often performed works by other composers as well, including five orchestral suites by his cousin Johann Ludwig, secular cantatas by Handel and Porpora and the flute quartets that Telemann wrote for Paris. Further, Bach’s many musical acquaintances from other places must have made frequent appearances, including his colleagues in the Dresden court orchestra (there is evidence of visits from J.A. Hasse, Georg Benda, S.L. Weiss, C.H. Graun and J.D. Zelenka). C.P.E. Bach’s remark that ‘it was seldom that a musical master passed through [Leipzig] without getting to know my father and playing for him’ must refer to performances of the collegium musicum, which took place on Wednesdays between 4 and 6 p.m. in the coffee-garden ‘before the Grimmisches Thor’ in the summer and on Fridays between 8 and 10 p.m. in Zimmermann’s coffee-house in the winter. In addition, there were ‘extraordinaire’ concerts, to mark special events; on these occasions, during the 1730s, Bach performed his large-scale secular cantatas. His activities with the collegium must have made heavy demands on him, and the reduction in his production of sacred music is easy to understand.

This does not, however, mean that his interest in sacred music was diminished (as Blume, G1963, claimed, with undue emphasis in the light of the revised dating of his works). Such a view is contradicted not only by the major ecclesiastical works written after 1730 but also by the simple fact that, throughout his period of office, Bach provided performances of his cantatas, a repertory largely completed before 1729, every Sunday at the two main Leipzig churches. His reference to the ‘onus’ of such undertakings, in connection with the performance of a Passion planned for 1739, might just as well have been made in the 1720s. Admittedly, his difficulties became particularly acute around 1730, as his important memorandum of 23 August 1730, dealing with the state of church music in Leipzig and outlining his remedies, testifies. His letter of 28 October that year, to his old friend Erdmann in Danzig, may be read in the same sense; sheer frustration that the memorandum had proved ineffectual drove him to consider leaving Leipzig. It would seem that his work with the collegium musicum had not yet brought about the intended equilibrium in his activities.

The situation had been aggravated by other, external factors. The old headmaster Johann Heinrich Ernesti had died in 1729 (Bach had performed a motet bwv226 at his funeral in October). During the subsequent interim in the Thomasschule’s direction the organization of school life was disturbed. Problems of space appear to have arisen too. It was in this context that complaints were made about Bach’s neglect of his school duties (the dropping of singing lessons, absence on journeys without leave); in August 1730 there was even a question of reducing his salary ‘because the Kantor is incorrigible’. It would appear that things were put right by J.M. Gesner, who took over the headship of the school in the summer, and who seems soon to have established friendly and familiar relations with Bach.

On Good Friday 1730 Bach apparently performed a St Luke Passion, not of his own composition. From 25 to 27 June the bicentenary of the Augsburg Confession was celebrated across Lutheran Germany, and Bach wrote three cantatas for the event (nos.190a, 120b, Anh.4a: all were parody cantatas). They are not untypical of his church compositions of this period, most of which were put together as parodies; and that is true also of the major vocal works like the St Mark Passion, the B minor Mass, the small masses and the Christmas Oratorio. The only sacred cantatas that Bach composed as entirely new works after 1729 are nos.117 (1728–31), 192 (1730), 112 and 140 (1731), 177 (1732), 97 (1734), 9 and 100 (1732–5) and 14 (1735).

In 1731 a collected edition of the six partitas appeared as Op. 1, under the title I.Teil der Clavier-Übung. From this form of words it is clear that Bach planned further ‘parts’ in a series of ‘keyboard exercises’, and these he now proceeded to produce. His new and continuing interest in publishing his own compositions is a clear sign of a new determination with regard to independent and freely creative activity. The first performance of the St Mark Passion, predominantly a parody work, took place on Good Friday of that year. At the end of June 1731 Bach and his family had to move to temporary quarters while rebuilding and extension work were being carried out on the Thomasschule. His residence must have become increasingly cramped, for his family was growing. In the early years in Leipzig Anna Magdalena had borne a child almost every year, but few of them survived infancy:

Christiana Sophia Henrietta (b spring 1723; d 29 June 1726)
Gottfried Heinrich (48)
Christian Gottlieb (bap. 14 April 1725; d 21 Sept 1728)
Elisabeth Juliane Friederica (bap. 5 April 1726; d Leipzig, 24 Aug 1781)
Ernestus Andreas (bap. 30 Oct 1727; d 1 Nov 1727)
Regina Johanna (bap. 10 Oct 1728; d 25 April 1733)
Christiana Benedicta (bap. 1 Jan 1730; d 4 Jan 1730)
Christiana Dorothea (bap. 18 March 1731; d 31 Aug 1732)
Johann Christoph Friedrich (49)
Johann August Abraham (bap. 5 Nov 1733; d 6 Nov 1733)
Johann Christian (50)
Johanna Carolina (bap. 30 Oct 1737; d Leipzig, 18 Aug 1781)
Regina Susanna (bap. 22 Feb 1742; d Leipzig, 14 Dec 1809)

Joy and sorrow were everyday matters. But Bach’s family life must have been harmonious in more than one sense; in 1730 he reported, as a proud paterfamilias, that with his family he could form a vocal and instrumental concert ensemble. The family moved back into their refurbished apartment the next April. The school was reconsecrated on 5 June 1732 with a cantata, bwv Anh.18. In September 1731 Bach had been to Dresden for the first performance of Hasse’s opera Cleofide and to give concerts at the Sophienkirche and at court (there were enthusiastic reports in the newspapers). In September 1732 he went with his wife to Kassel for the examination and inauguration of the organ of the Martinskirche, where he probably played the ‘Dorian’ Toccata and Fugue in D minor bwv538.

With the death of Elector Friedrich August I of Saxony on 1 February 1733 a five-month period of national mourning began. However, the collegium musicum obtained permission to restart its performances in the middle of June, when a new harpsichord was introduced (possibly in the harpsichord concertos bwv1052–8). During the mourning period Bach composed the D major version of the Magnificat bwv243, which was probably first heard in Leipzig when the mourning was ended on 2 July (Visitation). Above all he worked on the Kyrie and the Gloria of the B minor Mass, which, in the hope of obtaining a title at the court Kapelle, he presented to the new Elector Friedrich August II in Dresden, with a note dated 27 July 1733, as a Missa in a set of parts. There is evidence to suggest that the Missa was performed at this time, perhaps at the Sophienkirche in Dresden, where W.F. Bach had been working as an organist since June 1733. Not until November 1736, however, was the title ‘Hofkomponist’ conferred on Bach, and even then only through the intervention of his patron Count Keyserlingk after a further letter of application. As a gesture of thanks, Bach paid his respects to the Dresden royal household and an enthusiastic public with a two-hour organ recital on the new Silbermann instrument at the Frauenkirche on 1 December 1736.

After the dedication of the Missa in July 1733, Bach kept the Saxon royal family’s interests in mind with his ‘extraordinaire’ concerts of the collegium musicum. On 3 August, the name day of the new elector, Bach began his remarkable series of secular cantatas of congratulation and homage with bwv Anh.12 (music lost), followed by Cantata No. 213 (5 September, for the heir to the electorate), No. 214 (8 December, for the electress), No. 205a (19 February 1734, for the coronation of the elector as King of Poland; music lost), an unknown work (3 August, again for the elector), and No. 215 (5 October, also for the elector, who was at the performance). Much of the festive music was performed in the open air with splendid illuminations, and according to newspaper reports the music benefited from a resounding echo. (On the day after the performance of No. 215 Bach’s virtuoso trumpeter and the leader of the Leipzig Stadtpfeifer, Gottfried Reiche, died as a result of the exertions of his office.) During the following Christmas season Bach gave the people of Leipzig a chance to hear much of the music from his secular festive cantatas in modified form, as the Christmas Oratorio, which was heard in six sections between Christmas Day 1734 and Epiphany 1735 (and consisted predominantly of parodies of Cantatas nos.213–15).

On 21 November 1734 the new headmaster of the Thomasschule, Johann August Ernesti, was greeted with a cantata, bwv Anh.19 (Gesner had moved to the newly founded University of Göttingen as its first dean). Bach’s dealings with the directors of the school had been untroubled for four years, thanks to his friendly relations with Gesner; but with Ernesti he experienced the most violent controversies of his entire period as Thomaskantor. A dispute flared up in August 1736 over the authority to nominate the choral prefect, in which the interests of the Kantor and the headmaster were diametrically opposed. With his neo-humanist educational ideals, which placed priority on high academic standards, Ernesti showed little appreciation of the musical traditions. The tendency at the Thomasschule, at least from the start of Bach’s period of office, had been to restrict musical activities, or at any rate to reduce their proportions; Bach, on the other hand, demanded the best-qualified pupils to assist him, and certainly he must often have overburdened them (with music copying, rehearsals and so on). Against what were to some extent unfair arguments on the headmaster’s part, his struggles were doomed to failure. The grievances arising from the nomination of the choir prefect were taken before the courts in Dresden; the affair, which led to Bach’s having disciplinary difficulties with his pupils, was settled early in 1738 (the precise outcome is not recorded). The prefect in question, Johann Gottlob Krause, whom Bach refused to acknowledge, had already left the Thomasschule in 1737.

Among the more important events of 1735 was the appearance of the second part of the Clavier-Übung at Easter. In the context of Bach’s activities as a publisher it should also be mentioned that by 1729 he was also involved in the distribution of musical publications by other authors and kept a stock, including Heinichen’s book on figured bass, Walther’s Lexicon and keyboard works by Hurlebusch, Krebs and his own sons. On 19 May the Ascension Oratorio (Cantata No. 11) was first performed; probably the Easter Oratorio (a revision of Cantata No. 249a) was heard on the preceding Easter Sunday. In June he travelled to Mühlhausen, where he had spent part of his early career, to appraise the rebuilt organ in the Marienkirche, where his son Johann Gottfried Bernhard (47) had just been appointed organist. During Advent 1735, when no music was performed, and Lent 1736 Bach was probably engaged on the revision of the St Matthew Passion and in making a carefully laid-out fair copy of the new version. In this form, characterized by its writing for double chorus (with two continuo parts), the work was performed in the Thomaskirche on 30 March 1736, with the cantus firmus parts in the opening and closing choruses of part 1 played on the ‘swallow’s nest’ organ. Also at Easter the Schemelli Hymnbook, on whose tunes and figured basses Bach had collaborated, was published.

In summer 1737 Bach temporarily resigned the direction of the collegium musicum. For the last ‘extraordinaire’ concert on 7 October 1736 he had written the congratulatory Cantata No. 206 on the birthday of the elector. Only two further works of homage are known from 1737–8 (bwv30a and Anh.13), which indicates that Bach was occupied primarily with the other things for which he had time after his release from the work associated with the collegium. He now turned to keyboard music, working on the second part of Das wohltemperirte Clavier, and on the third part of the Clavier-Übung, the largest of his keyboard works. This collection of organ pieces, some freely composed, some based on chorales, with large-scale works for a church organ and small-scale ones for a domestic instrument, appeared at Michaelmas 1739.

Bach obviously also devoted himself more than previously to private teaching in the late 1730s. Between 1738 and 1741, for example, J.P. Kirnberger and J.F. Agricola were studying with him in Leipzig – probably the most important and influential of all his pupils except for his own sons. Over the years Bach had something like 80 private pupils; among them were C.F. Abel (c1743), J.C. Altnickol (1744–8), J.F. Doles (1739–44), G.F. Einicke (1732–7), H.N. Gerber (1724–7), J.C.G. Gerlach (1723–9), J.G. Goldberg (c1740), G.A. Homilius (1735–42), J.C. Kittel (1748–50), J.G. Müthel (1750), J.C. Nichelmann (1730–33), J.G. Schübler (after 1740), G.G. Wagner (1723–6) and C.G. Wecker (1723–8).

In October 1737 Bach’s nephew Johann Elias (39) came to live with the family, as private secretary and tutor for the younger children; he remained until 1742. The surviving drafts of letters he prepared give a lively picture of Bach’s correspondence in these few years – and cause for regret that no other period is similarly documented. At this period Bach gave especially close attention to the study of works by other composers. He was a subscriber to Telemann’s Parisian flute quartets of May 1738; but more typical is his preoccupation with Latin polyphonic liturgical compositions. The stile antico tradition seems to have held a particular fascination for him. In the first place he owed his knowledge of this repertory, to which he marginally contributed by making transcriptions (works by Palestrina, Caldara, Bassani and others), to his connections at Dresden. His knowledge of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater of 1736, which he reworked during the 1740s as a setting of Psalm li, Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden bwv1083 is also surprising; the earliest trace of Pergolesi’s work north of the Alps thus leads to Bach – a sign of the latter’s remarkable knowledge of the repertory. His interest in Latin liturgical music also relates closely to the composition of the short masses (Kyrie and Gloria) bwv233–6. These may have been written for the Protestant court services in Dresden, but that would not exclude performances in Leipzig.

On 14 May 1737 J.A. Scheibe, in his journal Der critische Musikus, published a weighty criticism of Bach’s manner of composition. This seems to have come as a severe blow to Bach. Evidently at his urging, the Leipzig lecturer in rhetoric Johann Abraham Birnbaum responded with a defence, printed in January 1738, which Bach distributed among his friends and acquaintances. The affair developed into a public controversy, the literary conduct of which, at least, was suspended only in 1739 after further polemical writings by Scheibe and Birnbaum. Scheibe acknowledged Bach’s extraordinary skill as a performer on the organ and the harpsichord, but sharply criticized his compositions, claiming that Bach ‘by his bombastic and intricate procedures deprived them of naturalness and obscured their beauty by an excess of art’. Birnbaum’s not particularly skilful replies fail to recognize the true problem, which lies in a clash of irreconcilable stylistic ideals. Nevertheless, his discussion of naturalness and artificiality in Bach’s style, and his definition of harmony as an accumulation of counterpoint, make some important statements about the premisses and unique character of Bach’s compositional art, and Bach himself must have been involved in their formulation. This is clear above all in the way in which ‘the nature of music’ is represented, with references to biographical details (such as the challenge to Marchand) and express mention of composers and works in Bach’s library (Palestrina, Lotti and Grigny). The controversy smouldered on for several more years. Mizler, too, shook a lance, pointing to ‘the latest taste’ in Bach’s cantata style (‘so well does our Kapellmeister know how to suit himself to his listeners’). In the end Scheibe climbed down, with a conciliatory review (1745) of the Italian Concerto in which he apologized handsomely (‘I did this great man an injustice’).


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9. Leipzig, 1739–50.

In October 1739 Bach resumed the direction of the collegium musicum, which had in the meantime been in the charge of C.G. Gerlach (organist at the Neukirche and a pupil of Bach). A composition for the birthday of the elector (7 October; the music is lost) dates from this time, but it would seem that Bach’s ambitions and activities in connection with the ‘ordinaire’ and ‘extraordinaire’ concerts were considerably diminished. There were few performances of congratulatory cantatas, and these were probably all repeats of earlier works. There are no signs, however, that Bach’s interest in instrumental ensemble music slackened; if anything, it underwent a certain revival and he continued to produce chamber music steadily throughout the 1730s.

Bach withdrew from the collegium musicum again in 1741. With the death of the coffee-house owner Gottfried Zimmermann (30 May 1741) the collegium had lost its landlord and organizer, and without him it could not long continue, at least as it had been run hitherto. Signs of reduced activity can be traced until 1744, and it is possible that Bach still presided over performances from time to time until that year. The collegium had made an important contribution to musical life in Leipzig for 40 years, both with and without Bach’s leadership, and even its demise was not without consequences for the future. In both its function and its membership it served to prepare the ground for a new focal point in civic musical life, the Grosses Concert, founded in 1743 on the lines of the Parisian Concert Spirituel and destined to be the immediate predecessor of the Gewandhaus concerts.

In August 1741 Bach went to Berlin, probably to visit Carl Philipp Emanuel who in 1738 had been appointed court harpsichord player to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia (later Frederick the Great). In the two previous years Bach had made brief journeys to Halle (early 1740) and Altenburg (September 1739; he gave a recital on the new Trost organ in the castle church). In November 1741 there was a further journey, this time to Dresden, where he visited Count von Keyserlingk. In the same year, probably in the autumn, the ‘Aria with 30 Variations’, the so-called Goldberg Variations, appeared in print. Bach’s visit to Dresden may lie behind the anecdote related by Forkel, according to which the variations were commissioned by the count as a means of ameliorating sleepless nights, but the lack of any formal dedication in the original edition suggests that the work was not composed to a commission. It is conceivable, on the other hand, that after publication the count received a copy of the work for the use of his young resident harpsichord player Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who was a pupil of both J.S. and W.F. Bach. In his own copy (which came to light only in 1975) Bach added a series of 14 enigmatically notated canons on the bass of the Aria (bwv1087) in about 1747–8. They place a special and individual accent on the canonic writing that occupied him so intensively at that period.

On 30 August 1742, on the Kleinzschocher estate near Leipzig, a ‘Cantata burlesque’ (known as the Peasant Cantata, No. 212) was performed in homage to the new lord of the manor, Carl Heinrich von Dieskau; this work is unique in Bach’s output for its folklike manner (except perhaps for the quodlibet in the Goldberg Variations). The thoroughly up-to-date characteristics of parts of the work show that Bach was not only intimately acquainted with the musical fashions of the times but also knew how to adapt elements of the younger generation’s style for his own purposes (as he also did in the third movement of the trio sonata from the Musical Offering).

Alongside this work, apparently his last secular cantata, Bach’s only vocal compositions of the 1740s were isolated sacred works (including Cantatas nos.118, 195, 197 and 200), some new, some refashioned. There is evidence, on the other hand, that he gave numerous performances of works by other composers, some newly arranged or revised. These included a German parody of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater (Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden bwv1083, c1745–7), a Latin parody after the Sanctus and ‘Osanna’ from J.C. Kerll’s Missa superba (Sanctus in D bwv241, c1747–8), Handel’s Brockes Passion (c1746–7 and 1748–9) and a pasticcio Passion after C.H. Graun (with inserted movements bwv1088 and ‘Der Gerechte kömmt um’ bc C 8). Bach also often repeated his own earlier sacred works. Evidence does not exist to form a complete picture, but they included revised versions of the St Matthew and St John Passions; the latter was performed for the last time during Bach’s lifetime on Good Friday 1749.

The only new vocal composition of any size was the Credo and following sections of the Mass, which, when added to the Missa of 1773 (bwv232I), produced the B minor Mass – a continuation of Bach’s preoccupation with Latin figural music during the late 1730s. No specific reason for the composition of the B minor Mass, and no evidence of a projected or actual performance, has so far come to light. One of the most plausible hypotheses is that the composition of the work (which is described in C.P.E. Bach’s Nachlass as ‘the large Catholic Mass’) was connected with the consecration of the Catholic Hofkirche in Dresden, planned for the late 1740s and then postponed (building started in 1739). All that is known for certain is that the expansion of the 1733 Missa by the addition of a Credo, a Sanctus (1724) and the movements from ‘Osanna’ to ‘Dona nobis pacem’ and the fusing of the various sections to create a unified score (see also §14) were done in the last years of Bach’s life – more precisely, between August 1748 and October 1749.

Instrumental music, however, once again came to the fore during the 1740s. Bach had begun to sift through his older organ chorales about 1739–42, probably following completion of Clavier-Übung III. Some of the Weimar pieces were extensively reworked and gathered into a new manuscript collection (the ‘18’, bwv651–68). These revisions may have been undertaken with a view to the subsequent appearance of the chorales in print, as happened with the six chorales on movements from cantatas (the ‘Schübler Chorales’) about 1748. Apparently Bach was still engaged in work on the chorales in the last months of his life. The copying from dictation of the chorale Vor deinen Thron bwv668, later the subject of legend, was in fact probably confined to an improvement of an existing work (the chorale bwv641 from the Weimar Orgel-Büchlein).

Bach retained his interest in organ building to the last. In 1746 alone there were two important examinations and inaugurations of organs: on 7 August in Zschortau and on 26–9 September in Naumburg. Bach’s appraisal of the large Hildebrandt organ in the Wenzelskirche, Naumburg, was one of his most important. He customarily subjected instruments to the most searching examinations, both of their technical reliability and of their tone quality. He had also taken a critical interest in the pianos that Gottfried Silbermann was building during the 1730s, proposing alterations in the mechanism which Silbermann evidently adopted. At all events, Bach praised Silbermann’s later pianos and promoted their sale (a receipt for one sold to Poland, dated 6 May 1749, survives). On his visit to Potsdam in 1747 he played on a range of Silbermann pianos of the newer type which had been purchased by the Prussian court.

The visit to the court of Frederick the Great in May 1747 is one of the most notable biographical events in Bach’s otherwise unspectacular life. The invitation probably came about through Count Keyserlingk, who was then in Berlin. Bach’s encounter with Frederick began on 7 May at the palace of Potsdam during the chamber music which was a feature of every evening of court life there. Bach’s execution on the piano of a remarkable improvisation on a theme supplied by the king met with general applause. The next day Bach gave an organ recital in the Heiliggeistkirche in Potsdam, and during chamber music that evening he improvised a six-part fugue on a theme of his own. He also visited the new Berlin opera house, and possibly went to look at organs in Potsdam and Berlin. On his return to Leipzig, probably in the middle of May, he worked industriously on an ‘elaboration of the King of Prussia’s fugue theme’, beginning with writing down the fugue he had improvised (a three-part ricercare), which, while in Potsdam, he had announced that he would print. But he now decided on a larger project and under the title Musikalisches Opfer (‘Musical Offering’) he prepared a work in several movements dedicated to Frederick the Great; this work was printed in its entirety by the end of September (Michaelmas) 1747. The royal theme serves as the basis for all the movements (two ricercares, in three and six parts, for keyboard; a trio sonata for flute, violin and continuo; and various canons for flute, violin and continuo with harpsichord obbligato).

In June 1747, after some hesitation, Bach joined the Correspondirende Societät der Musicalischen Wissenschaften founded by Lorenz Mizler. It was probably in 1747 that he submitted, as a ‘scientific’ piece of work, his canonic composition on Vom Himmel hoch bwv769. At the same time he sent the members an offprint of the six-part canon from the series on the bass of the Goldberg Variations. He seems, however, to have taken no further interest in the society’s affairs as (according to C.P.E. Bach) he thought nothing of the ‘dry, mathematical stuff’ that Mizler wanted to discuss. Besides his long acquaintance with his pupil Mizler, Bach’s most likely reason for joining the society was that prominent colleagues such as Telemann and Graun were fellow members.

The beginnings of his work on Die Kunst der Fuge (‘The Art of Fugue’) seem to date from around 1740, or before. It is impossible to give an exact date as the original composing score is now lost. However, what must be a first version survives in an autograph fair copy containing 14 movements (12 fugues and two canons) and dating from 1742 at the latest. Thereafter Bach expanded and revised the work in readiness for printing. He himself supervised the printing to a large extent, and the process was probably largely complete by about the end of 1749 (in other words, before his son Johann Christoph Friedrich, who had helped to correct the proofs, left to join the court at Bückeburg in January 1750). But Bach was not to see the entire work (eventually comprising 14 fugues and four canons) in print; his sons, probably C.P.E. in particular, took charge of the publication and the work appeared posthumously in spring 1751. Bach had been unable to complete the fair copy of the last movement, a quadruple fugue, and so the fugal cycle ends with an unfinished movement. The editors decided to mitigate the effect of that by adding the organ chorale bwv668, Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit, at the end; the revision of this had been the last piece of work to occupy Bach.

In his final years Bach suffered from increasingly severe trouble with his eyes, seriously restricting his ability to work and leading eventually to total blindness. He probably composed nothing after autumn 1749. The last known examples of his handwriting, which give an impression of increasing irregularity, clumsiness and cramping, go up to October 1749 (parts of the score of the B minor Mass). Other documents to which he put his signature date from as late as spring 1750. The cause of the eye disease seems to have lain in untreated (and untreatable) diabetes, which may also have caused neuropathy and degenerative brain disease, evidence of which is found in the dramatic change in his handwriting in manuscripts of 1748–9. He gave a performance of the St John Passion on Good Friday 1749 without completing the revision of the work begun in about 1740. His health must have been very poor by spring 1749 at the latest; otherwise the Leipzig town council would surely not have been so tactless as to submit J.G. Harrer, a protégé of the Dresden prime minister Count Brühl, to examination for the post of Kantor on 8 June 1749. Out of consideration for Bach the cantata performance was in a concert hall rather than one of the churches. The town chronicle reported that the authorities expected Bach’s death. When his grandson Johann Sebastian Altnickol (his pupil Johann Christoph Altnickol had married Elisabeth Juliane Friederica Bach) was baptized on 6 October 1749 in Naumburg Bach was unable to make the short journey to stand godfather in person.

Bach’s state of health and ability to work must have fluctuated during his last year. He appointed Johann Nathanael Bammler, a former choir prefect at the Thomasschule for whom he provided two excellent references in 1749, to deputize for him as occasion warranted. But in spite of everything Bach was not entirely inactive. In spring 1749 he is known to have corresponded with Count Johann Adam vom Questenberg, apparently about a commission or some other project. Although no details are known, this reaffirms Bach’s obviously well-established connections with some major noble patrons from the area of Bohemia (Count Sporck of Lissa and Kukus), Moravia (Count Questenberg of Jaroměřice) and Silesia (the Haugwitz family). From May 1749 to June 1750 he was engaged in a controversial correspondence about the Freiberg headmaster Biedermann. In May 1749 Biedermann had violently attacked the cultivation of music schools; Bach immediately felt himself called into battle, and among other things he gave a repeat performance of the satirical cantata about the controversy between Phoebus and Pan, No. 201. His involvement is understandable, for he must have seen parallels with the state of affairs at the Thomasschule, where the same tendency fuelled Ernesti’s reforms. Bach solicited a rejoinder on the part of C.G. Schröter, a member of Mizler’s society, and even Mattheson joined in, from Hamburg. Once again, the affair throws light on the situation in German schools during the early Enlightenment and Bach’s last years as Thomaskantor. The integration of academic and musical traditions, which had been an institution for centuries, was in the process of turning into an irreconcilable confrontation.

At the end of March Bach underwent an eye operation, performed by the English eye specialist John Taylor (who was later to perform a similar operation on Handel). It was only partly successful, however, and had to be repeated during the second week of April. The second operation too was ultimately unsuccessful, and indeed Bach’s physique was considerably weakened. Yet as late as the beginning of May 1750 Johann Gottfried Müthel could go to Leipzig, stay at Bach’s house and become his last pupil. To what extent regular instruction was possible under these circumstances remains uncertain. In the next two months Bach’s health had so deteriorated that, on 22 July, he had to take his last Communion at home. He died only six days later, on the evening of 28 July, after a stroke. He was buried two or three days later at the cemetery of the Johanniskirche. It is not known what form the funeral ceremony took or what music was performed.

Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena, who in addition to her domestic tasks was a loyal and industrious collaborator, participating in performances and copying out music, survived him by ten years. She died in abject poverty in 1760. On his death Bach had left a modest estate consisting of securities, cash, silver vessels, instruments – including eight harpsichords, two lute-harpsichords, ten string instruments (among them a valuable Stainer violin), a lute and spinet – and other goods, officially valued at 1122 thaler and 22 groschen; this had to be divided between the widow and the nine surviving children of both marriages. Bach himself had evidently given instructions for the disposition of his musical Nachlass, which is ignored in the official valuation. According to Forkel, the eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann ‘got most of it’ (see §11).


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10. Iconography.

The oak coffin containing Bach’s remains was exhumed in 1894: the detailed anatomical investigation by Professor Wilhelm His confirmed their identity and showed that Bach was of medium build. From a skull impression Carl Seffner, in 1898, modelled a bust, which shows an undoubted similarity with the only likeness of Bach that can be guaranteed as authentic, that of the Leipzig portraitist Elias Gottlob Haussmann. That portrait exists in two versions, one dating from 1746 (Museum für Geschichte der Stadt Leipzig; property of the Thomasschule) and one of 1748 (William H. Scheide Library, Princeton; see below, fig.4). The earlier, signed ‘E.G. Haussmann pinxit 1746’, was presented to the Thomasschule in 1809 by the then Thomaskantor, August Eberhard Müller. It is not known whence Müller had obtained the painting, but is quite probable that it had remained in the possession of one of Bach’s direct descendants until then. Of these the most likely is Wilhelm Friedemann (unless he had another replica of Haussmann’s painting) or Regina Susanna, who lived in Leipzig until her death in 1809. It is often supposed that the Thomasschule portrait is one that members of Mizler’s society were required by statute to donate to that institution, but that is highly unlikely: Bach probably did not present a portrait, at least in the form of a painting, to the society. With the passage of time the Thomasschule picture was severely damaged and repeatedly painted over. Thorough restoration in 1912–13 returned it more or less to its original condition, but it remains inferior to the excellently preserved replica of 1748. This has a reasonably secure provenance, out of C.P.E. Bach’s estate; it was owned privately for many years by the Jenke family in Silesia and then in England, before being exhibited in public by Hans Raupach in 1950.

The authenticity of an unsigned pastel portrait, probably painted after 1750, allegedly by either Gottlieb Friedrich or Johann Philipp Bach, and handed down in the Meiningen branch of the family, is not altogether certain, and neither is that of a group portrait of musicians, executed around 1733 by Johann Balthasar Denner (now in the Internationale Bachakademie, Stuttgart; a replica, in better condition, is in a private collection in the UK), which shows what may well be Johann Sebastian (with violoncello piccolo) and three of his sons.


Johann Sebastian Bach by Gottlieb Friedrich Bach

Johannes Sebastian Bach, pastel by Gottlieb Friedrich Bach [not apocryphal Bach portrait]


Doubt hangs over the authenticity of all the other better-known and much reproduced portraits. The oil by Johann Jacob Ihle, dating from about 1720 and purporting to show Bach as Kapellmeister in Cöthen, comes from the palace at Bayreuth and was identified as a ‘picture of Bach’ only in 1897. But there is no concrete support for that identification, and the portrait’s earlier provenance is obscure; it now hangs in the Bachhaus in Eisenach. The portrait by Johann Ernst Rentsch the elder (now in the Städtisches Museum, Erfurt), allegedly representing Bach at the age of about 30, came to light only in 1907 and has no credible documentation. Many other apocryphal portraits, including the ‘portrait in old age’ discovered by Fritz Volbach in Mainz in 1903 (now in a private collection in Fort Worth), are of the ‘old man with a wig’ type and have nothing to do with Bach.

According to GerberL, probably authentic portraits that no longer survive were once owned by J.C. Kittel (from the estate of the Countess of Weissenfels) and by J.N. Forkel. A pastel from C.P.E. Bach’s collection (not the one referred to above) has not survived.


During the 18th and 19th centuries many copies were made of the Haussmann portrait, both in oils and in various types of print; an engraving (1794) by Samuel Gottlieb Kütner, an art student at the Zeichenakademie, Leipzig, along with C.P.E. Bach’s son Johann Sebastian (1748–78), was said by Emanuel himself to be ‘a fair likeness’. The nearest we can nowadays get to his true physiognomy is probably in the 1748 version of Haussmann’s portrait, wherein, as a man in his early 60s, Bach is represented as a learned musician, with a copy of the enigmatic six-part canon bwv1076 in his hand to demonstrate his status.


The aphocriphal portraits:


Johann Sebastian Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann

Johann Sebastian Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, 1748 (Stadtgeschichtlisches Museum, Lepzig)



Johann Sebastian Bach by Johann Jacob Ihle Johann Sebastian Bach by Joachim Ernst Rentsch

Johann Sebastian Bach, from the left: oil on canvas by Johann Jacob Ihle (Bach's house in Eisenach);
oil on canvas by Joachim Ernst Rentsch (Städtischen Erfurt Museum)


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Notes on the music



Organ music.

The obituary written immediately after Bach’s death and published in 1754 contains the following statement: ‘For as long as there is nought to confute us other than the mere possibility of the existence of better organists and keyboard players, we cannot be reproached if we are bold enough to persist in the claim that our Bach was the most prodigious organist and keyboard player that there has ever been. It may be that this or that famous man has accomplished much in polyphony on these instruments but was he for that reason as expert – with hands and feet together – as Bach was? Whosoever had the pleasure of hearing him and others, being not otherwise disposed by prejudice, will agree that this doubt is not unfounded. And whosoever looks at Bach’s pieces for the organ and the keyboard, which he himself, as is universally known, performed with the greatest perfection, will likewise have nothing to say in contradiction of the above statement.’ The claim illustrates the well-nigh legendary reputation that Bach enjoyed in his lifetime. His fame had already spread beyond the confines of central Germany by 1717, when he challenged the French virtuoso Louis Marchand to a competition at the court of Dresden and won by default when the Frenchman took flight. ‘It would be wrong to conclude from this defeat of Marchand in Dresden that he must have been a poor musician. Did not as great a one as Handel avoid every opportunity of confronting the late Bach … or of getting involved with him?’ (Marpurg).

Keyboard music as a whole occupies a crucial position in Bach’s life in many respects, but this is even more true of the works for harpsichord than of those for organ. No other genre occupied Bach so consistently and intensively from the beginning of his career to the end. His life as a professional musician began with learning to play on a keyboard, above all in Ohrdruf in 1695–1700 under the tuition of his elder brother Johann Christoph, and his study of keyboard music by the best composers of the 17th century laid the most important foundations of his training as a composer. The compositions for harpsichord, in particular, provide the opportunity to assess Bach’s development at each stage of his creative life.

Bach was bolder than any of his contemporaries: from the first he set no limits to his keyboard skills, and accepted no restrictions to his horizons – from the breadth of the foundations of his style to the comprehensive range of genres in which he composed. The stylistic basis was laid in his youth, and it was undoubtedly important that growing up in the central German environment of his time gave him the opportunity to learn about different stylistic tendencies side by side, without any bias towards one rather than another. As a result his models came from a highly diverse repertory. The north German school, including such masters as Buxtehude, Reincken, Bruhns, Lübeck and Böhm, were ranged alongside central German composers such as Pachelbel’s circle and older pupils (J.H. Buttstedt, for example, or A.N. Vetter) and Witt, Krieger, Kuhnau and Zachow, as well as their southern German colleagues J.J. Froberger, J.C. Kerll and J.C.F. Fischer. Italians such as Frescobaldi and Battiferri confronted Frenchmen such as Lully, Marais, Grigny and Raison. Many of these names are to be found in the large manuscript collections (the so-called Andreas-Bach-Buch and Möllersche Handschrift) copied by the Ohrdruf Bach, Johann Christoph. They give a clear picture of the repertory that the younger brother grew up with, and which showed him – like the young Handel, learning his craft in a similar environment – ‘the manifold ways of writing and composing of various races, together with each single composer’s strengths and weaknesses’. No comparable sphere of influence served to challenge this broadly based group of musicians and exemplars later in Bach’s life. There were, of course, individuals who had an effect on him, such as Vivaldi after 1710, or probably Couperin, or his exact contemporary Handel, but no group of musicians of a comparable range or variety.

Bach’s dedication to every keyboard genre and form appears equally boundless. The range remains constant throughout his career, from the earliest to the last compositions. All the major types are represented: the freely improvisatory (prelude, toccata, fantasia), the imitative and strict (fugue, fantasia, ricercar, canzona, capriccio, invention), the combinatory (multi-part preludes, prelude and fugue) and multi-movement forms (sonata, suite or partita, overture or sinfonia, chaconne or passacaglia, pastorale, concerto and variations); and then there are the various types and forms of chorale arrangement.

Unlike the vocal music and the chamber and Orchestral music, Bach’s keyboard output covers his entire creative life. There are quite lengthy periods of heightened activity – organ music before 1717, harpsichord music after that date. As a whole, however, Bach seems to have cultivated the two genres alongside each other. It is thus the more surprising that, right from the beginning, consistently and in defiance of inherited 17th-century tradition, he abandoned the conventional community of repertory between organ and harpsichord, choosing to write specifically for the one or the other. The uncompromising use of obbligato pedals, in particular, is a distinguishing mark of Bach’s organ style. Only exceptionally (for example in the chorale partitas and the small chorale arrangements from the third part of the Clavier-Übung) do the performing possibilities coincide so that organ and harpsichord become truly interchangeable.

Since most of Bach’s keyboard works from the pre-Leipzig years survive in copies (generally made in the circle of Bach’s pupils) rather than in autograph scores, it is not possible to establish a precise chronology. Even a relative one is possible only in general terms, with considerations of style and authenticity holding the balance. In the earliest works the influence of Bach’s models is pronounced. Pachelbel had taught Johann Christoph Bach, and the master’s influence extended to the younger brother, most visibly and prevalently in the earliest of his extant compositions. Besides the little organ chorales which survive individually (bwv749, 750 and 756), regarded by Spitta as Bach’s first musical essays, the chorales in the Neumeister collection, which came to light only recently (bwv1090–1120, and bwv714, 719, 737, 742 and 756), are now taken to be among his earliest works. Although the Neumeister manuscript represents neither an integrated body of work nor a unified collection, in its dazzling variety it embodies some contradictory and simultaneously essential traits of Bach’s early organ music: imperfect technique alongside daring innovation; reliance on models such as Pachelbel, Johann Michael and Johann Christoph Bach and masters from north, south and central Germany, together with a determination to surpass and dispense with such models; and an entirely unorthodox mixture of free composition and strict polyphony, unconventional harmony and pronounced virtuosity.

A subsequent stage in Bach’s development is found in the chorale partitas bwv766–8, mostly wrought in the manner of Böhm (bwv768 was revised and expanded during Bach’s Weimar period). The Canzona bwv588, the Allabreve bwv589 and the Pastorale bwv590 show south German and Italian characteristics, while the Fantasia in G bwv572 looks to the French style. With their sectional layout, the preludes in E and G minor, bwv566 and 535a, must have been written under Buxtehude’s immediate influence.

The extraordinary harmonic boldness and the richness of fermata embellishment in the pieces bwv715, 722 and 732, intended to accompany chorales, imply that they belong to the Arnstadt period when Bach’s treatment of chorales caused confusion among the congregation. The fugues after Legrenzi and Corelli, bwv574 and 579, should probably be placed among the early works. Admittedly, the scarcity of autographs, combined with the complicated situation surrounding the other sources, makes it difficult to establish a reliable chronology. It is scarcely possible even to draw definite conclusions about which of the early keyboard works belong within the period of Bach’s youth, if that is set at about 1700–07.

The models recede in importance from the Mühlhausen period, at the latest, and Bach’s individuality begins to pervade every note of his compositions. This applies particularly to the many extended organ chorale settings probably dating from between 1709 and 1712–13 and already so much in accordance with Bach’s later ideals that he found this group of 18 chorales (bwv651–8) worthy of revising in and after about 1740. In his freely composed organ works (toccatas, preludes, fantasias and fugues) Bach tightened up the formal scheme, preparing the way for the two-movement prelude and fugue through an intermediate type in which the fugue was a long, self-contained complex but the prelude was not yet a unified section (such as the first movement of bwv532). Here is an early manifestation of one of the peculiarities of Bach’s working methods, encountered later in the ‘48’: fugues attain their final form almost instantaneously, preludes often go through several stages of development. Probably the most important work of these years is the Passacaglia in C minor bwv582.

In about 1713–14 a decisive stylistic change came about, stimulated by Vivaldi’s concerto form. Bach’s encounter with Vivaldi’s music found immediate expression in the concertos after Vivaldi’s opp.3 and 7 (bwv593 etc.). Features adapted from Vivaldi include the unifying use of motivic work, the motoric rhythmic character, the modulation schemes and the principle of solo–tutti contrast as means of formal articulation; the influence may be seen in the Toccatas in F and C bwv540 and 564. Apparently Bach experimented for a short while with a free, concerto-like organ form in three movements (fast–slow–fast: cf bwv545 + 529/2 and bwv541 + 528/3) but finally turned to the two-movement form, as in bwv534 and 536. Of comparable importance to the introduction of the concerto element is his tendency towards condensed motivic work, as in the Orgel-Büchlein. Bach’s conception of this new type of miniature organ chorale, combining rhetorical and expressive musical language with refined counterpoint, probably dates back to a relatively early point, possibly the beginning of the Weimar period, but he cannot have started to collect them systematically in the autograph before 1713–14. Among the earliest entered in the manuscript are, among new compositions, bwv608, 627 and 630, and around 1715–16 Bach added bwv615, 623, 640 and 644 (to cite some typical examples). Some of the pieces, such as bwv601 and 639, are of earlier date. By the end of the Weimar period the Orgel-Büchlein was complete in all essentials, although a few isolated pieces were added later, such as bwv620 and 631 (c1730), the fragment O Traurigkeit and bwv613 (c1740). The final total of 45 pieces falls considerably short of the 164 originally projected, but Bach had already ceased to work consistently at this major undertaking as early as 1716. The reason for this is unknown; when he took it up again in Leipzig it was only sporadically and apparently in connection with teaching, or so a copy made about 1727–30 suggests.

Bach composed few organ pieces at Cöthen, but among them is undoubtedly the C major Fantasia bwv573 which he added to Anna Magdalena Bach’s Clavier-Büchlein (1722). In Leipzig, in about 1727, he composed the trio sonatas, a new genre for the organ, which he wrote, according to Forkel, for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann. It was probably in conjunction with renewed activity as a recitalist – he is known to have performed in Dresden (1725, 1731 and 1736), Kassel (1732), Altenburg (1739) and Potsdam (1747) – that he returned to the prelude and fugue genre. Now, surely as a consequence of the ‘48’, he always wrote them in two sections, with the preludes as important as the fugues. There was a final flourish of virtuosity (especially in the writing for obbligato pedal) in works such as bwv544 and 548 (both c1730), but always in the context of a clearcut structure (there is a da capo fugue in bwv548).

In 1739, as the third part of the Clavier-Übung, Bach published a comprehensive and varied group of organ works. Framed by a Prelude and Fugue in E flat (bwv552), there are nine chorale arrangements for Mass and 12 for the catechism, followed by four duets. Bach’s encyclopedic intentions can be seen in the form of the work – that of a collection of specimen organ pieces for large church instruments and smaller domestic ones (including the harpsichord), symbolized in his invariable coupling of a large piece with a small; they can equally be seen in the variety of his contrapuntal methods, whereby he constantly produced fresh kinds of cantus firmus treatment. At the very end of Bach’s output for the organ are such disparate works as the C minor Fantasia and Fugue bwv562 (1747–8), the ‘Schübler’ chorales (arrangements after solo movements from cantatas) and the canonic variations on Vom Himmel hoch bwv769. The variations, written for Mizler’s society in 1747, survive in two original versions, printed and autograph, whose different sequence of movements shows Bach experimenting with symmetrical form and the placing of climaxes.

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Music for harpsichord, lute etc.

Just as Bach learnt most about the craft of composition from keyboard music, so too did he use it for preference in teaching others. He was obviously already a sought-after teacher when still in Weimar, but the move to Leipzig brought a decisive expansion of his teaching activities. H.N. Gerber, who studied with him in the early Leipzig years, left an account of Bach’s method of introducing the widest variety of composition by gradual stages, along with the technical premisses of their performance. According to Gerber he used to begin with the Inventions and the French and English suites, and conclude the course with the ‘48’. This canon of characteristic works from the decade 1715–25 constitutes, so to speak, the stylistic core of Bach’s music for keyboard and for that reason served later as the yardstick by which to settle questions of authenticity. Nowadays, however, the yardstick’s usefulness has become somewhat problematic, since it does not take fully into account either the stylistic breadth of Bach’s early output or the unorthodox musical language of the late works.

One of the essential elements of Bach’s art as a keyboard composer is the attention he gave, from the first, to the idiomatic qualities of the individual instruments, respecting not only the differences between organ and harpsichord but also those within the family of string keyboard instruments, of which he used at least four types: harpsichord, clavichord, lute-harpsichord and fortepiaNo. He is specific about the main kinds of harpsichord in the Clavier-Übung (the first part is for one-manual harpsichord, the second and fourth for a two-manual instrument). One of the earliest manuscript sources refers to the suitability of the E minor suite bwv996 for the lute-harpsichord (‘aufs Lauten Werk’). Bach took an active interest in J.G. Silbermann’s experiments in developing the fortepiano during the 1730s and 40s. There is reliable testimony that he improvised on several new Silbermann fortepianos of different types in the presence of Frederick the Great in Potsdam in 1747, which makes it possible to regard the three-part ricercar of the Musical Offering as conceived primarily for this new kind of keyboard instrument.

There is an obvious association between Bach’s renown as a keyboard virtuoso, together with his work as a teacher, and the fact that his keyboard music is among the most accessible of his entire output, and also that it was the most widely available. Its dissemination shows a marked rising curve during the 18th century, internationally as well as within Germany. Bach’s harpsichord works were available in Italy, France, Austria and England by 1750, and in view of this it is not surprising that the young Beethoven was schooled in the ‘48’. The growing recognition of the significance of this part of his output was reflected in the first complete edition of the works for harpsichord (begun in Leipzig in 1800 by Hoffmeister & Kühnel and continued by C.F. Peters) in which Forkel, among others, was involved.

Bach’s early harpsichord compositions are in a similar situation to the early organ works as regards dating and evaluation. None of the very earliest can be dated precisely. The Capriccio bwv992 has been assigned to 1704; there are no biographical data to support this (it is extremely doubtful that it was written for Bach’s brother Johann Jakob), but it certainly belongs to the period immediately after 1700. Before 1712–13 there were countless individual pieces like toccatas, preludes and fugues (these last mainly using a ‘repercussive’ thematic technique like the early organ fugues); variation form is represented by the Aria variata bwv989. In the toccatas (bwv910 etc.) Italian, north German and French influences conjoin in equal importance (bwv912 is an interesting counterpart to the organ work bwv532); Bach’s penchant for the French style is evident in his abundant use of the style brisé. After 1712 the particular influence of concertos by Vivaldi, Marcello and others can be seen in Bach’s numerous concerto arrangements (bwv972 etc.).

To the last years in Weimar and the early years in Cöthen belong works such as the so-called English Suites and the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue bwv903, and also the Clavier-Büchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann of 1720, which is predominantly didactic in layout. It is however less important for its instruction in playing technique (the Applicatio bwv994 gives fingering and tables of ornaments after D’Anglebert) than as a book of instruction in composition. For Bach himself, the two could not be dissociated: the Clavier-Büchlein contains the beginnings of the ‘48’ as well as early versions of the Inventions and Sinfonias, under such titles as ‘preambulum’ and ‘fantasia’. To some extent the 1722 Clavierbüchlein for Anna Magdalena is a companion work, though differently laid out.

Then followed, also in 1722, Das wohltemperirte Clavier (book 1 of the ‘48’), with its 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys, surpassing, in logic, in format and in musical quality, all earlier endeavours of the same kind by other masters, such as J.C.F. Fischer’s Ariadne musica. The work shows a perfectly balanced contrast between free and strict styles, each represented by several different types of prelude and fugue. Bach’s writing in book 1 of the ‘48’ in the most varied fugues – from two- to five-part, in a wide range of styles – represents the culmination of a 20-year process of maturation and stands unparalleled in the history of music. The final version of the two- and three-part Inventions and Sinfonias, also arranged by key but representing a different method of composition whose object (according to Bach’s foreword) was ‘to teach clear playing in two and three obbligato parts, good inventions [i.e. compositional ideas] and a cantabile manner of playing’, dates from 1723.

The first traces of the subsequent great works of the Leipzig period are to be found in the 1725 Clavierbüchlein for Anna Magdalena, which in fact anticipates the so-called French Suites bwv812–17 and the Partitas bwv825–30. The Partitas in particular (appearing in print singly from 1726) represent a further culmination in Bach’s keyboard output; whereas the ‘48’ shows the prelude and fugue type developed to its most consummate maturity, these present similarly matured specimens of the most popular harpsichord genre of the time, the partita, comprising a suite of dance movements and ‘galanteries’. These – the burlesca, capriccio and the like – do not appear in the English or French Suites; as in the English Suites, each partita begins with a large-scale movement, each differently titled and each in a different style. Later, with the collected publication of all six in 1731, Bach inaugurated his series of published works under the general title Clavier-Übung (the title was borrowed from a publication by Kuhnau, his predecessor in office). In 1735 appeared the second part, whose contents were intended to be representative of the most prominent and fashionable styles: the Concerto in the Italian Style bwv971 embodies the ultimate stage in the process of transcribing instrumental concertos for keyboard, and stands in contrast to an Overture in the French Manner bwv831 which, more markedly than the partitas, represents what was specifically French in harmony, rhythm, ornamentation and melodic invention. 1741–2 eventually saw the end of the Clavier-Übung series with the aria and 30 variations known as the Goldberg Variations. Apparently Bach had not cultivated the variation form since his youth, so that the contrast between the Goldberg Variations and the early works (chorale partitas and the Aria variata) is the more marked. This work outshines all others as far as performing technique is concerned (Domenico Scarlatti’s influence is unmistakable in places). The large-scale cyclical layout (based on a sequence of 10 x 3 movements, incorporating a series of nine canons, one at every third variation, arranged in order of ascending intervals to move towards a climax, with a final quodlibet) is without precedent. The basis of the composition is a ground bass of 32 bars, developed from the Ruggiero and related bass patterns, first presented in the aria and then subjected to free and canonic elaboration in a wide variety of ways. In their monothematic and emphatically contrapuntal conception, the Goldberg Variations set the scene for Bach’s last keyboard works – the Musical Offering and Art of Fugue.

Besides the harpsichord works published in the 1730s, the only other major work is the second part of Das wohltemperirte Clavier (not so titled – the complete autograph does not survive). This companion-piece is less unified than book 1 and was partly assembled from existing preludes and fugues, some of them transposed. The freshly composed pieces probably date chiefly from the late 1730s; the work was complete by 1744 at the latest. Apart from this one major undertaking, Bach appears to have composed very few keyboard works at this period: perhaps the Fantasia ‘sur un rondeau’ bwv918, certainly the Fantasia in C minor with fragmentary fugue bwv906.

The dates of composition of the seven surviving works for lute – apparently almost his total output for the instrument – cover at least 30 years. The earliest work is the Suite in E minor bwv996, which dates from the Weimar period; it already shows a surprisingly balanced construction. The Prelude in C minor bwv999 shows an affinity with the ‘48’, and may thus belong to the Cöthen or early Leipzig period. All the other lute works were composed in Leipzig, starting with the Fugue in G minor bwv1000, an expanded polyphonic development from the violin fugue (in bwv1001), which (like bwv997) is in a tablature copied by Bach’s friend, the Leipzig lawyer and lutenist Christian Weyrauch. The Suite in G minor bwv995 (after 1011, for cello) dates from the period 1727–31 and is dedicated in Bach’s autograph to an unidentifiable ‘Monsieur Schouster’. The Suite in E (bwv1006a, after 1006 for violin) also survives in autograph form and is a much less demanding arrangement of its model as compared with bwv1000 and 995; it dates from the second half of the 1730s. Bach must have composed the Suite in C minor bwv997 before 1741; this is an original lute composition and is laid out in a similar virtuoso fashion to the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat bwv998 which can be ascribed to the early 1740s. The late works may have been written for the Dresden lutenists S.L. Weiss and Johann Kropffgans, and in any case were probably played by them. There is evidence that Weiss and Kropffgans performed at Bach’s house at least once, in 1739. Bach’s arrangement for violin and harpsichord of Weiss’s lute suite in A major (bwv1025) may have been made in connection with this occasion. His contributions to the repertory of the lute, long past its heyday but enjoying a final flowering in the German-speaking countries, represent, along with the works of Weiss, the culmination of the instrument’s 18th-century repertory. They require an instrument with 10 to 14 strings, but in Bach’s day were at least occasionally played on the lute-harpsichord, an instrument in whose construction Bach had assisted. The indistinct line between lute and harpsichord music is illustrated by the autograph of bwv998, marked ‘pour La Luth ò Cembal’.

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Chamber music.

As with the orchestral music, a great many chamber compositions are thought to be lost. Once again the greatest losses affect the Cöthen period, but the Weimar years also suffer. When the summary worklist in the obituary mentions ‘a quantity of other instrumental things, of every kind and for every kind of instrument’, it probably refers first and foremost to works for various chamber ensembles.

The unusual flexibility with which Bach manipulated the conventional genres of sonata and suite is comparable to his orchestral output, as regards formal and compositional aspects as much as textures. Particularly important is his emancipation of the harpsichord from its role as continuo instrument and its deployment as a true partner in the sonatas for harpsichord with violin (bwv1014–19), flute (1030–33) and viola da gamba (1027–9). The cycle of six harpsichord and violin sonatas (c1725–6) were the first in a series of works with obbligato keyboard and paved the way for a new musical genre. The traditional trio sonata with continuo still cast its shadow (for example, in the opening movements of bwv1015 and 1019), but it yielded by stages to a more integrated three-part style (for example, the opening movements of bwv1014 and 1018). The only genuine trio sonatas to survive, apart from the one in the Musical Offering, are bwv1038 and 1039, dating from the 1730s. Bach’s arrangement of the gamba sonata bwv1027, after bwv1039 for two flutes and continuo is an illustration of the development of the new type of trio writing from the trio sonata. A similar procedure stood behind his earlier development of the organ sonata. Most movements of the organ sonatas are based on instrumental trios, as the arrangement of the first movement of bwv528 from a trio sonata movement for oboe d’amore, viola da gamba and continuo in Cantata No. 76 illustrates. This same movement preserves a trace of the many lost trio sonatas of the Cöthen years. Yet the trio sonatas of the Leipzig period, too, may represent only a small fraction of their original numbers, if the way the genre lingers on in the Musical Offering is any guide.

The list of surviving duo sonatas with continuo is also relatively short, and again dominated by works of the Leipzig period: the violin sonatas bwv1021 and 1023 and the flute sonatas bwv1034–5. The Fugue in G minor for violin and continuo bwv1026, from before 1712, is not only Bach’s earliest surviving piece of ensemble music, it is also the only chamber-music piece of the pre-Cöthen years to have survived as an independent entity. The only other sources we have for an idea of what kind of chamber music Bach wrote in his early years are the instrumental sonatas and sinfonias of the Weimar cantatas.

Bach’s creative powers in the Cöthen years appear in a special light in the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, dating from 1720, and the suites for solo cello, which are probably earlier. The sonata for solo flute (bwv1013) is not likely to have been composed in Cöthen, for the playing technique is much more advanced than, for example, the writing for flute in Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. Yet all the works senza basso not only demonstrate Bach’s intimate knowledge of the typical idioms and performing techniques of each instrument, but also show his ability, even without an accompanying bass part, to bring into effective play dense counterpoint and refined harmony coupled with distinctive rhythms. The special importance of Bach’s chamber music was recognized at a very early date. J.F. Reichardt wrote in 1805, reviewing the first edition of the solo violin music, that the pieces represent ‘perhaps the greatest example in any art of the freedom and certainty with which a great master can move even when he is in chains’.

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Orchestral music.

Many of Bach’s orchestral compositions must be presumed lost. The surviving repertory can in any case give only an incomplete idea of his output for larger instrumental ensembles, for he must have written many further works during his years at Cöthen and while he was working with the collegium musicum in Leipzig. Traces of lost concerto movements may be found in numerous cantatas, such as No. 42 (first movement), and other large-scale vocal works, such as the Easter Oratorio (first two movements); and various of the surviving harpsichord concertos, in particular, invite inferences about lost originals.

In the score bearing the dedication to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, the so-called Brandenburg Concertos are dated 24 March 1721. This is merely a terminus ante quem, for the concertos themselves must have been written over a considerable period before being assembled in 1721 as a collection of ‘Concerts avec plusieurs instruments’ (not as a single work in several parts). It cannot be proved that Bach composed instrumental music in his capacity as Konzertmeister in Weimar; but his position there and his preoccupation with the Italian concerto style during those years make it seem probable that he did. Of the Brandenburg Concertos, No. 6 in particular points to the Weimar period, partly because of its indebtedness to the Italian type of concerto (above all in the middle movement) and also because of its unusual instrumentation (the particular combination of low strings is otherwise found only in Weimar cantatas). Other concertos (for instance the conjectural early version of No. 1) may also belong to the Weimar period, but it is not possible to draw any firmer conclusion about a Weimar orchestral repertory.

The special significance of the Brandenburg Concertos resides in the fact that, like Vivaldi’s, they abandon the standard type of concerto grosso and use a variety of solo combinations. The originality of Bach’s ideas extends far beyond Vivaldi’s, as do the density of the compositional texture and the level of professional virtuosity. The devising of concise head-motifs, particularly in the first movements, shows a strong Italian influence. Most of Bach’s instrumentations are unprecedented. They feature all kinds of combinations, from homogeneous string sound (nos.3 and 6) to the heterogeneous mixing of brass, woodwind, string and keyboard instruments. Just as unusual is Bach’s conflation of the group concerto with the solo concerto in nos.2 and 5. No. 5 probably represents the latest stage in composition of the set: it was written for the inauguration of the harpsichord he brought back from Berlin early in 1719 (an earlier version survives from about this date). At the same time it marks the beginnings of the keyboard concerto as a form.

For a long time Bach scholars assigned most of his chamber and ensemble music to the Cöthen years. Recent studies based on original sources and style criticism have led to a thorough revision of the chronology affecting this part of his output. It now seems that only the smaller part of the instrumental ensemble music (or at least of what survives of it) belongs to the Cöthen period, while the greater part was composed at Leipzig, and principally for the collegium musicum which Bach was associated with from 1723 and which he directed from 1729 to the early 1740s. Thus the four Orchestral Suites, with their leaning towards French style, were written in Leipzig: No. 1 perhaps as early as 1725, nos.3 and 4 in about 1725 and after 1730 respectively and No. 2 about 1739. The B minor Suite (No. 2), with its hybrid mixture of concerto elements and suite form and the extraordinary virtuosity of its flute writing, is probably Bach’s very last orchestral work. The only solo concertos to survive in their original form from this time are the violin concertos in A minor and in E and the two-violin concerto in D minor, which again obviously relate to the collegium musicum. Pointers to lost works that may be supposed to have been composed in Cöthen can be obtained from Leipzig pieces showing clear signs of reworking, above all cantata sinfonias with obbligato organ and the harpsichord concertos. Among the putative originals discernible in later recensions are concertos for oboe d’amore (after bwv1053 and 1055), for violin (after bwv1052 and 1060) and for three violins (after bwv1064). The intended instrumentation of the original cannot always be conclusively determined from the later version, and allowance must also be made for substantial differences between the two versions, so that it is extremely rarely the case that reconstruction of a supposed but lost original is really possible. Bach never proceeded in a mechanical way; rather, he strove to give the arrangement an identity of its own by subjecting the model to further development and exhausting its potential. This often involved the addition of fresh contrapuntal parts, the alteration of detail and structural modification. Of special interest are Bach’s adaptations of instrumental works into vocal ones, such as the derivation of the first chorus of Cantata No. 110 from bwv1069; also of note is the wresting of the outer movements of an ensemble concerto (bwv1044) out of the Prelude and Fugue in A minor for harpsichord (bwv894).

The most noteworthy of the later concertos composed in the 1730s, with substantial changes to the originals on which they draw, are the Triple Concerto in A minor bwv1044 (sharing several features with Brandenburg Concerto No. 5), the seven harpsichord concertos bwv1052–8 and the concertos for two or more harpsichords bwv1060–65, all but one of them reworkings of earlier works by Bach himself (the exception is bwv1064, an arrangement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor for four violins, Op. 3 No. 10). In fact, Bach’s alterations and restructurings are sufficiently important – especially the deployment of the left hand of the harpsichord part and the invention of idiomatic harpsichord figuration – for works of this rank to be considered compositions in their own right. They owe their special historical importance to their occurrence at the beginning of the history of the keyboard concerto, a form which was to be taken up above all by Bach’s sons so that in Germany, until about 1750, it remained the exclusive preserve of the Bach family. A stimulus for the composition of the harpsichord concertos may have been the new instrument introduced on 17 June 1733 (‘a new harpsichord, the like of which no-one here has ever yet heard’), according to the announcement advertising the collegium musicum concert.

MIDI files of the Bach's orchestral music, available here.

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Canons, ‘Musical Offering’, ‘Art of Fugue’.

Bach’s preoccupation with the canon as the strictest form of counterpoint can be traced back to the Weimar period. In his organ chorales and particularly in the Orgel-Büchlein the canonic principle plays a major role. Canonic elements are present also in several of the early vocal works. Here however it is a matter of canonic technique cropping up in a context of complex contrapuntal construction; as a genre in its own right, the canon, in Bach’s day, would appear almost exclusively as a theoretical example in composition teaching. It was in this sense that it was often favoured – generally in the form of a circular canon – by musicians for entries in students’ albums: such entries were normally notated in enigmatic fashion, setting the would-be solver an intellectual exercise. Bach wrote such canons in albums more than once; for the most part they are probably lost. Except for bwv1076–7, all the surviving individual canons (1072–5, 1078, 1086) were probably dedicatory works of this kind; 1077 was re-used for this purpose. What is probably the earliest of them is dated 2 August 1713 (bwv1073, dedicatee uncertain); the latest is dated 1 March 1749 (bwv1078; dedicatee Benjamin Faber).

A new kind of theoretical canon came into being in connection with the Goldberg Variations, in which the canonic principle played a special part. In his personal copy of the Goldberg Variations Bach wrote in 1747–8 a series of 14 perpetual canons on the first eight bass notes of the aria ground (bwv1087), exploring the most varied canonic possibilities of the subject, subsequently arranging the individual perpetual canons in a progressive order, organized according to their increasing contrapuntal complexity. The types included range from simple, double and triple canons, retrograde canons and stretto canons to a quadruple proportion canon by augmentation and diminution. Nos.11 and 13 of this series are identical with bwv1077 and 1076 (depicted on Haussmann’s Bach portrait of 1746).

Closely related to these (and likewise probably dating from the later 1740s) are the Vom Himmel hoch variations, where Bach first used a strictly canonic scheme for a monothematic work in several movements of progressive difficulty. The Musical Offering (1747) is also plainly influenced by this mode of musical thinking. Here, for a theme incomparably more complex than that of bwv1087, he devised ten canons of differing structural types, notated as puzzle canons in the original printed edition of 1747. The series of canons on the ‘royal theme’ includes a canonic fugue, providing a bridge between the canons, which are primarily theoretical in conception though also intended for performance, and the two keyboard fugues or ricercares in three and six parts. A further constituent part of the Musical Offering is a trio sonata for flute, violin and continuo, also based on the royal theme. In its second slow movement Bach introduced echoes of the fashionable style practised at the Prussian court. The Musical Offering, in effect a compendium in three sections, shows Bach elaborating on the theme supplied to him by Frederick the Great in every imaginable way for an ensemble of up to three instruments.

The Art of Fugue constitutes the final contribution to this group of monothematically conceived works intended as representative examples of a specific principle. As a didactic keyboard work, the Art of Fugue in some ways forms a counterpart to the two books of the ‘48’, with the difference that here it is exclusively the fugue that is in question, and, what is more, the fugues are developed from a single theme. Bach’s work on the Art of Fugue was accomplished in two stages – from about 1740 to about 1745, and then (in connection with preparing the work for publication) in about 1748–50. The extant autograph score represents the conclusion of the first stage, in which the conception of the work already appears clearly: beginning with simple fugues (Bach avoided this term, speaking of ‘contrapunctus’), progressing through ‘counter-fugues’, double fugues and triple fugues, with interpolated canons, and culminating in a mirror fugue. For the printed version the number of movements was not only increased by four (two canons, a fourth simple fugue and most notably a closing quadruple fugue) but their order was rearranged so as to expound more logically the ‘chapter of instruction on fugues’. When Bach died the work may have been more ‘complete’ than it is in the form in which it has survived. In particular the quadruple fugue had surely been completed in all essentials, since the composition of its combinatorial section must necessarily be an early stage in the composition of a quadruple fugue. Only the three opening sections of the exposition, however, are extant, and these – further abbreviated by the editors, give the Art of Fugue the appearance of being a mighty torso.

The Musical Offering and the Art of Fugue mark both the end and the culmination of Bach’s activity as a keyboard composer in the broadest sense. While the two ricercars on the ‘royal theme’ of the Musical Offering represent different fugal styles (forward- and backward-looking) and different textures (three- and six-part polyphony), the Art of Fugue explores a notably more intensive monothematic conception. As a didactic keyboard composition in some sense it counterbalances the two parts of the ‘48’, yet with the difference that it concerns itself with fugue alone, in a series of compositions developed out of a single ‘principal composition’ (theme) – and does so using a technique in which forward- and backward-looking styles operate alongside each other, synoptically as it were. It was probably unintentional, and yet it is hardly by chance, that the initial premiss and the goal of Bach’s keyboard art and his musical thinking come together in the Art of Fugue.

MIDI files of the Bach's orchestral music, available here.


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