Thursday, March 20, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 19
            By Linda de Vries

As a follow-up on yesterday’s post, today, at 8:00 p.m. the Swingle Singers will perform at The Venue in London.

On this date in 1744, Johann Christoph Altnikol matriculated at the University of Leipzig, and this is the event that provides our Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach’s Son-in-Law.

Altnikol was the husband of Sebastian and Anna’s 11th child, Elisabeth Juliana Friederika (“Liesgen”), born in 1726. Her future husband was born six years earlier in Berna bei Seidenberg, Oberlausitz, then German Saxony, but since 1945, Poland.

Altnikol entered the University of Leipzig in 1744 and by 1745 was singing bass in Sebastian’s choirs, where he met Elisabeth. From 1744 to 1747 he also served as Sebastian’s copyist, a role he performed later as well.

In 1746 Sebastian’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, recommended Altnikol as successor in Dresden, but he was not offered the post. In 1748, however, on Sebastian’s recommendation he was appointed organist and schoolmaster at Niederwiesa, a town near his birthplace. Later that year, after Sebastian’s similar letter to the Burgomaster, he took a post at St. Wenceslas Church in Naumburg, where he remained until his death in 1759.

Altnikol and Elisabeth married in Leipzig on January 20, 1749, when Elisabeth was 23 years old. She bore a son nine months later, Sebastian’s namesake, but he died in infancy.

During the last few years of his life, Sebastian was occupied with rewriting once again some of what have come to be termed “The Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes,” which he had initially written in his most productive period of composition for organ in Wiemar between 1708 and 1717.

His first biographer Forkel reported in 1802 that when blind and on his deathbed he dictated a revision of the last of these chorales (BWV 668) to Altnikol, but scholars now believe this to be a legend propagated by his two eldest sons. Only the first page of this “deathbed chorale” survives, and in the hand of an unknown copyist.

Although his own compositions were never highly praised and many have been lost, Altnikol was, however, the copyist for some of Sebastian’s most important works: The Eighteen Chorales, The Well-Tempered Clavier (Part 2), The Violin Sonatas, The French Suites, and The St. Matthew Passion.

After Sebastian’s death, Altnikol served as trustee of his father-in-law’s estate, and appears to have performed loyally. He took his “feeble-minded” brother-in-law Gottfried Heinrich into his home and carried on the teaching of Sebastian’s last apprentice, Johann Gottfried Müthel, who had begun his study only three months before the master’s death.

Müthel was highly praised as a keyboard virtuoso and a composer in the strum und drang (storm and stress) style of music, as was C.P.E. Bach, Sebastian’s second son. Müthel is remembered as the first person to use the term fortepiano in a published musical composition, and although much of his work did not survive, that which does is often praised by music critics.

After Altnikol’s death, Elisabeth remained in Naumberg, supported by an allowance from her half-brother C.P.E. She returned to Leipzig in 1763 after the death of her brother Gottfried Heinrich, where she died in 1781.

Thus ends the picture of a faithful couple aiding and aided by a loyal family.

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