Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Back to Bach

On March 2, 1714 Bach was appointed concert master of the Court of Weimar This position placed him second only to the Kapellmeister, the highest rank given to a musician in the baroque age.

This event provides our Bach Bagetelle for this date: Working Conditions of the Professional Musician.

John Eliot Gardiner notes in his March 1, 2013 BBC interview that the little we have of Sebastian’s writing presents “a cameo of an artist driven to distraction by the narrow-mindedness and stupidity of his employers and forced to live, in his own words, ‘amid almost continual vexation, envy and persecution’.”

Weimar One

In 1702, after finishing school at age 18 in the North German town of Lüneburg, he returned south to his native area to serve as organist in Arnstadt. While the organ there was being built he spent seven months at the Weimar Court playing violin in the orchestra.


In July of 1703 he took up his well-paid position as organist in St. Boniface Church in Arnstadt. His duties were to accompany the church services and to maintain its new organ. All his compositions were outside of his contract and produced on his own time. One of these, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, is extant today as the oldest manuscript in Bach’s own hand.

He was very well paid for a poor church and a young organist, perhaps because the church had had a Bach (his great uncle Heinrich) as an organist for 50 years and was eager to hire another.

Soon, however, he faced conflicts, some petty, some substantive. He lost his temper with a bassoonist who made a mess of a passage Sebastian had written for him. The player and his gang then attacked him in the town square. Sebastian defended himself with his sword and later lodged a complaint, but the authorities failed to back him and sided with the bassoonist.

While in the north Sebastian had spent time with two of the most important organists of the day, Böhm in Lüneburg and Reincken in Hamburg, studying the most advanced Italian and French music. Unfortunately, the congregation in Arnstadt resisted his “surprising variations and irrelevant ornaments which obliterate the melody and confuse the congregation.”

Next, he was granted a four-week leave of absence in 1705 to visit the brilliant organist Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck, walking the 250 miles in about ten days. He remained away for three months without consulting his employers, perhaps having intended all along to stay to hear Buxtehude’s music at Advent. He might even have become Buxtehude’s assistant, had the position not included marrying his daughter!

The Church Council in Arnstadt sought to reprimand him, but eventually retreated to a more lenient approach, appreciating his significant talent. Nevertheless, conflict continued. Sebastian, citing a clause in his contract, refused to work with the undisciplined boys of the choir, requesting that the church emphasize musical quality over budget economy. The church also reprimanded him for “entertaining a strange damsel” in the organ loft—probably Maria Barbara Bach, his cousin.


He auditioned at St. Blasius Church in Mühlhausen on Easter Sunday 1707 and got the job of town organist. He left Arnstadt immediately and quietly and married Maria Barbara in Mühlhausen on October 17, 1707.

Sebastian’s immediate boss at St. Blasius was the Pietist Johann Adolf Frohne, a strict puritan who distrusted art and music, while Lutheran orthodoxy with a musical liturgy was the norm at St. Mary’s Church under the leadership of Georg Christian Eilmar.

Each church had a school and cantor but, different from other towns in which Sebastian later worked, the leading musical figure was one of the church organists, not a cantor, so Sebastian also had duties at St. Mary’s Church. He was responsible for the cantata performed at the annual “change of council,” for which, in 1708 Gott ist mein König, (BWV 71) was performed and printed, the only piece that was published during his lifetime.

Soon, however, he was enmeshed in the frequent quarrels between the two pastors. In his letter of resignation he wrote that he had not been able to establish a “regulated church music.” He also noted that his small salary made it difficult to keep a wife.

He left amicably, though, continuing to supervise the reconstruction of the organ originally built by Friedrich Wender, and returning in 1709 to inaugurate its first performance with ein’ feste Burg, (BWV 720), now believed to have been written by his father-in-law, Johann Michael Bach. His successor as organist was his cousin, Johann Friedrich Bach.

Weimar Two

Sebastian began in Weimar in 1708 as a member of Duke Wilhelm Ernst’s chamber orchestra, playing violin and harpsichord, and as organist to the Court. His job also required him to arrange music and perform some household chores.

By 1714, as noted above, he rose to concert master and his salary was doubled. This promotion may have been a counter offer to retain his services in the face of overtures from the city of Halle.

In 1713 Sebastian had applied to succeed Georg Frederic Handel's teacher in Halle, where a huge new organ was being built, and the city immediately offered him the position. He informed the Duke of the negotiations. When the Halle city authorities submitted their final offer, though, it included a reduced salary, increased responsibilities, stipulations against moonlighting, and instructions as to how the chorales were to be accompanied.

Insulted, Sebastian immediately refused their offer, wherewith they wrote a letter to Duke Ernst accusing Sebastian of using Halle to extort a higher salary from him. Sebastian responded with an angry letter, and the Duke doubled his salary!

Even though Weimar was a small town of only 5,000, the Duke was one of the most distinguished and cultured nobles of his time. At nearby Rote Schloss, the home of the former Duke’s widow and hers sons, Sebastian was also introduced to the music of Vivaldi and the very popular Italian style in music.

Unfortunately, this idyll was interrupted when a feud broke out between the Duke and his nephew at Rote Schloss and musicians were forbidden to fraternize with that household. In addition, the Kapellmeister died and Sebastian was passed over for the position, even though he had been doing most of the aging man’s work.

Severely disappointed, Sebastian resigned his post at Weimar to take up a job at Cöthen. Duke Ernst, however, imprisoned him for a month before allowing him to act on his resignation.


In 1717 he was appointed Kapellmeister at Cöthen. He had risen to the top rank in his profession. He was 32 years old.

Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen was a Calvinist. As the Calvinists were antagonistic to the Lutheran liturgy, there was no church music in Cöthen, so Sebastian played and composed secular music featuring the latest styles and fashions, including dance music.

Although head of a small court, the prince was determined to raise the quality of German secular music and spent lavishly to achieve this goal. Sebastian and his orchestra often traveled with the prince to Carlsbad, for example, meeting the cream of European aristocracy.

On one of these trips Sebastian returned to find that his wife had died unexpectedly. Here, too, however, he met the woman who was to become his second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a noted soprano and daughter of the Court and Field Trumpeter at Wiessenfels.

Prince Leopold married one week after the wedding of Sebastian and Anna Magdalena. Sadly, however, the prince’s new wife was not a fan of music. Sebastian wrote to his old school friend Georg Erdmann that the Princess strove “to make the musical inclination of the said Prince somewhat lukewarm.”


In 1723 Sebastian found a new job in Leipzig, Cantor of the school at St. Thomas Church, which also required him to provide music for the four churches of the town.

The position was very desirable: the city was one of the foremost centers of German cultural life, it was the home of a famous university, Sebastian knew the area well and had many friends there, and its thrice-yearly Trade Fair drew people from all over Europe.

The school, however, was in poor shape, its orphaned students often having to sing in the streets for alms. Sebastian noted musical poverty as well, writing that out of 54 in the choir “17 are competent, 20 not yet fully, and 17 incapable.” Sebastian had to fight once again to improve the quality of the musicians.

The job was extremely demanding, including:
·       Oversight of the boys’ prayers
·       Discipline of the boys in their dormitory
·       Singing classes from 9-12 a.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays
·       Friday morning Latin classes
·       Saturday afternoon cantata rehearsals
·       Performance at the main Sunday service from 7-12 a.m., followed a communion service
·       Composition of a cantata each week that might last as long as 35 minutes
·       Oversight of the copying of parts and scores
·       Private tutorials
·       Supervision of weekday services at four churches, one hospital, and a house of correction
·       Composition of music for weddings, funerals, and special occasions

On Thursdays the Cantor was free, but Sebastian also traveled to various cities in Saxony to evaluate and supervise the reconstruction of organs.

Conflict arose again, and he found himself in battles with the town council, the clergy, and the headmaster of the school. In 1725, for example, he was forced to engage in a long dispute over who was in charge of music at the University Church, settled only after he appealed to the Elector of Saxony at Dresden and a compromise was reached.

The educational philosophy of the day was “learning by doing,” so Sebastian delegated instruction in Latin and some parts of his compositions to his more gifted and senior students, only to have the city reprimand him in 1730 for leaving his teaching duties in the hands of his junior colleague. They also chastised him for not properly disciplining his choirs and for his frequent journeys away from Leipzig. They attempted to decrease his salary. Sebastian wrote again to Erdmann in Danzig, asking him to find him “a convenient post” where he could escape the “trouble, envy, and persecution” which he had to face in Leipzig.

His friend Gessner, who had taken over position of Headmaster at St. Thomas School in 1729, intervened on his behalf and secured him better working conditions and improved his living accommodations, but Gessner left in 1733 and Johann August Ernst took over and demanded less emphasis on music and the classics and more emphasis on practical education for secular life.

Despite all of these difficulties, he persevered, his fame grew, as did his body of work, and from 1729-1740 he added to his load the job of director of the Collegium Musicum, a secular organization founded by Georg Philipp Telemann, run by students from the university, and populated by some of the finest musicians of the day. He remained in Leipzig until his death, but he left no will, and his wife was evicted from the Cantor’s house the next year and lived out her life in poverty.

Sebastian Bach has the final word: “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed . . . equally well.”

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