Bach: Placing Timeless Music in Time - Part 2 of an Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
March 20, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. — A continuation from part 1.


Next Bach found himself in the crossfire of the kind of intra-family feud that would make a pretty compelling movie. In his wanderings as a younger man, Bach had spent some time as "personal music lackey" to Prince Johann Ernst of the court of Saxe-Weimar. This elderly and kindly man was locked in a power struggle with his brother Wilhelm Ernst. It was no contest. Wilhelm Ernst was ruthless and ambitious, and he consigned his weaker brother to the margins. A kind of line was drawn down the middle of the court, which would have been comic if Bach had not suffered for it. Johann Ernst died in 1707, and now the officious Wilhelm Ernst's enemies were his nineteen year-old nephew, Ernst August and his younger brother and father's namesake, Johann Ernst.

Wilhelm Ernst cared little for music but liked prestige, and Bach was already someone that other people thought highly of. The nephews were both musical, Johann Ernst especially so, and Bach became a member of the "joint court ensemble." His Italian Concerto was among the pieces written in Weimar. Johann Ernst was gifted enough that Bach arranged two of his compositions as organ concerti. The close relationship between Bach and his aristocratic pupils soon provided Uncle Wilhelm with a weapon in his war with his nephews.

He soon forbid Bach to make music in their part of the court. Bach contract was with the "joint ensemble." So he followed the contract. For some time there were no repercussion, but then Wilhelm Ernst struck with some punitive austerity measures. Most damaging was that he denied Bach access to music paper; in effect, he forbade Johann Sebastian Bach to compose music. Bach's response to this villainy was to compose, after nine years in the dysfunction of Weimer, another letter of resignation.

But not before he'd composed, earlier, his cantata "Ich hatte Bekummerius" (I Had Much Distress) on the death, at 19, of his employer, pupil and friend, Prince Johann Ernst.

Now another young musician-prince wanted Johann Sebastian Bach to make music with him. Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen was the young heir of sensible parents who talked and walked religious tolerance and fiscal responsibility in their principality. When he took over at twenty-one he'd learned his lessons well. Bach wanted to take his growing family there, and get away from the pious hypocrite, Duke Wilhelm Ernst. But the Duke withheld permission to leave as he had withheld score paper. According to biographer Klaus Eidam, as a court musician Bach was again a lackey; he ranked above a coachman or a groom, but below a valet or a gardener! Wilhelm Ernst ignored his petitions to resign. So Bach ignored his duties to the Duke. The Duke threw him in jail for a month. Finally, peer pressure from other nobleman, who knew Bach's reputation, shamed the outrageous Wilhelm Ernst to let Bach out of jail and out of Weimar.


Leopold was a Calvinist, and therefore worship in Cothen didn't require the kind of "well-regulated church music to the glory of God" that Bach wanted to write. But Leopold was an accomplished musician with taste and a good orchestra, and he revered his court composer's talents.

It was here that Bach, between the ages of 32 and 36, poured forth some of his most familiar instrumental music: the Brandenburg Concerti, the Violin Concerti, the Orchestral Suites, the Violin Sonatas and Partitas, and at least the groundwork for the Well-Tempered Clavier. He arrived in Cothen late in 1717, and for two and a half years it was something of a golden time. There were four children, including, by 1720, ten year-old, Wilhelm Friedemann and six year-old Carl Philipp Emmanuel. The Bachs had buried three others. But in the summer of 1720, while Bach was accompanying Leopold to the resort of Carlsbad, Maria Barbara died of an appendicitis. She was already buried when Bach returned home.

Most biographers point to the difficulties of keeping an eighteenth century house without a wife and mother and other practicalities that "compelled" Bach to marry again eighteen months later. But the woman he wished to marry was just 19, and was, by the standards of the day, independent and career-minded. Anna Magdalena Wulken was a singer at a nearby court, and supported herself by her work. Klaus Eidam asks two sensible questions. One, would "a young woman of today... deem it a special stroke of luck to marry, right after her twentieth birthday, a widower almost sixteen years her senior, with four children — particularly a young lady already practicing her own profession and not at all badly paid." And two, in reference to the "sound reasons" for marrying, "why would Bach select such a slip of a thing, used to going her own way, and totally inexperienced in running a household, much less in bringing up children?" Maybe it wasn't practical at all. Maybe it was just love.

Bach married Anna Magdalena on December 3, 1721. Leopold was happy for him, especially since he was in love himself. Eight days later Leopold married Friederike Henrietta of Anhalt-Bernberg, a woman who loved pomp and splendor and music as far as it served military displays.

After that Bach wrote only keyboard music in Cothen for his own use. Leopold didn't need a court composer any more. Bach still had a place, but it would be more accurate to say he received an allowance rather than a salary.


The triumphs and the trials of Bach's 27 years in Leipzig are much too big a subject for us to go much beyond their threshold here. On May 29, 1723, a weekly newspaper in Leipzig, The Holstein Correspondent, reported, "Last Saturday at noon four wagons loaded with household goods arrived here from Cothen; they belonged to the former Princely Music Director there, now called to Leipzig. He himself arrived with his family in two carriages at two o'clock and moved into his newly renovated residence at the Thomas School."

We can be skeptical about what "newly renovated" meant. The St. Thomas school was for the poorest children; it was not well-supported by the city, and the building had not been improved for 200 years. It was not a lucrative position, and Bach knew it. But because it was a big city (30,000 inhabitants), he hoped to make up the difference by providing music for the many wedding, christenings and funerals a big city would generate. And Telemann, a good businessman, had considered the position, so it must have possibilities.

Bach's struggles over the years with the civil and ecclesiastical authorities were constant and complex. They began right away with his assertion that the choir loft of the St. Nicholas Church would collapse under the weight of the singers he required for his St. John Passion in 1724, and that the organ had not been repaired in 32 years. Both the church and city councils ignored his concerns. Therefore he sidestepped the tradition that the Passion music would alternate each year between St. Nicholas and St. Thomas. He printed out fliers at his own expense announcing, on his own initiative, that tradition this year would step aside for safety and good music. The new guy was deemed "irascible" and a troublemaker right out of the gate.

On Now

Performance Today®
Fred Child
Listen to the Stream
Other MPR Radio Streams
Choral Stream
MPR News
Radio Heartland

You can now listen to Classical and Choral Music on your iOS (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad) or Android device.