J. S. BACH

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  Elias Gottlob Haußmann,  Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach , 1746. Oil on canvas, 78 x 61 cm, Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig.

Elias Gottlob Haußmann, Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, 1746. Oil on canvas, 78 x 61 cm, Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig.

Christmas Oratorio, 1734

Moving to Leipzig in May 1723, the Bach family was made up of Johann Sebastian, his second wife Anna Magdalena (1701–60, 16 years his junior), their baby daughter (who did not survive into adulthood) and four children from his first marriage (a further three had died in infancy). Bach had been married for the first time in 1707 to his cousin Maria Barbara, née Bach (1684–1720), who died suddenly in Cöthen in July 1720 while her husband was away from home with Prince Leopold. Bach’s obituary (1754), co-authored by his and Maria Barbara’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, recalls the shock of Maria Barbara’s untimely death:

After thirteen years of blissful married life with his first wife, the misfortune overtook him, in the year 1720, upon his return to Cöthen from a journey with his Prince to Carlsbad, of finding her dead and buried, although he had left her hale and hearty on his departure. The news that she had been ill and died reached him only when he entered his own house.

The following summer (1721) Bach was given permission to engage a young soprano for Leopold’s Cöthen Kapelle. Anna Magdalena Wilcke was taken on as a chamber musician, at the top of the musical hierarchy, earning an excellent salary that exceeded those of her father and brother (both musicians). Later that year, in December 1721, 17 months after Maria Barbara’s death, she and Bach were married. They were a devoted couple, who had 13 children, six of whom reached adulthood. In addition to running the rapidly expanding Bach household, Anna Magdalena continued to sing professionally (though no written records exist after 1725); she also worked as a copyist on many of Bach’s best-known works and took keyboard lessons from her husband that resulted in the two books of practice pieces that Bach dedicated to her (1722 and 1725). In the same letter to Georg Erdmann quoted above, Bach gives a little insight into the musical life of their family in Leipzig in 1730:

The children of my second marriage are still young; the eldest is a boy, aged six. But they are all born musicians, and I can assure you that I can already form an ensemble both vocaliter and instrumentaliter within my family, especially since my present wife sings a pleasing soprano, while my eldest daughter joins in too and not at all badly.

By comparison with Cöthen, Leipzig was a big city, with a population of more than 30,000 (contrast London, however, which in 1715 had 630,000 inhabitants). After Dresden, Leipzig was Saxony’s most important urban centre, a commercial hub that had been hosting regular trade fairs since the twelfth century. It was the home of a venerable university, founded in 1409, which in Bach’s time was one of the largest and most illustrious in Germany. The city was also pre-eminent in the book trade. All these factors combined to endow mid-eighteenth-century Leipzig with a very high degree of progressive intellectual and cultural prestige. With its thriving music scene, numerous distinguished art collections amassed by wealthy mercantile families, opulent new buildings and a flourishing coffee-house culture, Leipzig became known as ‘Little Paris’.

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  Prospect of Leipzig, viewed from the south-east, showing the Thomasschule and Thomaskirche in the centre (nos. 12, 13) and the Nikolaikirche to the right (no. 20). Engraving published in 1749 by Joachim Ernst Scheffler.

Prospect of Leipzig, viewed from the south-east, showing the Thomasschule and Thomaskirche in the centre (nos. 12, 13) and the Nikolaikirche to the right (no. 20). Engraving published in 1749 by Joachim Ernst Scheffler.

The extract above is from a programme note for Sloane Square Choral Society, 7 December 2014. To view the full note click here.