ON the fifth of June, 1722, Bach finally was given the opportunity to enter the career to which he had pledged himself as a young man. When Johann Kuhnau died, one of the most famous and ancient cantorships in Germany—Leipzig—was left vacant. The city council of Leipzig once more began a search for a director for all musical activities in its four churches, and Bach’s long cherished hope of improving the music of the sanctuary could now become reality.
The dignity of this office was enhanced by a long history of distinguished musicians, including Johann Hermann Schein and Sethus Calvisius. The office of the cantor dates from before the Reformation, for as early as the thirteenth century a cantor was selecting students for the choirs of the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas Churches at Leipzig. The Thomas cantor Georg Rhau (1488-1548) composed and directed a Mass for the famous debate between Martin Luther and Johann Eck. Sethus Calvisius, the astronomer-musician, proposed reforms both in the field of calendar computation and musical solmisation which, although never permanently adopted, were recognized for their soundness. The romantic poet-musician Hermann Schein, inspired by Italian humanism, sent fresh southern breezes through the dull and chilly northern music of his days. Bach was well acquainted with the musical contributions of these predecessors and appreciated the new vitality they had brought to the music of church and school.
Despite this glorious history—and the promise this post held for a young musician who dreamed of reforming the music of the Lutheran service—Bach hesitated a long time before even applying for the office. He was reluctant to give up his peaceful association with his amiable friend and sovereign in Kothen and to have to meet the several demands of a city council, church consistory, and rector. He was certain to have to sacrifice the virtual independence in musical matters he enjoyed as Kapellmeister in Kothen. Bach’s superiors in Leipzig would look upon his musical performances and compositions only as one of his duties and not with respect for the musician and for the sanctity of his art, as the sensitive prince in Kothen did. Bach was clearly aware of the strong provincialism and mediocrity of the church councilors, traits which are strikingly represented by their utter failure to recognize that Bach’s genius placed him far above the other applicants for the cantorship.
Eight years after Bach had taken up the Leipzig cantorship he wrote Georg Erdmann, his old friend from school in Lüneburg, that “it was the Will of God that I should be called to be Director Musices. ... I ventured in the name of the Highest and betook myself to Leipzig.”1 Bach had tasted the bitterness of enforced submission to men of artistic ignorance and insensibility, and it seems natural that he should scrutinize the situation most cautiously. He waited four months before applying for the post. When he finally decided, Bach bowed to Divine Providence, as he told Erdmann. But Bach had other motivations for his decision to leave Kothen than faithful obedience to what he believed to be God’s will. He seems in his distress over immediate troubles to have forgotten these when he wrote Erdmann. Despondent, physically fatigued, and irritated by frictions with church authorities, Bach even considered resigning from Leipzig cantorship and wrote to his old friend that he had once intended to devote the rest of his life to his “gracious prince, who both loved and knew music.” Surely when Bach first learned of the opening at Leipzig he was excited by such an opportunity to broaden and ennoble his musical career; Bach knew the limitations of his Kothen position, which hardly helped him toward his musical mission in life. At Leipzig he could finally fulfill his pledge to devote his talent to God and His church.
Along with the promising prospects and honor the Leipzig cantorship held, there were personal reasons for Bach’s decision to move. It was only natural for a staunch Lutheran to want a Lutheran education for his children. Besides, as he tells Erdmann in the same letter, his “sons were inclined toward academic studies.” In Kothen their only opportunity to pursue these interests was the calvinist Stadschule, and Bach was already noticeably uneasy about his family living in a strongly calvinist environment.
On the title page of Anna Magdalena’s notebook of 17222 (the year in which he decided to move), Bach noted titles of two books by a Lutheran theologian August Pfeiffer, for his wife’s edification and protection. One of the books, Anticalvinismus, Evangelische Christenschule, a defense of orthodoxy, called the Calvinist faith damnable and prayed for divine protection from union with these infidels. The other, Antimelancholicus oder Melancholeyvertreiber (Antimelancholicus or Expeller of Melancholy),3 extols simple piety and is addressed to the uneducated, of which the middle-class German woman formed a conspicuous part. A fine copper engraving in the book vividly illustrates the author’s attitude. A melancholy person is seated in a large armchair holding his head in his hands. On his right are a devil with long claws, a woman with her breast nearly bare, and a warrior with drawn sword; on his left stands a humble Christ enshrined with a large halo. Obviously Bach felt these dreary tomes would help his wife to stand firm in her faith and to bring up their sons in strict Lutheran orthodoxy. Surely the religious climate of Leipzig would help her succeed in this task.
Perhaps the family deliberated together about the move, weighing the advantages of court life and Anna Magdalena’s professional opportunities in Kothen against correct theological education for the children. In any case, family and religious considerations helped draw Bach to Leipzig.
While Bach deliberated, he watched the developments in Leipzig. “Fatalities” is the expression he used in his letter to Erdmann to describe the course of his life.4 After Kuhnau’s death the civic council in Leipzig discussed for 11 months the merits of six candidates for the position of Director Musices Lipsiensis, cantor of the Thomas School and general director of music of the city of Leipzig.
Meanwhile the services were donated by the organists and choir directors that were available in the four churches of the city, among them, Gorner, the organist who was to work—and disagree—with Bach at the Thomas church for many years, and Georg Baltasar Schott, organist of the New Church. Guest musicians were occasionally commissioned to write and perform music for festival occasions. Christoph Graupner (1683-1760), Kapellmeister to Count Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt, was invited to deliver a Magnificat on Christmas Day, and Bach was asked to perform an original Passion on Good Friday. On March 26,1723, his St. John Passion was heard here for the first time.5 Bach was known to Leipzig before this; in 1717, when he inspected the university organ, he had presented his cantata “Nun kommt der Heiden Heiland” (Now Comes the Gentiles’ Savior), No. 61, either at the Thomas or the Nicholas Church.6
The discussions among the eldermen and the three rotating mayors of the city, preserved in the minutes of the town clerk, show that Bach was not considered one of the most desirable candidates. Despite his fame his name was not mentioned as a candidate until December 21, 1722. Of all those mentioned, only Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) is remembered today as a distinguished composer. Very few compositions by the other candidates are even in print. Most of them were quite proficient on the organ and on other instruments, and all enjoyed good reputations in their day. The music of these competitors—Telemann, Graupner, and certain of their contemporaries—represent the taste and spirit of a new era totally foreign to Bach’s religious soul.
Seventeen cantatas of Graupner, published in 19267 resemble Bach’s in outward form but Graupner does not rise above the essentially secular character of his art, and the works remain formal and perfunctory. Courtly entertainment was the true element of these musicians, all of whom were good craftsmen, able to deliver any type of piece—music suitable for any religious ceremony, concertos, garden music, table music, and operas of classical or lighter bent. The extant concertos of Graupner, Johann Friedrich Fasch, Heinichen, and Telemann,8 modeled after the Corelli-Vivaldi example which by this time had been reduced to a fixed formula, are strikingly similar and lack any outstanding individuality. Theirs is a reasoned, shallow, formalistic clarity of construction, with conventional thematic statements—fugal subjects that one hears ad nauseam in the Italian repertoire, empty sequences forming the necessary links in the skeletons that fail to come to life. There is good harmonic counterpoint, too, sober in its simplicity, correct, clean, immaculate, but lifeless, transparent as glass but revealing nothing. Their work merely echoes the true sentiments that inspired the straightforward and naive strokes of Vivaldi and Corelli. Once expressions of metaphysical ecstasy, the style had been reduced to stock ideas, easily followed and easily taught. Since music was rarely printed and the Kapellmeisters were expected to compose their own music for every required occasion, this perpetual and perfunctory reproduction for an accepted and fashionable style was an easy substitute for living musical art. But this shallow musical style apparently pleased the Leipzig council, for they interviewed several of its followers before finally consenting to hear the truly individual style of Bach.
Among the strong competitors for the Leipzig post was Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758), Kapellmeister at the court of Zerbst. His high official rank in a reputable court impressed the council; he also was an alumnus of the Thomas School, where he had studied law, and music under the late Kuhnau. Christian Friedrich Rolle (1681-1751), a lesser figure, enjoyed an excellent reputation as an organist, but his compositions are insignificant: neither Johann Gottfried Walther nor our contemporary Robert Eitner mention him in their exhaustive lexica.9 He must have devoted much of his time to composing, however, since he applied for the post of cantor, whose chief duty is composing.
Telemann, the most famous musician in Germany at that time, was the councilors’ first choice, but did not consider the position seriously. He used the Leipzig offer as a means of exacting a large raise in his salary as cantor of the Hamburg Johanneum and musical director of the principal church.
The city council then commissioned Graupner and Bach to compose church music in the interim but did not invite either to apply for the position until a month later. The two candidates they did consider were Georg Friedrich Kauffmann, Kapellmeister at Merseburg, and Andreas Christoph Tufen of Brunswick. Schott, Johann Martin Steindorff (cantor in Rossleben, Graitz, and Zwickau), and Lembke submitted applications; neither of the last two left any compositions.
After Telemann, Graupner was the favorite. Heinichen, then Kapellmeister to the King of Saxony, had strongly recommended his fellow classmate and student of Kuhnau. But Graupner also used Leipzig’s offer as a lever to better his own financial status and guarantee a generous pension for his wife, and children until they reached majority. Then he refused the offer.
Only one man, Herr Baumeister Wagner, supported by Herr Chamber Councilor Jocher, suggested that the council might consider Bach and Rolle. Councilor Holzel added that he had heard that Rolle surpassed even Telemann.10 Rolle subsequently was examined, on February 2,1723, and Bach was invited to perform a cantata—No. 22, “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwdlfe” (Jesus Took Unto Himself the Twelve)— which he directed on February 7.
The council was willing by April ninth to consider Bach of Kothen, Kauffmann of Merseburg, and Schott of their own New Church. Some time was spent discussing the cantor’s obligation to teach Latin, including the Catechism. Telemann and some others had flatly refused this chore, and in the case of the celebrated Telemann, the council had agreed. The three remaining candidates, they decided, should not be exempted from this traditional duty. Appellate Court Councilor Herr Plaz observed that “Since one cannot get the best for this position of cantor one must be contented with the mediocre.”11 With this testimony to its total incompetence to judge the relative merits of its applicants the council closed its meeting.
On April 22 the council met again and unanimously voted Bach as their final choice. Although one would like to praise this faint glimmer that the dull judges could recognize quality, their choice actually was based on Bach’s greater fame. Council member Dr. Steger was so satisfied with the decision that he pronounced Bach to be “as much of a person as Graupner.” The latter, from his high perch at the court of Hesse-Darmstadt, recommended Bach as “a musician just as strong on the organ as he is expert in church works and capelle pieces” and who “will honestly and properly perform the functions entrusted to him.” Steger insisted on a special stipulation that Bach should refrain from making “compositions of theatrical character.” Presiding councilor Dr. Lange best expressed the prevailing concern: “It was necessary to get a famous man in order to inspire” (meaning, of course, to impress the students).
Move to Leipzig
After Bach was informed of the council’s decision, he asked Prince Leopold to release him. The Prince granted his request with regret and reluctance, although the formal letter presented to him was written in the cold language of a clerk. Bach now filed his formal application to the “Noble and Most Wise Council of the Town of Leipzig” for his “candidacy for the vacant post of Cantor to the Thomas School in that place.” In it Bach acknowledged the many specific duties of the post and agreed to:
instruct the boys admitted in the school not only in the regular classes established for that purpose, but also, without special compensation, in private singing lessons. I will also faithfully attend to whatever else is incumbent upon me, and furthermore, but not without the previous knowledge and consent of A Noble and Most Wise Council, in case someone should be needed to assist me in the instruction in the Latin language, will faithfully and without ado compensate the said person out of my own pocket, without desiring anything from A Noble and Most Wise Council or otherwise.12
These Latin lessons alone required five hours a week to both the third and fourth classes, besides the time spent correcting written exercises.13 Spitta thinks that Bach could have gotten the position at once without this extra teaching burden, but that at the time he was willing to accept this condition. Bernard F. Richter, on the other hand, believed Bach had to do all in his power to obtain this cantorship.14 As we shall see, however, Bach was soon relieved of this burden, as well as of his singing instruction.
On May 5 Bacli signed an agreement in duplicate in which he pledged to the “Honorable and Most Wise Council” of Leipzig that he would behave like an exemplary schoolmaster. The conduct expected of him is set forth in 14 points, most of which relate to his obedient submission to the authority of the council: he is forbidden to go out of town without the special permission of the Honorable Burgomaster; he is ordered always, so far as possible, to walk with the boys at funerals, according to custom; and he is pledged to preserve the good order in the churches and to arrange the music that it shall not last too long15 and shall be of such a nature as not to make an operatic (theatrical) impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.
But even this solemn and written promise by Bach was not sufficient for the officials—one more investigation had to be made. Bach still had to be examined on his acquaintance with Lutheran dogma. Thus on May 8 Dr. Johann Schmid questioned Bach and pronounced him theologically sound. His approval was officially recorded in a Latin document signed by this theologian and by the superintendent Deyling.16 Five days later Bach fulfilled the final requirement by subscribing to the Formula of Concord.17
A grand convocation on June 1 celebrated Bach’s formal installation. All the town officials and the staff and student body of the Thomas School marched into the large assembly hall, in the order of their rank and station, their colorful costumes, robes, tresses, chains, and barrets in full display. Behind the doors the students sang a motet, and then filed in to their assigned places. The Chief Town Clerk introduced the new cantor “in the name of the Holy Trinity,” and admonished him publicly to fulfill his duties faithfully and industriously, to show respect to his authorities and superiors, to endeavor to be on good terms with his colleagues, conscientiously to instruct the youth in the fear of God and other useful studies, and to keep the school in good repute. Little did anyone present suspect that the reputation of this school for centuries to come would rest solely upon the greatness of its new cantor.
The Director Musices was expected to compose or select the music for the four Leipzig churches that had sufficient facilities for musical performances. The most elaborate services were held in the Thomas Church. Next in importance was the Nicholas Church. Learned persons, the aristocracy, and rich burghers made up the majority of the congregation at the Thomas Church, while the Nicholas Church, attended by the poorer classes, was known as the Schola pauperum.18 Bach directed his music in these two churches, on alternate Sundays with 12 to 17 of the best singers19 and a leader (praefect), all of whom he trained and selected from the boys of the Thomas School. We can identify the cantatas performed at the Nicholas Church by their organ parts, for they had to be transposed; the pitch of the organ at the Nicholas Church differed by a minor third.20 Bach had no personal duties except to supply a chorus (kantorei), of secondary quality, at what was known in Bach’s day as the New Church (now called Matthew Church). Bach merely appointed one of his praefects to train the chorus for all occasions—from music for the main service to songs the boys sang in their Currenden.
For the smaller Peterskirche and the Johanniskirche, Bach had only to select eight of the lesser singers, and these were led by four praefects. These churches had no figured music nor any organs of magnitude, so that their music was limited largely to congregational singing of hymns. The boys were used for the intonation of the few chants used during the service. As we shall see, Bach’s responsibilities for the University Chapel, the Paulinerkirche, soon became a matter of dispute, but after much bitter controversy, Bach was also charged with furnishing this church with singers from his Kantorei.
As the Director Musices Bach composed cantatas for civic festal occasions, such as the visit of King August of Saxony, or the birthdays of great notables. He was paid extra to lead the chorus at weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies, but these were still viewed as part of his responsibilities. Although the prospect of a genius of Bach’s stature leading his black-garbed mercenaries through the motions of gloomy processions in all kinds of weather seems incredible to us today, Bach did not fret at this duty but rather at the scarcity of such opportunities to earn extra money.
When Bach was in a complaining mood he often referred to himself as a cantor, that office being only one role of the Director Musices. Of course, when he wanted to impress, he used his more imposing title, but he obviously resented some of the burdensome duties expected of him as cantor. They made him feel like a mere schoolmaster. First among these was the irksome job of teaching Latin, but he did not continue this time-absorbing work for very long. After a year he exercised the option he had had the foresight to insist upon in his formal application. He merely hired a substitute.
Still other of the duties listed in the 83-page book of regulations for the Thomas School (printed in revised form on November 4, 1723)21 must have weighed heavily on Bach. This little booklet gives an intimate picture of the narrow and restricted lives of the schoolmasters, but even more so of the pitiable, overworked and overdisciplined schoolboys. The cantor had to act as inspector, that is, he had to call the schoolboys for the opening of the classes at six in the morning, and the best among his very proficient choir boys at five. The cantor had to say prayers again at eight o’clock, and to see that no lights were smuggled into the dormitories. Further, he had to assure that there was no carousing, that the Bible or a historical book (probably Josephus) was read during the meals, and that the boys (whose ages ranged from 12 to 20) did not return drunk after funerals, weddings, and especially the winter Currenden. On Sundays the cantor had to march the first kantorei in formation to the main church, the conrector led the second to the other principal church, and the sextus took the third to the New Church. The inspector on duty (cantor) also had to visit the sick in the school hospital adjoining the church. Since absence from these duties was fined with only four to six Croschen, however, the master may occasionally have shirked these cumbersome responsibilities.
The students had to bear severe and cruel punishments for behavior that to us today would be accepted as normal for young boys. The ignorant schoolmasters did not seem to suspect that the youngsters’ misconduct was the inevitable result of the tensions and unrelenting disciplines they had to endure. For instance, leaving the religious service before the end—it lasted from seven to noon—was punished with a birching. When severe cold in the unheated church became unbearable youngsters were excused to go to the school building, but then were read the sermon, and had to prove by written examination that the pious words had not fallen upon sleepy, deaf ears.
Bach was not a rigid disciplinarian and based on what we know of his first experience with choir boys in Arnstadt, we can surmise that he was not overly conscientious about administering the regulations. There is no biographical information on Bach’s relationship with his choir boys in Leipzig.
Bach’s life centered around the Thomas School. His house was attached to the school, he trained his choir boys in the assembly hall and kept all the music he needed for major and minor performances here. During the summers he worked diligently in the school library. The music hall where the cantor held daily singing lessons and rehearsals was on the same level as his living quarters. From here he could enter directly into the bedrooms of his children.
Despite its proximity to the school and its lack of external charm22 Bach’s home was very cheerful, with spacious rooms and large windows that looked out upon Leipzig’s city moat and surrounding meadows. It had ample room for his continually growing family. On the first floor were five large rooms, a parlor with four windows, a dining room, two bedrooms, and his study, in which his immortal work was penned through the hours, and often through the entire night. Within the house the tinkling of harpsichords and clavichords or the clear voice of young Anna Magdalena could be heard all day; over 20 instruments were kept in the three-story dwelling.23 The solid walls of the building and the subdued tone of the instruments allowed the whole family to practice without disturbing each other.
Several beautiful parks and promenades through which the river Pleisse peacefully flowed were within easy walking distance. The old town was still walled in, and the Thomas Church and School were just at the outskirts of the town. Outside the old town many large homes were built, surrounded by lavish gardens. In the summer the Collegium Musicum under Bach’s direction met in the garden of the rich burgher Gottfried Zimmerman; the Peasant Cantata was performed in the garden of Carl Heinrich von Diskau, exchequer, Kammer-Junker, and district-lieutenant.
The life of the city’s boulevards, frescoed inns, and coffee houses was gay: “Little Paris” and “Little Paradise,” it was called. The promenade abounded in the gallant life and gained the nickname of Lasterallee, alley of vice. Goethe was so astonished when he visited Leipzig that “he thought at first he had entered the Elysian fields.”24
The famous university made Leipzig a center of intellectual activity, and many distinguished residents visited the home of the city’s famous composer. Anna Magdalena, who was already versed in the amenities of court life, must have made a gracious hostess to those paying homage to her cultured husband. They entertained colleagues at the Thomas School and professors as well as poets, many of whom collaborated with the production of Bach’s vocal compositions. And Leipzig was already the hub of the printing business—as it remained until World War II. The famous printing house Breitkopf and Hartel was founded there in 1719. The same firm 100 years after Bach’s death began the edition of the master’s complete works.
Many of Bach’s works were conceived of in Leipzig; many were transformed here from an earlier setting to a form rich in spiritual meaning. In the gay, sophisticated, and stimulating environment of Leipzig Bach began to devote his creative genius entirely to music for the Lutheran service. Later the winds of cultural change would disturb the faithful composer to the point that he retreated into a more private form of art. Buf when he first arrived in Leipzig Bach brought with him the goal he had set for himself long ago, inspired by his Lutheran education—to dedicate himself and his art to the greater glory of God.