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Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Montag, 5. August 2019



Ein Gespräch mit dem Musikhistoriker Eberhard Spree

Was hieß es, Bachs Frau zu sein?

Neue Forschungen zeigen, dass Anna Magdalena Bach erhebliche Kompetenzen besessen haben muss, um als Unternehmerin zu arbeiten. Kinder und Küche waren Aufgabe des Personals.

Eberhard Spree's main job is double bass with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. However, in recent years he has carried out detailed research on Anna Magdalena Bach, the second wife of Johann Sebastian Bach, as a part-time job. His book “The widowed woman Capellmeisterin Bach. Study on the distribution of the estate of Johann Sebastian Bach" was published in spring by Verlag Klaus-Jürgen Kamprad. It is an important contribution to the social history of marriage, and of women in particular, in the eighteenth century. We met to talk about it.

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When Anna Magdalena Bach died in 1760, she was listed in the files as a pauper from Hainstrasse in Leipzig. Was she a poor, destitute woman after the death of her husband Johann Sebastian Bach?

   First of all we have to clarify: what is “poor”? I read in a book of that time that a widow was deprived of her protector and therefore had to be counted among the poor and miserable people, regardless of their status and wealth. The term “poverty” was always used in relation to status at the time. The fact that Anna Magdalena Bach received support - alms - from the city of Leipzig and the university initially only shows that her financial circumstances had deteriorated significantly and that she was not able to maintain her standard of living from her own resources. For example, a merchant's widow who had servants received alms from the city. You should also know that the family of Johann Sebastian Bach had an income during his lifetime that was at least ten and probably even twenty times the income of a trained miner.


Who did Anna Magdalena Bach have to take care of after her husband's death?

   Her two youngest daughters, aged eight and ten when her husband died in 1750, lived with her, as did her son, who was 26 years old mentally handicapped Gottfried Heinrich. In the course of my research, I found a document that clearly states this. It was previously assumed that Gottfried Heinrich lived in his sister's household in Naumburg after the death of his father because he was buried there thirteen years later. The fact that the 48-year-old widow Anna Magdalena Bach saw herself able to take on responsibility for two underage daughters and a disabled son after the death of her husband shows that she and her relatives from abroad assumed that she had the necessary conditions to do so.


Did she only cover the costs for this from the public purse?

   The society at that time did not provide for widows. It was expected that these would provide for their livelihood according to their status and their means. In this case, they spoke of "worthy poor" who were entitled to receive support - alms. I once added up the known support for Anna Magdalena. They are nowhere near enough to support the day-to-day survival of a family of four. Anna Magdalena must have had other income.


What income could Anna Magdalena Bach have had?

   We only have very few sources about them. It is striking, however, that when she divided up her husband's estate in 1750, it was important to her to take over a household designed for at least seven people. This suggests that she wanted to include more people. Renting out furnished rooms was a very lucrative business in Leipzig. There were students and visitors to the fair. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who came to Leipzig only a few years after the death of Anna Magdalena Bach, lived with a widow and wrote that he had to move out during the fair because a dealer lived in his accommodation. Trade fair visitors paid significantly more. Anna Magdalena had experience of accommodating and caring for her husband's private students who lived in the household.


Were there any other entrepreneurial activities through which she supported herself and her family?

   The widow Anna Magdalena Bach worked as a music dealer. We know from advertisements that "The Art of Fugue" could be purchased from her. For her stepson, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, she distributed his textbook “An attempt to play the piano properly”. He had built up a network of "collectors" through which his work was distributed in various cities. He constantly expanded it and also ended cooperation with some collectors. The corresponding newspaper advertisements from 1752 to 1759 show that in the university and trade fair city of Leipzig, "the widowed Frau Kapellmeisterin Bach" was always responsible for sales. So she seems to have fulfilled her duties well until the end of her life, she died in February 1760. To do this, she must have been known in professional circles and lived in circumstances that did not disgrace her stepson. It can be assumed that she also distributed other music.


For what reason?

   If Anna Magdalena had not received at least a third of her husband's music, she could have appealed to the guardianship deputation of the university. She also managed the inheritance shares of her underage children, who were also entitled to their share. With this fund she was able to offer copies of this music. There was a need for that. In a catalog published in 1761, Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf offered copies of more than thirty cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach. The price for the set of parts for a cantata was higher than the weekly wages of a trained miner. When a number of Bach's cantatas were copied by Christian Friedrich Penzel in Leipzig in 1755, Penzel also used scores that had previously been attributed to Wilhelm Friedemann Bach in Halle. Of course, it cannot be completely ruled out that Penzel had this sent to him from Halle. However, it is much more likely that they were in Leipzig with the “widowed Frau Kapellmeisterin Bach”.


But she must have had experience with this trade. Was she already an entrepreneur when her husband was alive?

   At that time, married couples also formed professional working groups. For example, it was possible for widows to continue running their husbands' businesses. In addition to his activities as music director of the city of Leipzig and teacher at the Thomasschule, Johann Sebastian Bach taught private students who also lived in the household, lent and sold instruments, distributed music and published his own works. As a wife, Anna Magdalena was an important partner in running this "company". She copied sheet music. After the death of her husband, the Council Change Cantata was ordered from her. So it was assumed that she was able to organize such a performance. Written notes show that she was familiar with the sheet music.


So, as a widow, was she a pauper and an independent entrepreneur at the same time?

   Yes. But you have to be careful with the word “entrepreneur”. We do not know what income she earned from it and what other activities she pursued. An “employment” cannot be completely ruled out.


In our days, the accusation has been raised that Johann Sebastian Bach was indifferent to the care of the female members of his family. As a real macho, he didn't care whether his wife and daughters would have an income after his death. What results did you come to as a result of your research?

I can't judge whether Bach was a macho or not. I haven't seen him. He could not appoint his wife as the sole heir by will. A will that did not take into account the children's rights was invalid. The distribution ratio was: Two-thirds go to the children, one-third goes to the widow. She also received the so-called straight line. These were the objects she dealt with in everyday life, including all the jewelry and all the books she used to read. The guardianship deputation of the university made sure that the underage children got their shares. Therefore, the well-known list of estates was drawn up, for which Anna Magdalena was responsible. This directory does not reflect the possessions of the Bach family. The "straight line" is not listed there. The things that Bach gave away are missing. These donations could also only become effective upon death. The music should have fallen under that. Since a number of lawyers were involved on the various sides, it can be assumed that the process corresponded to legal provisions and customs. Anna Magdalena stood Dr. Friedrich Heinrich Graff to the side, who was a lawyer at the Oberhofgericht.


From your book you can also learn more about a company participation by Johann Sebastian Bach. He owned shares in the Ursula Erbstolln, a silver mine in the Ore Mountains. Did Anna Magdalena continue this commitment?

   That was the starting point of my research. Bach owned a "Kux" - a mining share. But this “Kux” was something other than a share. At that time, more than eighty percent of the mines in Electoral Saxony were dependent on financial contributions from their shareholders. Bach was offered shares in such a pit for free, he accepted it and knew: Now this pit expects financial support. And he paid her. The chance of making a profit with such a share was extremely small. Only two or three out of more than a hundred mines managed to do this within ten years. The heirs took over this share. I was able to prove that they supported the mine financially in January/February 1751, half a year after Johann Sebastian's death. The widow Anna Magdalena contributed to this with an amount that was more than a miner's weekly wages.


To sum up: The widow Anna Magdalena Bach was a woman who was able to obtain legal expertise, who thought entrepreneurially, who had experience in the music trade. What kind of partner was she for Johann Sebastian?

   Anna Magdalena was initially a court singer in Köthen. With her marriage, she became the Frau Kapellmeisterin. That was social advancement. She had the right to bear her husband's titles and enjoyed corresponding esteem. It wasn't her job to stand at the cooking pot from now on and take care of the children as a priority. There were servants for that. Johann Sebastian was obliged to take care of the substitutes when he was absent. After his death, the Council Change Cantata was ordered from Anna Magdalena. She will also have been responsible for organizing the processes during his previous temporary absences. A journey lasting several weeks that she undertook with her husband to Kassel in 1732 shows how much support she was able to draw on. At that time there were four children in the household who were less than ten years old, including a two-month-old baby. That means, in addition to a cook and other service personnel, a wet nurse must have been employed.


We imagine life in the Bach family to be very harmonious, see the sheet music for Anna Magdalena Bach and have idyllic ideas about an intimate relationship between the married couple. Is there any evidence that it really could have been like that?

   I hope it was. We listen to the beautiful music and think of a harmonious family life. But this music does not necessarily have to reflect the emotional relationship between the Bach couple. At that time, a marriage was a starting point for the joint management of a business enterprise. We can safely assume that Anna Magdalena lived up to her duties in this regard. After the death of her husband, that shows her collaboration with Carl Philipp Emanuel. Unfortunately, we know very little about her, not even what she looked like. After the death of her husband, however, she was not a frail woman. She took responsibility for her children. She had a musical education, had experience in organizing a large household and the knowledge she had acquired through working with her husband. As a widow, she used this because she was obliged to actively support herself.


Jan Brachmann conducted the interview.   

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