Who was Anna Magdalena Bach?
Exerpt from the review article by Andrew Talle (Northwestern University)
Martin Jarvis. “Did Johann Sebastian Bach Write the Six Cello Suites?” (PhD diss., Charles Darwin University, 2007). 430 pages.
Martin Jarvis. Written by Mrs. Bach: The Amazing Discovery that Shocked the Musical World (Australia: ABC Books, 2011). 280 pages.
Eberhard Spree. Die verwitwete Frau Capellmeisterin Bach: Studie über die Verteilung des Nachlasses von Johann Sebastian Bach (Altenburg: Kamprad Verlag, 2019). 308 pages.
David Yearsley. Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019). 336 pages.
[...] Eberhard Spree does what Yearsley does not, closely comparing Anna Magdalena with specific people of her time and place: wives of other St. Thomas cantors, widows of other Leipzig residents, and so on. In the course of his research, he even managed to find some new documents relating directly to Anna Magdalena’s biography. Spree consistently treats her as an individual rather than as a springboard for discussion. The scope of his project is limited primarily to the final years of her life, and he does not possess Yearsley’s gift for snappy and limpid prose—Spree’s writing is dutiful and repetitive—but he is a serious scholar and offers the reader a much more vivid and believable sense for the Bachs’ time and place than one finds in Sex, Death, and Minuets. Where Yearsley’s efforts to grant Anna Magdalena greater agency are willful and often strained, Spree is able to present materials and interpretations that credibly hint at the resourcefulness of her character.
It has long been an orthodoxy of Bach scholarship that Anna Magdalena was left impoverished and abandoned after Johann Sebastian’s death in 1750. Among the most influential progenitors of this view is Reinhard Szeskus, who argued that Anna Magdalena was treated inequitably in the division of her husband’s estate. The evidence for this claim seems solid enough: she did receive a smaller proportion of her husband’s wealth than did her children and stepchildren; she was described in multiple documents of the 1750s as a “woman receiving alms” (Almosenfrau); and was compensated for donating a few copies of Die Kunst der Fuge with 40 Reichstaler “owing to her hardship” (wegen ihrer Dürfftigkeit). Earlier attempts have been made, most notably by Maria Hübner, to relativize Anna Magdalena’s apparent destitution by comparing her situation with those of other Leipzigers of the time. Yearsley dismisses such efforts as a scheme to “whitewash” his protagonist’s abominable fate (193–94) and fills the final chapter of his book with analyses of Bach cantatas that reference loneliness and longing for death.
According to Spree, Anna Magdalena was not in such a desperate state as the surviving documents from the 1750s have been interpreted to imply. By law, she received one-third of Johann Sebastian’s estate and the surviving children (some of whom were still quite young) shared the remaining two-thirds. The fact that Anna Magdalena diminished her portion by purchasing estate items from her children and stepchildren is not an indication of her poverty, as Szeskus claimed, but rather of her financial stability. Her decision to assume the substantial debt of her widowed sister, traditionally interpreted as proof of weakness, is in Spree’s view another sign of strength. Furthermore, Anna Magdalena (and the other heirs) opted to continue an investment in a silver mine that Johann Sebastian had initiated in 1741 and maintained until the end of his life. The regulations governing investments of this type were Byzantine, and Spree understands them better than anyone alive today, but even he cannot divine Johann Sebastian’s motives for spending around 30 Reichstaler on this mining venture over the course of nine years. It would seem reasonable to assume that the cantor hoped for a return on his investment, but only about 4 percent of the mines in the region paid dividends. Spree cites rhetoric of the era suggesting that such investments were often inspired by a sense of civic or moral duty and are better understood as donations (31–32). In any case, Anna Magdalena and her fellow heirs continued and even increased payments to the mine in the wake of Johann Sebastian’s death, indicating that they were not particularly concerned about running out of money, at least not initially (120).
If the widowed Anna Magdalena was more comfortable than has traditionally been assumed, what were the sources of her livelihood? Spree observes that the estate catalog is notably incomplete: a large number of items the family certainly possessed are missing. As the wife of the deceased, Anna Magdalena would have inherited what was then called die Gerade: materials that were not saleable or household items that she used on a daily basis. This would have included her own clothing, some of which was undoubtedly quite valuable. It would also have included many of the family’s books, as well as silver, brass, tin, writing materials, furniture, and some types of musical instruments (e.g., clavichords) that do not appear in the estate catalog. She probably also received a fair number of valuable portraits that found their way, after her death, into the impressive collection of her stepson, Carl Philipp Emanuel. Spree discovered a previously unknown manuscript document from 1753 that reveals Anna Magdalena to have been managing a household with five children, including her mentally disabled son Gottfried Heinrich Bach (1724–1763), long assumed to have lived at this time in Naumburg with his sister’s family (59–60). Clearly there was some money floating around if Anna Magdalena could afford to feed and house all of these people. Some of it probably came from Leipzig’s trade fairs, which flooded the city with merchants and visitors from all over Europe for nearly three months of every year. She likely rented out rooms in her apartment during the fairs, as did virtually everyone with a bed to spare. Among the items she went out of her way to acquire from her husband’s estate were “seven wooden beds” (7. höltzerne Betten). This is not a purchase one would expect from a woman preparing for a lonely and impoverished existence.
The most conspicuous omission from the estate catalog is sheet music, including a great quantity by Johann Sebastian, much of which must have come into the possession of his widow. Spree reasons that Anna Magdalena offered manuscripts and prints for duplication during the 1750s, just as she had while her husband was alive. That there was still significant demand for Johann Sebastian’s music after his death is revealed by the high prices the Breitkopf publishing firm charged for copies during the 1760s and 1770s (86–91). Finally, Carl Philipp Emanuel employed Anna Magdalena as a sales agent for the first volume of his keyboard treatise, Der Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Berlin: Henning, 1753). Spree shrewdly observes that Emanuel did not include an address of any kind in the four advertisements (from 1752, 1754, and 1759) that invite potential buyers to seek her out (207–20). He obviously felt confident that his stepmother was well known enough that anyone interested in purchasing his treatise would have no trouble finding her in a city of thirty thousand, and that the state of her home would not embarrass the Bach family.
Though Anna Magdalena received alms from the city, this does not necessarily imply poverty, as Szeskus, Yearsley, and others have assumed. Spree notes that another Almosenfrau, the widow of a city councilman (Ratsherr), employed domestic servants and enjoyed a regular income through her stepson. Even after she inherited a windfall of 1000 Reichstaler, the alms from the city continued to flow her way (247). The town council referenced Anna Magdalena’s “hardship” (Dürfftigkeit), but this too was a word conventionally used to describe widows, not necessarily because they were poor but rather because of the pain they were assumed to have endured in losing their husbands (217–19). As Gottfried Barth (1650–1728) put it in a treatise on inheritance regulations published in 1721: “That widowhood is a baleful and very miserable state of life is not denied by anyone, given that the widow has been robbed of her protector and breadwinner, and for this reason is counted by the law … not unreasonably among the poor and miserable persons, regardless of her social class, dignity, or wealth.” Anna Magdalena received financial support not because she was destitute, but because it was important to the city fathers that she maintain the high status she had enjoyed while her husband was alive (145–73).
Contrary to Yearsley’s claims of whitewashing, scholars have tended not to downplay but rather to exaggerate the severity of Anna Magdalena’s fate. Why have we been so eager for her to suffer? In part because we remain saddled with an assumption, best articulated by Meynell, that she “had no life but his.” How could such a woman thrive as a widow? More insidiously, however, we have expected Anna Magdalena to embody our own suffering. In the misery we attribute to her, we invest our frustration at the unbridgeable chasm that separates us from Johann Sebastian Bach. We painstakingly gather information about her and about the others in the composer’s orbit—students, colleagues, patrons, and far more marginal figures—with the goal of understanding his music from new perspectives. In so doing, we hope to inch a little closer to the wellsprings of his creativity, to peer into the brilliant abyss of something unimpeachably good. Anna Magdalena’s vantage point was closer than that of anyone else. With Johann Sebastian’s loss she was forced to endure not only the death of her mortal husband but also the severance of her intimate connection to a being long regarded as immortal. She is our Mary Magdalene weeping over the corpse of our Jesus. Her misery can know no bounds.
Until the day someone discovers a Little Chronicle written by the real Anna Magdalena Bach, she will remain a phantasm. Those seeking connections with her husband’s music will continue to find ways of living vicariously through her. Faced with a dearth of biographical information, we project onto Anna Magdalena the qualities we feel are best suited to the wife of history’s greatest musician. We insist that she be a talented soprano, a faithful scribe, a paragon of moral virtue, and a devoted mother because we are uncomfortable with the idea of Johann Sebastian marrying a middling soprano, a negligent scribe, an immoral careerist, or an indifferent mother. The thought that she might have enjoyed life after her husband’s death remains unthinkable.
Such preconceptions obviously hinder the advancement of knowledge, but what can help? Those interested in Anna Magdalena will leave lasting traces in the scholarly record by unearthing new documents relating directly to her biography, by illuminating the lives of other women (including her own daughters) whose experiences were similar to hers, and by examining the manuscript materials she prepared (musical and otherwise) for what they reveal about her priorities and relationships. Whatever methodologies we adopt, and whatever readers we address, it is crucial that we accept the frustrating ambiguities of the historical record. Anna Magdalena deserves to be freed from the burdens of representation and treated as an individual.
 Reinhard Szeskus, Bach in Leipzig: Beiträge zu Leben und Werk von Johann Sebastian Bach (Wilhelmshaven: Florian Noetzel, 2003), 55, 104.
 Maria Hübner, Anna Magdalena Bach: Ein Leben in Dokumenten und Bildern (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2004), 84–106, esp. 97, 100, 105.
 Maria Hübner, “Zur finanziellen Situation der Witwe Anna Magdalena Bach und ihrer Töchter,” Bach Jahrbuch 88 (2002): 29-60.
 The heirs ceased investing in the mine around the middle of 1751.
 Quoted in Eberhard Spree, Die verwitwete Frau Capellmeisterin Bach: Studie über die Verteilung des Nachlasses von Johann Sebastian Bach (Altenburg: Kamprad Verlag, 2019), 219: “Daß der Wittben-Stand ein elendes und sehr miserables Leben sey, wird wohl niemand läugnen, indem die Wittben ihres Beschirmers, und Ernährers beraubet seynd, und deswegen in denen Rechten … nicht unbillig unter die armseligen, und miserabeln Personen gezehlet werden, ohne Unterscheid, wes Standes, Würden, und Vermögens sie seynd.”