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11. The Working Couple – Unofficial Performances

Working couple (Arbeitspaar) – it was Heide Wunder who coined this phrase for married couples in the early modern period. She is a historian and leading expert in the structures of gender relationships. In the lifetime of Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian Bach it was common for a couple to lead a household together, which apart from their children, consisted of servants, employees, journeymen, apprentices, or private students. The household was not only the private family area, but in most cases also the location of the business. The wife had, second to her husband, authority over all members of the community and deputised for him when he was away, in business matters as well. This is not usually clear from documents of the time, as the business was conducted under the husband’s name. The wife was usually only mentioned when she continued the business after her husband had died. This can be seen for example in the Leipzig directories, in which many businesses are listed as being run by widows. (See Spree 2021, pages 121 f., 152 ff.)

Many descriptions in scientific publications on this subject show clearly that married couples also acted as working partners. (See for example: Schmotz 2012, pages 72 ff.) Heide Wunder, in her standard-setting monograph on women in the early modern period "Er ist die Sonn', sie ist der Mond" (“He is the sun, she is the moon”), also gives plenty of evidence for this. Only one further example (with a certain connection to Bach), should be added here.

Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758 – 1832) is primarily known as the music teacher of famous composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847), who, among many other things, initiated the creation of the first memorial to Johann Sebastian Bach and promoted his work. Carl Friedrich Zelter was an enthusiastic collector of autographs by Johann Sebastian Bach and very important for the Bach reception as the leader of the Berlin Singakademie (Berlin՚s Sing-Akademie). His father was a master bricklayer who ran a construction company. Carl Friedrich Zelter wrote in his memoirs that his mother visited the building sites for which her husband was responsible, paid the employees and also assessed them, a job that she was already doing before her son Carl Friedrich was born. Additionally, she ran two brickworks which her husband had leased. These had about two hundred employees whom she supervised and paid. Zelter says about his mother: “The strings of the whole business went through her hands from, dividing the incoming funds into the smallest portions.” When his mother had a stroke in 1785, it had a large impact on the business. (Zelter 1931, pages 172, 245 f., 256)

It was therefore no exception in the time of Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian Bach for married couples to work together in a business, indeed, it was the economical basis of society at that time. The impression that in the Bach family he alone was responsible for the income while she almost exclusively worked in the private family area would have to be proved. This is unlikely because there several indications that Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian Bach acted together as a working couple in the business. This will be investigated further here and in subsequent instalments.


Johann Sebastian Bach was appointed as Cantor of the St. Thomas school and Music Director of the city of Leipzig in 1723. With this he was responsible for teaching various lessons at the school and for the music for church services at the main Leipzig churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas. His duties also included the provision of music for various other occasions. This gives a broad impression of the complex web of his duties in Leipzig.

But there were also private citizens who approached him to order cantatas for tributes and homages for example, and they paid him well. We have already covered in depth that Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian Bach performed together as musicians at these unofficial performances in “The Singer. Part III, IV and V”. Anna Magdalena’s contribution was not restricted to her role as a singer. Even though there are so few documents about her, it can be shown that she also participated in the preparations. As already described (see “The Singer. Part III) the cantata “O angenehme Melodei” (“O sweet and charming melody”, BWV 210.1) was a work that was heard several times on such occasions. Only the soprano part has survived, but the instrumental parts can be mostly reconstructed from the wedding cantata “O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit” (O lovely day, o hoped-for time”, BWV 210.2). The soprano part is almost identical. There are greater differences only in the libretto and recitatives. The written out soprano part of “O angenehme Melodei” is a joint manuscript of Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian Bach. She started the copy, but stopped in the middle of the second movement and he continued the work.

Extract from the soprano part of the cantata for soprano solo “O angenehme Melodei” (“O sweet and charming melody”, BWV 210.1), second movement (Krakow, Biblioteka Jagiellońska, PL-Kj Mus. ms. Bach St. 72).

The upper two visible lines were written by Anna Magdalena, her husband then continued the copy in the middle of the movement.


This alternation of the writing can also be seen in other places in the soprano part. It is fascinating to think about the possible reasons. These can give rise to the feeling of being closer to the action, but this is just fantasy. However, it is a fact that Anna Magdalena Bach’s contribution to private performances was not limited to her appearance as a singer. Of course, she was also involved in the rehearsals and the agreements to be made for such performances, although it must remain inconclusive how great her part in the organisation was. But it is proven that she assisted also in the preparation of the written parts.

Further evidence of the collaboration between Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian Bach will be presented in the following articles.


Translation: Alan Shepherd



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