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12. The Working Couple – Official Engagements. Part I

We already talked about Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian Bach working together in private performances in the articles "The Singer. Part III to V" and “The Working Couple – Unofficial Performances”. But is there any evidence that they also worked together on official engagements? First, let us look at his duties in this connection.

About a year after his wedding Johann Sebastian Bach applied for a position in Leipzig and in April 1723 was elected by the Leipzig city council as cantor of the St. Thomas school and musical director of the city. As cantor of the St. Thomas school, he was a teacher in this institution (see figure) and had to train the students in music and other subjects, for example Latin. Normally 55 students were boarders and their schooling and upkeep were financed by legacies. In return they had to perform music for the church and sing at funerals and other occasions. The other students did not have these obligations as they paid school fees. Bach judged the musical abilities of the boarders very critically. In a letter to the council in 1730 he divided them into “17 usable, 20 not yet usable and 17 incapable”. (Dok I, page 64) Perhaps he had already resigned himself to the situation by this time. Only a few days previously the council had complained that he had not been giving the singing lessons. (Dok II, page 205)

The students of the three upper years were supposed to “speak Latin among themselves so that they soon become solidly grounded in this language and can subsequently find all studies and the reading of their authors easier⁄” (Thomasschulordnung 1987, page 59). It is not known how Johann Sebastian Bach managed this. As opposed to his colleagues he had not attended a university. According to his rector his authority was not always sufficient. (Dok II, pages 270 f.)

One specific duty was the inspections, which he had to perform for a week at a time alternating with three other teachers. In this he was responsible for waking the boarders in the morning, at 5 a.m. in the summer and at 6 a.m. in the winter. He had to ensure that the students performed their duties, supervise them at mealtimes and monitor the nightly silence. (Thomasschulordnung 1987, pages 10 ff.)

But Johann Sebastian Bach’s contract allowed him to delegate tasks, although he had to negotiate the payment with his deputy himself. There are several indications that he made liberal use of this. His successor was not given this right, and the clause was deleted from the contract. (Kollmar 2006, page 318) Even in 1755, when a cantor of St. Thomas was being sought again, one councillor reminded the others that this position must be held in the same way that Bach’s predecessors had filled it, “as with Mr. Bach many disturbances occurred”. (Dok. III, page 104) Even so, no occasion is known of the council refusing Johann Sebastian Bach a leave of absence, for which according to his contract he had to apply every time.

When the rector was relieved of his inspection duties because he had taken an additional position at the university, Bach also claimed this concession for himself. (Dok III, page 314)

It is likely that Bach would have used all opportunities to gain as much time as possible for other projects, to compose, to train talented private students, and to perfect his abilities as a virtuoso and organ consultant.

He could also call on support to further his interests. The titles that he had obtained from various courts (see figure) were helpful here. Such honours were highly respected in the bourgeois city of Leipzig. In the local gazettes “persons who are honoured with special or foreign distinctions and titles” were listed separately. (Adressbuch Leipzig 1747, page 234) Furthermore, these titles offered protection from the crowned heads who had bestowed them, and Bach made use of this. (Dok I, pages 101 f.)

Figure: List of the teachers at the St. Thomas school in Leipzig, including Bach’s titles: cantor and music director of the musical choir, Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon, also High Princely Anhalt-Köthen Capellmeister

(Titular-Buch 1750, page 310. With the friendly support of Leipzig University Library)


This short depiction of Bach’s duties as a teacher at the St. Thomas school, how he performed them and what problems they involved, is only intended to give a rough impression, and does not claim to be complete. The main question being investigated here is: how could Anna Magdalena Bach have supported him in his duties at the school? We can assume that she shared the load in the inspection weeks, and that she supported him emotionally in his school tasks. But her role could have gone beyond that. The family moved in to the apartment in the school on the 22nd May 1723. At this time Elisabeth Schelle (1654-1730) worked there as school caterer. Her husband was cantor of St. Thomas school from 1677 until his death in 1702. After his passing she appears in the accounts for the school meals of the boarders until she died. She was responsible for two meals a day. (Von Schütz zu Bach 2022, pages 33 f.) We can assume that Elisabeth Schelle was able to learn the routines while her husband was still alive. The expectation that wives should cooperate in certain areas of the school is shown by a report written by a teacher a few years before the arrival of the Bach family. He considered it desirable that teachers’ wives should help in looking after sick boarders and notes that this already “occurs laudably” by the wives of the cantor and rector. (Szeskus 2003, pages 25)

Sadly, there are no clues as to how Anna Magdalena Bach acted in this respect. But her assistance in certain areas of school life can certainly not be ruled out.

While the sources are insufficient to make further statements on this, the situation with her husband’s commitments as music director of the city of Leipzig is different. There are several pieces of evidence for her cooperation, and this will be treated in the next article.

Translation: Alan Shepherd



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