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6. The Singer. Part I

In the “Catalogue of the musical estate of the deceased Capellmeister Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach”, printed in Hamburg in 1790, one of the oil paintings is described by the words: “Bach (Ann Magd.) Soprano”. (See the article "What did Anna Magdalena Bach look like?") The painting is unfortunately lost. But the entry not only shows that a picture of Anna Magdalena Bach once existed, but also that the activity mentioned must have played an important role in her life. Regrettably, there are only a few sources that give precise information about this. But some things can be deduced.

The first documents naming her as a singer come from the Köthen church records of September 1721. She is given there as “Court Singer” or “Chamber Musician”. These are records in which she is given as godmother. Whether “Chamber Musician” is her correct title at the Anhalt-Köthen court cannot be confirmed by other documents. However, the entries show that she performed there as a singer, so she must have had a suitable training. When and where this occurred is not known. Anna Magdalena was born into a musical household on the 22nd September 1701. Her father was a trumpeter at the Sachsen-Zeitz court. Her mother came from a family of organists. Her uncle was a court trumpeter and organist at the palace church in Zeitz. Anna Magdalena must have moved to Weißenfels in 1718 at the latest, because in February 1718 her father sold the house in Zeitz. He had taken a position as trumpeter at the Sachsen-Weißenfels court. The singer Christiane Paulina Kellner (1664– 1745), known by the name of Paulina, also performed there. It is possible that she played a role in Anna Magdalena’s training, but there is no proof of this. (Hübner 2005, pages 25 f., 34, 40; Schulze 2013, pages 290 ff.)

In accounts from Zerbst from the time between the middle of 1720 and the middle of 1721 we can read: “6 Thaler for the Trumpeter Wilke of Weißenfels heard here, 12 Thaler for his daughter for singing several times in the chapel” (Schubart 1954, page 48) The daughter is unfortunately not named, but we can assume that it was Anna Magdalena. Her sisters were already married by this time and any of them would have been given with her married name. (Schulze 2013, page 292, footnote 58) No conclusions about their rating can be drawn from the amounts paid to father and daughter as it is not known to what extent and in what positions they performed. But it can be upheld that, by “singing a few times”, the daughter earned an amount for which a woman who ironed washing from “seven a.m. until ten p.m.” would have had to work for 58 days. (Dimpfel 1929, page 85)

Perhaps the said stay in Zerbst occurred just before Anna Magdalena’s arrival in Köthen. She appears for the first time in the records there for participation in Communion on the 15th June 1721. (Hübner 2005, page 39)


View of the town of Köthen in the 17th century

(Source: Topographia Superioris Saxoniae, Thuringiae, Misniae, Lusatiae etc., Frankfurt am Main 1650. With the friendly support of Leipzig University Library)


On the 3rd December 1721 the “high courtly Capellmeister Johann Sebastian Bach, widower” and the “maiden Anna Magdalena, youngest daughter of Mr. Johann Caspar Wülcke, high courtly Sachsen Weißenfels musical court and field trumpeter“ were married. (Dok II, page 83)

Johann Sebastian Bach had been employed by the Köthen court since 1717. His first wife Maria Barbara died at the beginning of July 1720 leaving him with four children, aged 5, 6, 9 and 11 years at the time of her death. According to the law of the time, he could have remarried after six months. (Zedler Volume 45, column 132) So he did not enter into the marriage with Anna Magdalena because the children needed looking after and a woman was needed for the household. (See also: "Were there servants in the Bach family household?") There must have been other reasons. Perhaps they were very much in love with each other, although at that time this was less important. Partners in marriage should respect each other, and above all, had to be able to manage a household together. Anna Magdalena Wilke came from a household that earned its money with music. Her experience and abilities qualified her as a partner for the management of a household in which that was also the case. It is not known which reasons carried what weight for Johann Sebastian and this is also true of Anna Magdalena. We should note that Anna Magdalena was financially independent as a court singer, so she did not marry because she needed to be maintained. But the marriage made her economic situation more stable and was also a protection for her.

With the marriage she had the right to take on the honours and titles of her husband. She rose on the social scale and became Frau Capellmeisterin. She continued to perform as a singer at the court. Accounts of the time show that she earned the third-highest salary after Capellmeister Bach and Concertmeister Spieß. (Hoppe 1986, page 18)

In April 1723 Johann Sebastian Bach became Cantor of the St. Thomas school and director of music for the city in Leipzig. A month later the family moved there. It is not known what Anna Magdalena felt when she left the rural Köthen to live in Leipzig, a university city with three large trade fairs a year and three times as many inhabitants as in the entire dukedom of Köthen. (Spree 2021, page 39) Perhaps she found it hard to give up the possibilities offered by life in Köthen. It is also possible that she was pleased with the change. Perhaps her high salary had caused envy among her colleagues making her life difficult. A court appointment was also always dependent on the mercy of the ruler. Intrigues were a common means of pushing out competitors and improving one’s own standing. The answer remains: we do not know what Anna Magdalena felt on leaving Köthen. But in any case, she continued to perform as a singer in Leipzig. See: "The Singer. Part II".


Translation: Alan Shepherd



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