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7. The Singer. Part II

“Bach (Anna Magdalena), born in 1700, was an excellent soprano and the second wife of Joh. Sebastian Bach. She died in the year 1757 without ever having made public use of this excellent talent.” Ernst Ludwig Gerber wrote this in his “Dictionary of Musicians”, published in 1790. His father was a student of Johann Sebastian Bach’s which could lead to the conclusion that this information about Anna Magdalena Bach is very reliable. But it is incorrect in several ways. The years of birth and death are both wrong, and as far as her activity as a singer is concerned, she was employed by the court at Köthen until the move to Leipzig in 1723. (See the article: "The Singer. Part I") Accounts that we know of today from 1724, 1725 and 1729 prove that she made public appearances after that. (Dok II, pages 144, 153, 190 f.) These three accounts come from Köthen. They do not prove that she only rarely performed in public, because no-one knows how many other accounts are lost. However, these documents clearly show that Anna Magdalena Bach sang at a very high level of proficiency during her time in Leipzig as well. This is confirmed by none less than her husband in October 1730. In a letter to a school friend, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote that she “sings a clear soprano”. (Dok. I, page 68) Note that he used the present tense. There was no reason for him to mention her ability in this letter, and the fact that he did, shows clearly that her abilities as a singer were of a high standard. He could be very direct in his assessment of musical abilities. In August 1730 for example, he informed the Leipzig town council about the quality of the musicians employed by the town: “But modesty forbids me to mention something of the truth about their qualities and musical knowledge. But it should be considered that they are partly retired and partly not as much in practice as they should be.” He described the singers at his disposal as “17 usable, 20 not yet usable and 17 incapable”. (Dok I, pages 61, 64)

In summary: Anna Magdalena Bach was a very good singer in the early 1730’s, at a time when her family had lived in Leipzig for more than seven years. Making music at a high level is not comparable to a Sunday hat that lies in the cupboard, is briefly worn and then disappears again for long time. It is not possible to perform at a high level without regular practice, and this is particularly true for an artist who bore seven children between 1723 and 1730. (See the article: "How many children did Anna Magdalena Bach have to care for?") A singer’s instrument is her body. This is subject to significant changes, especially during pregnancy and on giving birth. Anna Magdalena therefore had to not only regularly train her voice, but also to give attention to these changes in her vocal facilities and react to them with time-consuming exercises. It is not really conceivable that she would have had sufficient motivation for such strenuous work without the prospect of public performances. But the rooms of the apartment were not suitable for this. Even in the largest room the distance from wall to wall was less than 6 metres (just over 6 yards) and none was larger than 30 square metres = 323 square feet. (Spree 2021, pages 48 f.) It is difficult for a singer with a trained voice to sing in front of an audience in these acoustics, and it would be of no pleasure for listeners who just want to enjoy the performance.

But could Anna Magdalena Bach perhaps have just practiced in order to make music with her husband and children, where the participants just wanted to enjoy playing together at home with no further ambitions? Does the letter mentioned above from October 1730 signify this? Here, Johann Sebastian Bach not only mentions his wife, but the whole family. In full, he wrote: “All together they are born musicians and I can assure you that I can form a concert both vocal and instrumental with my family, especially as my wife sings a clear soprano and my eldest daughter is also not bad.” (Dok I, p 68)

But the image of the parents playing music with small children is not applicable here. The son Wilhelm Friedemann was 19 years old. Less than three years later he was selected over his competitors for the position of organist at St. Sophia’s church in Dresden. At about the same time Carl Philipp Emanuel, 3 years younger, applied for the position of organist at St. Wenceslas’ church in Naumburg. Another candidate was chosen, but Carl Philipp Emanuel would have had the musical ability required for this post. Johann Gottfried Bernhard, 15 years old when this letter was written, became the organist in Mühlhausen in 1735. These sons were master students of their father, were at the beginning of their careers as professional musicians and, like him, not only played keyboard instruments. (Spree 2021, page 125) The musical abilities of Anna Magdalena and the eldest daughter Catharina Dorothea, 21 years old at the time, would have been equal to this high-calibre ensemble. Unfortunately, no opus has survived that he composed for this formation. The other children were 6, 4 and 1 year old. They would not have taken part in these “concerts” and no compositions by their father are known in which simpler parts appear with the advanced ones.

As Johann Sebastian Bach “formed concerts”, he would have felt responsible for the quality. The son Carl Philipp Emanuel reports about him: “His ear was so sensitive that he was able to detect the smallest error in the most full-voiced music. It is a shame that he seldom had the good fortune to find performers that would have saved him these caustic remarks.” (Dok III, page 87) He seemed to always find potential for improvement in musical performances and would have imparted them to the people for whom he felt responsible.

So it is beyond question: music was always being played in the Bach family apartment. There were lessons, practice and rehearsals. But this was not domestic music making simply for the pleasure of the performers, and Johann Sebastian Bach does not write anything about that in the aforesaid letter. He does not say where the “concerts” took place. His pleasure at the musical abilities of his family is without doubt palpable in the text. But we should not forget that in this household, money was earned with music. The assumption that the available potential was not used to earn income would imply economical incompetence, and that it was used is shown by the account from Köthen of 1729 mentioned above. There it says: “CapellMeister Bach, his wife and son from Leipzig” performed music and were paid.

Extract from the accounts of the Köthen court from 25th March 1729

(State Archive Sachsen-Anhalt, Z 73 Köthen, Invoices 1728 – 1729, page 115)

If Anna Magdalena Bach still sang very well during this time, and public performances (with payment) were the motivation for the necessary practice, then the following questions arise: Where could she perform in Leipzig? On what occasions? Are there any indications of compositions by her husband taking her abilities into account? We will go into these questions in “The Singer. Part III”.

Translation: Alan Shepherd

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