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8. The Singer. Part III

Anna Magdalena Bach was employed as a singer at the Köthen court (see the article “The Singer. Part II”). In 1723 the family moved to Leipzig, but she continued to train her voice there as well. Her husband Johann Sebastian Bach credited her with “a clear soprano” in 1730 (see “The Singer. Part I”). This brings up the question: what opportunities did she have to perform for an audience after 1723? Unfortunately, there are no contemporary reports about this. We must evaluate other clues to find an answer.


A Leipzig student wrote in his diary on the 17th of September 1733: “In the evening from 8:00 to 10:00 o’clock a concert was given in Schellhafers’ house by Kapellmeister Görner which was attended by an unusually large audience of aristocrats as well as persons of lower status. Two daughters of the local dance master, Mr. Nagel, allowed themselves to be heard, the one in singing and the other in playing the traverse flute.” (Talle 2020, page 164) This must have been part of a series of events, described in the Leipzig Address Book for the year 1732: “The music colleges are two in number.” One performed on “Thursdays from 8 until 10 o’clock in Schellhafer’s house in Closter-Gasse, directed by Mr. Johann Gottlieb Görner, organist at St. Thomas’ Church” and the other “under the direction of the Cantor Mr. Bach at Mr. Gottfried Zimmermann’s, in summertime in the garden from 4 until 6 o’clock and in wintertime on Fridays in the coffee house in Catharinen-Straße in the evening between 8 and 10 o’clock”. (Address Book 1732, page 57) Zimmermann’s coffee-house was an institution frequented by “residents and visitors of high and low standing, men and women, […] on account of its pleasant location, view and good accommodation, as well as being famous for the daily occurring large gatherings”. (Iccander 1725, page 87 f.)

One can therefore conclude that Anna Magdalena could also have performed on such occasions.

There were other possibilities for her. We learn from an advertisement in the newspaper “Leipziger Zeitung” of the 30th of April 1749 that: “an unknown female, who is accredited by a high court” has arrived in Leipzig. “The same is pleased to perform tomorrow’s 1st of May a concert, not only of extraordinarily pleasant vocal but also instrumental music, in particular the violin, on which she has an extraordinary skill, furthermore on the harpsichord and many instruments. This concert will be given in the Brühl in the Three Swans, in the afternoon from 5 until 7 o’clock.” The tickets cost between 16 Groschen and 2 Talers per person. (The “Brühl” is a street in Leipzig and the “Three Swans”–“Drey Schwanen” was an inn.)


Whether such an appearance was suitable for the status of Mrs. Capellmeisterin Bach is questionable. She had other possibilities to sing publicly. The works of her husband give hints of this.

So he composed the Cantata “Schwingt freudig empor” (“Soar joyfully aloft”, BWV 36.1). This is set for a soprano, two other solo singers and instruments. It was written for an occasion at which a respected teacher was being honoured. It was probably performed in the Spring of 1725. The arias of this cantata were heard with a different text at the birthday of the Duchess of Anhalt-Köthen. This work is known as “Steigt freudig in die Luft” (“Soar gladly through the air”, BWV 36.2). In Volume 1 of “Ernst- Schertzhaffte und Satyrische Gedichte” by Picander, poems published in 1727, on page 14 says that the performance took place on “the first birthday of the most serene Duchess of Anhalt-Cöthen 1726”. However, there must be an error in the year number. Charlotte Frederica Amalia of the house Nassau-Siegen was born on the 30th of November 1702 and married Duke Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen on the 21st of June 1725. Therefore her “first birthday” as a Duchess in Köthen was on the 30th of November 1725. Also, the birth of the heir to the throne is not mentioned in the text, who the princess brought into the world on the 12th of September 1726. This event was of immense importance to the dynasty and to the young Duchess. Not to refer to this in such an homage would have been regarded as an affront. (Grychtolik 2021, page VI) The performance would have been in 1725. Very probably Anna Magdalena Bach took the soprano part because in an account of the 15th of December 1725, about a payable sum is noted: “To the Cantor Bach and his wife, who performed here several times”. (Dok II, page 153) of this cantata.

This would also indicate that she also appeared in the aforementioned tribute to the respected teacher.

Her husband modified this work at least one more time. The cantata “Die Freude reget sich” (“Now gladness doth arise”, BWV 36.3) was created in honour of a member of the Leipzig Rivinus family.


Whereas these works have several solo voices, Johann Sebastian Bach composed a work for soprano solo with the cantata “O angenehme Melodei” (“O sweet and charming melody”, BWV 210.1). A soprano part of this has been preserved, clearly showing that words have been erased in several places and overwritten with “Flemming” (see figure). Originally it said “Christian”, because in January 1729 the cantata was performed for Duke Christian of Weissenfels in his presence. (Tiggemann 1994, pages 7 ff.) Bach later changed the text to use it for a tribute to Count Flemming. As can be seen in the figure, a further line has been inserted. The work could thus be used for "werthe Gönner" (esteemed patrons) in general.

Extract from the soprano part of the Cantata „O angenehme Melodei“ (“O sweet and charming melody”, BWV 210.1), 10th movement, where the score was copied by Anna Magdalena and the text written by Johann Sebastian. (Kraków, Biblioteka Jagiellonska, PL-Kj Mus. ms. Bach St. 72)


Johann Sebastian Bach used it with another text for the wedding cantata “O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit” (“O lovely day, o hoped-for time”, BWV 210.2). The instrumental parts show that there were at least two versions of this, which differ in the recitatives. (Zeitbild 2021, pages 68 ff.)

Hans-Joachim Schulze, director of the Bach Archive Leipzig 1992-2000 and editor of the Bach Yearbook for many years, summarised it with the following words: “The demanding ten movement cantata […] for soprano solo and instruments, which must have existed in at least five versions for various occasions – weddings, birthdays, tributes – and so was an often-performed favourite, might well have been associated with Anna Magdalena Bach as well. The diversity of the arias which demand a high degree of characterisation from the singer, the duration of the work with almost three quarters of an hour, and the two-octave range reaching a high c-sharp as its peak in a fast passage at the end of the central part of the first aria, are all very revealing. In the absence of other reports about Anna Magdalena’s vocal abilities, deductions of this nature are a welcome substitute.” (Schulze 1990, page 34)

The wedding cantata (BWV 201.2) is also preserved for a solo voice with only a figured bass accompanying the soprano part. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote this out very carefully on high-quality paper and gave it the title “Cantata. la Voce e Basso per il Cembalo”. This can be taken as an indication that this work could also be performed by a singer with harpsichord accompaniment.


But the question posed at the beginning is not yet fully answered. Further thoughts about possibilities for Anna Magdalena to perform as a singer after 1723 will follow.


Translation: Alan Shepherd







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