Arnstadt 1703-1707

Arnstadt at Bach's time was a very charming town of only 3800 inhabitants. It was here that Johann Sebastian got his first serious job:

In August 1703 he was appointed organist of the Neue Kirche. This was the third church of the town (after the Oberkirche and the Liebfrau-kirche), but it had an attractive new Wender organ. Obviously, Johann Sebastian already had a certain market value as organist, because he got a relatively high salary: twice as much as his successor in 1707, his cousin Johann Ernst. A receipt of payment has been preserved.

Sebastian's tenure in Arnstadt was not entirely successful. He was obsessed by the organ and refused to seriously practice with the boys of the church's school choir (not his official duty anyway). He got into conflict and in the summer of 1705 he even had a street fight with the bassoon player Geyersbach (after Johann Sebastian had called him names).

Later in 1705 he obtained a four week leave of absence to go to Lübeck to get acquainted with the music of Dietrich Buxtehude. In October 1705 he walked the 200 miles to Lübeck (young Bach walked a lot). Ever since his stay there, he was deeply influenced by the organ music of Buxtehude. But Buxtehude also was a prolific composer of vocal works. Especially his Abendmusiken in the Marienkirche (organized, among other things, to make Lübeck more attractive to travelling businessmen) were very famous and must have made a deep impression on Bach (the Marienkirche is shown here on the left). Possibly, he even participated in it as a performing musician. Johann Sebastian not only was a versatile musician, he also had to eat and to pay his replacement in Arnstadt (his cousin Johann Ernst). Buxtehude's vocal works (like Castrum Doloris, of which only the text has survived) presumably had a direct influence on Bach's own early vocal works, like Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit ('Actus Tragicus'), BWV 106 (officially belonging to the Mühlhausen period).

Instead of after four weeks, Bach only returned to Arnstadt in the middle of January 1706 (Abendmusiken or just a girl?). The church authorities were not amused. Moreover, Bach applied his new virtuoso organ technique during the church services and was thus said to confuse the unprepared congregation. He was also accused of going into the wine cellar during sermons and making music with a "stranger maid" in the church. Most biographers presume that this was his second cousin and later wife Maria Barbara. On what evidence? Maria Barbara, who lived for a while in the same house (of her relative mayor Feldthauss) as Sebastian, was not really a "stranger maid" for the very small population of Arnstadt.

All in all, then, Johann Sebastian did not exactly live the life of a saint during his Arnstadt period. Without trying to make our hero more romantic than he really was, it also must be said that it seems a somewhat unrealistic interpretation of the ambitions of an energetic 20 year old virtuoso to assume that he walked hundreds of miles through northern Germany with the sole purpose of undergoing the influence of old men like Reinken and Buxtehude, even if this influence turned out to be very profound.

Anyway, Bach's days in Arnstadt were counted. Eventually, he found a new position in Mühlhausen and applied for his resignation in Arnstadt.

Works

Very few works have survived of the Arnstadt period. Perhaps Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo (Capriccio on the Departure of His Most Beloved Brother), BWV 992, was composed in Arnstadt (1704). Furthermore, the chorale prelude Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 739, is ascribed to this period (around 1705). The autograph of this prelude is also the oldest surviving Bach autograph. Another youth work is the fragmentary early version of the Prelude and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 535a. Perhaps, some of the Mühlhausen cantatas also have their origin in Arnstadt, like Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4, and Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150.

Go to Mühlhausen

Go back to Weimar

Go to the map or to the J.S. Bach Tourist (Arnstadt).

Go to the J.S. Bach Home Page