Leipzig 1723-1750

Part 1 (1723-1729)

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), city music director of Hamburg, was elected cantor in Leipzig on 11 August 1722. Telemann (left) was the most famous composer of his days and Leipzig's first choice. When, after a long hesitation, Telemann decided to stay in Hamburg, Christoph Graupner, court Capellmeister at Darmstadt was the most likely candidate. Graupner was a former pupil of the St Thomas School and former law student at Leipzig University. However, the Landgrave of Hesse refused to let his Capellmeister go, so that Graupner had to withdraw (slavery was not completely abolished yet in 18th century Germany, at least not for musicians: recall Bach's experience in Weimar).

Bach only became a candidate when the post at St Thomas had been vacant for half a year. Bach's audition was on 7 February 1723 (Graupner's was on 17 January 1723). Bach's test cantatas were Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe (BWV 22) and Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn (BWV 23). Bach was successful and, after Graupner's withdrawal, the contract was signed on 5 May 1723.

The St Thomas School had a choir tradition of centuries and was in Bach's time a kind of musical service institute that had to supply the four major churches in Leipzig with choirs on Sundays and other Christian holidays. The school is shown here (on the right) in its old form (on the left of the picture). before the remodelling of the 1730s, when two stories were added. There were four churches, the churches of St Thomas (Thomaskirche, on the picture on the right)), St Nicholas (Nikolaikirche), St Peter (Peterskirche), and the New Church (Neue Kirche). The St Nicholas church was the most important, followed by the St Thomas church. So, four choirs had to be formed out of the 55 pupils of the school. Each choir had minimally eight singers (two sopranos, two altos, two tenors, and two basses) and four soloists. The best singers were used for the St Thomas and St Nicholas churches (cantatas, passions, motets), while the boys without talent had to sing less ambitious music in the St Peter church.

There were choir rehearsals on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; and on Saturday the boys were joined by the instrumentalists for the rehearsal of the Sunday cantata. Very often, however, there was practically no time for rehearsals. Bach worked harder than ever before in those years and is supposed to have written 5 yearly runs (i.e., 5 x 59 cantatas) altogether. The first annual cycle of 1723-1724 included many Weimar works, but for the second cycle, 1724-1725, Bach almost wrote one cantata per week. After a short interruption in 1725, Bach wrote a third cycle over the next two years. It is not exactly known when Bach wrote the remaining two cycles. About two fifth of Bach's cantata production is lost (apart from Gott ist mein König, BWV 71, no other cantata appeared in print during Bach's life time).

Bach's cantata output in the 1720s is one of the most astonishing creative explosions in the history of Western music, even if one considers that Baroque composers were extremely productive in general. Georg Philipp Telemann, for instance, could write a cantata in one day and was said to write an eight-part motet as if he were writing a letter (Telemann wrote 40 operas, 44 Passions, and 12 yearly cycles of cantatas). Bach's predecessor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) had written 14 yearly cycles, and the absolute world champion cantata writing was Johann Philipp Krieger (1649-1725), who wrote almost 2000 cantatas. Although nobody has heard even a fraction of the more than 3500 cantatas of only these three composers, it is generally assumed that they were routine productions and much less original than Bach's cantatas. What is so astonishing about Bach, however, is that his cantatas were also the results of certain routines but that many are masterpieces nevertheless. During these early Leipzig years, Bach also gave the first performance of the St John Passion (1724) and produced the Magnificat (1723) and the St Matthew Passion (1727 or 1729).

Interestingly, according to the general "parody" technique of those days, ten parts of the St. Matthew Passion were not only considered apt by Bach for the death of Jesus Christ but also as Trauermusik for Sebastian's mundane friend and lover of the Carlsbad waters Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen (1729). Leopold's death in 1728 terminated Bach's position as honorary Capellmeister in Köthen, a function that was granted to Bach by Leopold upon Sebastian's appointment in Leipzig. Fortunately for Bach, he was able to acquire his next honorary Capellmeistership already in 1729 from the hands of the "gentle Christian" and heroic hunter, duke Christian von Sachsen-Weissenfels. These Capellmeister titles were very important for Bach, who never was satisfied with the mere title of "Cantor" in Leipzig and always used the more impressive sounding Director Musices. Bach was not only a genius but also a social climber, who throughout his career flattered potential aristocratic employers and patrons with homage compostions and servile letters.

The Bachs' life was not without personal tragedy during those years. Between 1723 and 1737 Anna Magdalena went through no less than twelve nine-month pregnancies (with the exception of the years 1729, 1734, and 1736). Eight of the twelve children died at ages varying from an hour to five years. Of the remaining four children, one was seriously mentally-handicapped (Gottfried Heinrich). The last child was born in 1742, when Anna Magdalena was 41 (and Sebastian 57).

Bach's professional life was not entirely satisfactory either. It was among Bach's official duties to teach Latin to the schoolboys and to train the choirs. Bach did not want to teach Latin and had to pay a replacement from his own pocket. Moreover, the school turned out to be in chaos, lacking in discipline and with the musical level at an all time low (due to the weak disciplinary regime of the nearly seventy year old rector Johann Heinrich Ernesti, shown on the right here).

Bach's official salary was only a fourth of his Köthen salary and he was much dependent on extra earnings from musical services at funerals and weddings. In "good" years, the Thomas choirs had to sing at one funeral a day, but in his letter to Georg Erdmann (1730), Bach was complaining that due to mild weather his income was often reduced.

Last but not least, Bach got involved in an increasing number of conflicts with the many authorities he had to deal with. The conflicts of this early period culminated in a conflict with the University. The cantor of the Thomas School had the right to also call himself director musices of the University. Already in Kuhnau's days the University had tried to make itself less dependent on the Thomas School. The University had established a regular Sunday service in its St Paul church (Paulinerkirche) (shown on the left below). This service was called the "new" service, next to the traditional "old" service (eight church high festivals only). After Kuhnau's death, the University had given both services in the hands of a man of their own, Johann Gottlieb Görner, organist of the St Nicholas church. This discontinuation of the tradtional connection with the Thomas School made Bach furious. It made it very difficult for him to recruit students for the musical services in the other Leipzig churches and it also cost him money. After a long battle, it was decided that Bach could legally consider himself Director of Music of the University of Leipzig, but that his traditional prerogative only extended to the "old" service, not to the "new" service. Bach lost his interest in these "old" services and left them to an assistant. Financially, Bach completely lost the battle because the University did not commision compositions anymore to the Thomas Cantor, who therefore lost one of his sources of income.

Gradually, Bach became completely dissatisfied with his position, both financially and in terms of musical facilities. During the last twenty years of his life he devoted himself more and more to other musical projects, beginning in March 1729 when Bach assumed the direction of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig.

Go to Leipzig, part 2

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