Leipzig 1723-1750

Part 2 (1729-1740)

Around 1730, Bach's gigantic cantata production ran out of steam for a number of reasons. The material circumstances for church music were less than ideal and the various conflicts had made Bach weary of his function. In a famous memorandum to the Leipzig city council of 1730, Bach explained his grievances. This document is the most important source of information about Bachs's performance practice and ideas about the desired size of choirs and instrumental groups. Of the same year, a letter has survived that Bach had written to his childhood friend Georg Erdmann, who lived in Dantzig as diplomat in Russian service. In this letter, Bach bitterly complains about his disappointing Leipzig circumstances, and expresses serious interest in a function in Dantzig. Nothing of this kind worked out, however.

Luckily, Bach had also found a new challenge since 1729, when he took over the direction of the Collegium Musicum (Music Society), an orchestra of students and some professional musicians founded by Telemann in 1702. With a short interruption berween 1737 and 1739, Bach assumed the leadership of this society till the early 1740s. The concerts were held once a week (on Friday evenings) in Zimmermann's Coffee House (twice a week during the Easter and St Michael's Fairs) at Katharinenstrasse 14 (picture on the left). With good weather, during the summer, the concerts were also held at Zimmermann's garden near the Grimma Gate (close to the University, near the wall at the opposite side of the city from the Thomas church). In 1734/35 Bach wrote his famous Coffee Cantata, BWV 211, as a kind of commercial for Zimmermann.

Bach's rival Görner also had a Collegium Musicum and later on the two music societies were merged into a new one that became the basis of the later Gewandhaus orchestra tradition. This can be seen as the beginning of bourgeois concert life.

The Collegium Musicum had regular guest performances and, presumably, Bach performed his own harpsichord concertos with his sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. It is believed nowadays that Bach's output of chamber music must have been enormous during these years and that most of these works got lost by the unfortunate way in which Bach's legacy was handled after his death. Another recent view is that many of Bach's concertos (including the famous violin concertos in A Minor (BWV 1041) and D Minor (BWV 1043) and also the Ouverture in B Minor, BWV 1067) stem from this period (and not from the Köthen years, as was believed in the past).

Till 1735 Bach still composed a small number of church cantatas and oratorios, including the St Mark Passion (1731), the Christmas Oratorio (1734/35), the Easter Oratorio (1734) and the Ascension Oratorio (1735), but after 1735 his religious canatata production came to an almost complete halt (most of the works just mentioned were parodies of secular cantatas). The production of secular cantatas, however, went on till at least 1742 (the year of the Peasant Cantata, BWV 212, Bach's last datable cantata). Most of these secular cantatas were congratulatory or homage cantatas for important persons or works for special festive occasions, created by Bach on demand and usually on a commercial basis. Bach really had become a kind of early-bourgeois capitalist entrepreneur, who also was a dealer of books and music and he even occupied himself with the rental of musical instruments. In the 1740s, he also sold Silbermann fortepianos.

In spite of Bach's complaints around 1730, the situation at the Thomas school improved during the early 1730s, thanks to the the new rector Johann Matthias Gesner (1691-1761), who had known Bach since Weimar and who was among his admirers. The school got two extra stories and was renovated into the form familiar from many pictures. During the construction work (May 1731-June 1732), the Bachs lived in the house of Dr. Christoph Donndorf, owner of a brewery and friend of Bach's, in the Hainstrasse (house does not exist anymore). The renovated building is shown on the right. The cantor lived in the left (southern) part of the school, the rector in the right (northern) part, and the school boys in the middle. The buidling was on the western city wall. In Bach's time it was next to a gate, with a little bridge, leading to the fields west of the city. The building was demolished in 1902.

In 1734, Gesner became professor at the new University of Göttingen and was succeeded by the young and ambitious adjunct rector Johann August Ernesti (1707-1781) (picture on the left, below). For some years, Bach had had good relations with him, because Ernesti was godfather to two of Bach's children (August Abraham in 1733 and Johann Christian in 1735). But in the second half of the 1730s, things went completely out of hand between the two men. Ernesti, perhaps inspired by certain Enlightenment ideals, wished to diminish the role of music in the Thomas school and came into conflict with Bach (rector and cantor lived in the same noisy building, which was full of music all the time; maybe, we shouldn't blame Ernesti too much on his growing dislike of music). The conflict culminated in a, often public, fight about the right to appoint prefects (leaders of the choirs). Traditionally, this had been the privilege of the cantor, and when Ernesti tried to take over the cantor's role in this respect, Bach was furious (the enlightened Ernesti, one of the smartest faces in our portrait gallery in my opinion, wanted to dismiss a prefect that had beaten a student; this was against Bach's will). The very unpleasant struggle lasted from 1736 till 1738, when everybody became silent all of a sudden, presumably by order of the Saxonian court in Dresden (Leipzig's somewhat dormant but nevertheless highest authority).

The crucial point is that Bach had been appointed court Capellmeister and composer in Dresden in 1736 (without special duties), to the service of the Elector of Saxony Frederick Augustus II (king Augustus III of Poland). Bach had applied for this function in 1733, with a very humble letter and under submission of two parts (the Kyrie and Gloria) of the (later) Mass in B Minor. This application had been prepared for years by the writing of flattering congratulatory cantatas for members of the royal family. In 1736, Bach finally succeeded, presumably with some help from the influential Count Keyserlingk, who greatly admired Bach and who was later rewarded with a dedication of the Goldberg variations.

At the local (Leipzig) level, Bach would presumably have lost the fight about the prefects in the long run, but the Dresden interference now seemed to suffice to bring the overt conflict to an end. With a sufficient supply of church cantatas from the 1720s and with the apparent protection of the Dresden court, Bach put only minimal energy into his cantor function and withdrew more and more into a kind of "self-styled retirement" (Chr. Wolff) to devote himself to projects of his own choice, particularly his instrumental monothematic cyclic works of his later years.

In the meantime, Bach's oldest sons had left the house. Wilhelm Friedemann had become organist at the Sophienkirche in 1733 and Carl Philipp Emanuel had become student in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1734 (in 1738 he became musician at the court of crown prince Frederick II of Prussia and followed him to Potsdam in 1740 when he became king Frederick the Great). Bach's son Johann Gottfried Bernhard became organist in Mühlhausen in 1735, left the city one year later with debts, became organist in Sangerhausen, but had to flee his debtors again. He showed up as student in Jena, where he suddenly died in 1739 at the age of 24. Bach's efforts and concerns about this son form one of the most tragic episodes of his life during these years.

Altogether, Bach had more or less successfully emancipated himself from an almost medieval Thuringian background to a mildly entrepreneurish bourgeois with sons at the university (the daughters never received a similar education from their male-chauvinist father).

Perhaps inspired by the fact that the new Bach generation produced gifted professional musicians again, Bach began a family genealogy under the name "Ursprung des musicalisch-Bachischen Familie", which traced the family tradition back to 16th century Veit Bach. In general, we see a Bach during these years with a very evident self-consciousness and a growing concern about his position in history. This also appears from his constant revisions of earlier work and from his efforts to get his work published. Bach had been publishing his keyboard partitas since 1726, and in 1731 the whole collection of six was published as Clavier-Übung, Part I, BWV 825-830. Clavier-Übung, Part II followed in 1735 (Italian Concerto, BWV 971 and French Ouverture in B Minor, BWV 831). Clavier-Übung, Part III was published in 1739. It contains the organ works BWV 552, 669-689, 802-805.

Bach also became the center of a circle of a growing number of students, some of them with a distinct historical and theoretical interest (Mizler, Kirnberger, Agricola). This led to a kind of historical reflection, which had a deep influence on Bach's last creative period, which started around 1735 and to which we will turn next. Bach was, incidentally, attacked in 1737 by his former student Johann Adolph Scheibe and accused of an old-fashioned, unnatural and overly learned style of composition. Against this attack, Bach was eloquently defended by his spokesman, Johann Abraham Birnbaum, of the University of Leipzig. In spite of this, Bach clearly underwent a certain influence of the new galant style in his later works.

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