Mühlhausen 1707-1708

Johann Georg Ahle, organist of the Blasiuskirche in Mühlhausen, died on 2 December 1706. The city wanted to revitalize its declining music life. On Easter Sunday 1707 (24 April), Johann Sebastian Bach gave a test performance, as organist, and possibly also with the cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV4. He obtained the prestigious position as organist in June of the same year. Things went more smoothly here for Bach than in Arnstadt. Moreover, a small inheritance from his uncle, Tobias Lämmerhirt, made it possible for him to get married to his beloved second cousin Maria Barbara Bach (the Thuringia of those days was not free of in-breeding). On 17 October 1707, Sebastian and Barbara had their ceremony in the church of Dornheim.

In Mühlhausen, Bach developed an interest in composing vocal church music. This new interest might have originated under the impact of Buxtehude's Abendmusiken. It is also a fact that the Blasiuskirche had a much richer vocal tradition and offered a more favorable setting for vocal music than the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt (the church also had a great music library, where Bach studied and copied a lot of traditional church music). Maria Barbara is almost never mentioned in this context, but it is not excluded that she too played a role in her husband's shift of interest (she was the daughter of a prolific composer of vocal works, after all).

Anyway, even Bach's very first cantatas are superb masterpieces. One of the Mühlhausen cantatas, the Ratswechsel ("city council change") cantata, Gott ist mein König, BWV 71 was even printed. In fact, it would remain the only cantata to appear in print during Bach's life time. None of Telemann's or Händel's works had appeared in print yet, so, the performance on 4 February 1708 must have been a real triumph for the 22 year old composer.

Before too long, however, Bach was dissatisfied with the possibilities for a "well-regulated church music" in Mühlhausen. The tradtional interpretation blames this frustration on the theological disputes between pietists, led by Bach's immediate boss pastor J.A. Frohne (fat pietist on the right), and the orthodox Lutherans, led by pastor Eilmar (picture on your left) of the Marienkirche. Although the pietists, including Bach's immediate boss Frohne, were in general less favorably inclined towards rich church music, modern Bach scholarship tends to minimize the effect of the dispute on Johann Sebastian. A more crucial event might have been the great fire that destroyed one fourth of Mühlhausen on 30 May 1707. This catastrophe no doubt had a deep economical impact on Mühlhausen, which made its climate less favorable for church music. It must also not be overlooked that Bach was very ambitious, eager to improve both his financial position and his social status. With his fast growing reputation as an organ virtuoso and composer, he had just outgrown his Mühlhausen position in one year. In spite of this, Bach managed to maintain good relationships with Mühlhausen. He continued supervising the rebuilding of the Blasius church organ, which was started on his recommendations. He also had a personal relationship with pastor Eilmar, who later on became the godfather of Bach's first child Catharina Dorothea.


Major organ works of the Mühlhausen period are the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 and the Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532.. Another masterpiece ascribed to this period is the organ Passacaglia in C Minor, BWV 582. Apart from Gott ist mein König, BWV BWV 71, Bach presumably composed the following cantatas in Mühlhausen (although Arnstadt roots are not excluded): Aus der Tiefen, BWV 131, sometimes said to be Bach's first cantata (1707?), also mentioned in connection with the fire catastrophe of 1707; and, last but not least, the masterly Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, ('Actus Tragicus'), BWV 106. Some other cantatas of these period are lost. The cantatas of this period often have a 17th century motet style, using bible texts and choirs, with ariosos at best. Nevertheless, the form is more varied than the more stereotypical Italian recitativo plus aria style that Bach developed during his next Weimar period.

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