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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Bach's Wives and Children

It's interesting that when we study a subject as children, certain facts stick in our heads which never leave us. I can still recite the first few elements of the periodic table and remember the colours of the spectrum in order, even though the study of science has not featured in my life at all since I left school.

One of the musical facts I've always remembered is that Johann Sebastian Bach married twice and had 20 children. Only recently, while reading the biographical article on Bach in the New Grove, did I develop any curiosity about those wives and children, and the children in particular. Three of Bach's sons are remembered today as being famous composers (and a fourth should be), but who were the other children? And what sort of music was associated with this extraordinary family?

Johann Sebastian Bach

When I started to explore this subject I was confronted with a story of great sadness and great courage. I was shocked at the degree to which Bach and his family had to deal with death, something understandable in those days when medical knowledge was primitive by our standards. Without wishing to sensationalise the sadness of this story, I want to explore what little we know of Bach's family life. This exploration has given me a whole new level of admiration for Bach, his wives and his children - and especially his wives - and I hope it does for you too.

Bach's earliest surviving cantata has the catalogue number of BWV131. The text for this is largely drawn from Psalm 130 ("Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord...") and it was written in 1707 during the two years Bach was organist at St Blasius' Church in Mühlhausen. It's thought to have been written for a penitential service, perhaps associated with a recent fire which had devastated the town. What is interesting is that the 22 year old Bach was able to write music of such depth of feeling. [listen]

St Blasius Church ("Divi Blasii"), Mühlhausen

It was during his two years in Mühlhausen that Bach married. His bride was Maria Barbara Bach; Bach was her maiden name and she was Johann Sebastian's second cousin (the daughter of Johann Sebastian’s father’s cousin). Maria Barbara had been resident in Arnstadt (where Bach had been employed before moving to Mühlhausen) and they married four months after Bach took up his new position. The wedding took place in the village of Dornheim, near Arnstadt, on 17 October 1707, not long after he had composed cantata no. 131.

Very little is known about Maria Barbara. She was five months older than Bach and by April the following year she was expecting their first child. Bach submitted his resignation to the Mühlhausen authorities at this time as he had been successful in getting a new post in Weimar, and the couple moved there in July. Their first child, a daughter called Catharina Dorothea, was born in Weimar in December of 1708. At around the same time, Maria Barbara's unmarried elder sister, Friedelena Margaretha Bach, came to live with the family as a housekeeper and she remained with the family on a permanent basis.

The Bachs' daughter, Catharina, had a long life - she lived until the age of 65 - but like all of Bach's daughters we know almost nothing about her. Her father noted in a letter that, in later life, she played the harpsichord "not badly".

Nearly two years later, in November 1710, the Bachs had their second child, a son, Wilhelm Friedemann. Friedemann is one of the Bach sons remembered today as having been a composer in his own right but his life, while starting well under the tutelage of his proud father, ended rather sadly.

When Friedemann was 10, his father started a book called Clavier-Büchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, usually referred to in English today as the WF Bach Notebook. This is a collection of keyboard music which Bach composed and compiled from other sources as a means of assisting the boy in his development as a keyboard player.

These are not beginner's pieces; it's clear that by the age of ten Friedemann was either a very good player, or that his father expected him to become one. This music is one of the pieces included in the book. [listen]

The WF Bach Notebook includes many Bach pieces well-known from other sources, such as the two- and three-part inventions and some of the works which eventually ended up in the 48 Preludes and Fugues of The Well-Tempered Keyboard. It contains the only known example of Bach senior applying fingerings to a piece as well as a table of how to play ornaments correctly, invaluable material for the scholar today.

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach

The notebook, which was compiled over a number of years, also includes pieces that may very well be by the young Friedemann himself. Scholars suspect that four little preludes, formerly attributed to Bach senior, may in fact be his son's work. [listen]

As for Friedemann's later career, he rapidly developed a reputation as a first-rate organist. In 1733, aged 22, he became organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden and stayed there until 1746.

Shortly before his departure from Dresden he had his first composition appear in print, a keyboard sonata. This was supposed to be the first of a projected cycle of six, but poor sales of the first one meant the others never appeared. The work rapidly acquired an almost legendary status due to its technical demands, virtually unprecedented for the time. The second half of the last movement was particularly tricky. [listen]

When he left Dresden in 1746, Friedemann took up a major post in the city of Halle, as organist at the Liebfrauenkirche. He maintained close contact with his father until the older man's death in 1750, after which he came into possession of a large number of Bach's manuscripts. Friedemann's later life is marked by continual unhappiness. He had frequent conflicts with the church authorities in Halle and eventually left the post in the 1760s. His financial situation from then on was precarious and he sold many of his father's manuscripts to help make ends meet; some he even passed off as his own compositions. His later years saw him apply unsuccessfully for many posts and he was constantly in financial distress. He died in Berlin in 1784 at the age of 73.

Liebfrauenkirche, Halle

Friedemann's surviving works include about 23 cantatas. Among them is an Easter cantata, written in Halle. [listen]

Friedemann was about two and a half when his mother gave birth again, in February 1713. On the 21st or 22nd, Bach had presented one of his secular cantatas, the "Hunt" Cantata BWV 208, as part of the birthday celebrations for Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels. He was away from home for this performance, lodged in the Weissenfels castle as part of the entourage of his employer, the Duke of Weimar. He was therefore almost certainly not present for Maria Barbara's delivery of twins back in Weimar (about 90 km away) on the 23rd. They were called Johann Christoph and Maria Sophia.

Neither twin survived more than a few days, and there is no record of how Bach or Maria Barbara or their two older children reacted. The death of infants was of course much more common in those days than it is now, but I don't think we can assume that parents grieved any less then than parents of any other time or place. I like to think that maybe, as he returned to some sort of equilibrium after this, the first of many occasions on which he would lose children, Bach had this simple but eventually famous melody from the recent "Hunt" Cantata in his mind. But of course, we'll never know. [listen]

Thirteen months later, in March 1714, Maria Barbara gave birth again, to a son. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach had a long and illustrious career and is in fact one of the most important composers of the mid-18th century. His music is a vital link between that of his father and that of Joseph Haydn (born two decades later). Over a long and productive life, Emanuel Bach broke new ground in musical expression and made major contributions to almost every field of musical endeavour except opera.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

In his day, Emanuel was mainly famous for being a keyboard virtuoso. Starting from around 1740 he spent about 25 years in Berlin as one of the harpsichordists at the court of Frederick the Great. During this time he wrote an enormous amount of music for that instrument (which, like most harpsichord music of the mid-18th century, also works well on piano). This sonata dates from 1747. [listen]

Emanuel's reputation as a technician and teacher was further enhanced by the publication of his famous treatise on keyboard technique, the Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, which appeared in two instalments. Less well-known is the fact that he was also the first major composer to devote himself to the then rather new form of German art song, later to become famous in the hands of Schubert and others. Emanuel Bach's Lieder include many sacred as well as secular songs, written in a graceful, charming style. This song was published in Berlin in 1765. [listen]

Title page of CPE Bach's Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, Part Two (1762)

The second part of Emanuel Bach's career was spent in Hamburg, where he held the position of Director of Sacred Music for the city's five main churches. He took over in 1768 after the death of Georg Philipp Telemann (who was, incidentally, his godfather; it's where the "Philipp" in his name came from) and held the post until his death 20 years later. While he wrote sacred music early in his career, the vast majority of Emanuel's sacred music dates from the Hamburg period. The famous setting of the Magnificat, though, is much earlier, dating from 1749. [listen]

In Hamburg there was a demand for oratorio. Emanuel wrote more than 20 Passion settings as part of his duties in Hamburg - almost none of which survives complete - but the oratorios proper were designed for concerts, not liturgical use, along the lines of Handel's oratorios (some of which were known in Hamburg at this time). Emanuel's oratorio The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus was composed in Hamburg in 1774 and is a stunning piece which should be better known today. This is the chorus which closes the first part, beginning with the words, "Death where is thy sting?" [listen]

Emanuel Bach also wrote symphonies, concert symphonies in the sense that we would use the term. In fact his symphonies are some of the earliest examples of the form. This is an early D major symphony, dating from 1756. It's a fascinating hybrid work, with the musical shape being very modern but coloured with trumpets playing in the high, "clarino" of the Baroque. [listen]

Of a very different nature, though, are the six symphonies for strings which Emanuel wrote at the invitation of Gottfried van Swieten in 1773. Swieten told Emanuel to write with a view to pleasing no-one but himself. The works which resulted are among the most dazzling, technically difficult and one could say almost bizarre works of their kind. [listen]

There were two more children born to Bach and Maria Barbara. A little over a year after the birth of Emanuel, another son was born, Johann Gottfried Bernhard. Gottfried Bernhard was a disappointment to his father, who called him his "undutiful son". Between 1735 and 1738 he held two church positions as organist - in Mühlhausen (where he ran up large debts) and in Sangerhausen - after which he abandoned a musical career. In 1739 he matriculated as a law student from Jena University but died only a few months later from what was described as a high fever. He was only 24 and was the only one of Bach's children to predecease him as an adult. Whether or not Gottfried Bernhard composed is unknown; certainly no compositions by him have been identified.

In 1717 Bach and his family (comprising Maria Barbara and their four surviving children) moved to Cöthen where he had been appointed to the court of Prince Leopold. Bach and the Prince - who loved and understood music - had a warm friendship and deep respect for each other; in most respects the time in Cöthen was a happy one for Bach on a professional level.

Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen

One more child was born to the Bachs after they arrived in Cöthen, a son, Leopold Augustus. He was born in November 1718 and named after the Prince, who was the child's godfather. Unfortunately the little boy died the following year, aged only 10 months.

More sadness was to follow. In 1720, the year after the death of their seventh child, Bach - who often had to travel as part of his duties - was away from Cöthen as part of the Prince's entourage. While he was away, Maria Barbara died - of what cause is unknown - and her funeral took place on 7 July. Emanuel, who was six at the time, recorded later in his father's obituary that Bach returned some time later completely unaware that his wife was dead. We can only imagine the effect this blow had on the composer. After twelve and a half years of marriage, Maria Barbara Bach had died at the age of only 35, leaving Johann Sebastian, also 35, a widower. The site of Maria Barbara's grave is not known.

The Bach house in Cöthen

The couple had had seven children, of whom four were still alive at the time of their mother's death: Catharina Dorothea, Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Gottfried Bernhard. The eldest was eleven, the youngest only five. Maria Barbara's sister, Friedelena, continued living with the family as a housekeeper and undoubtedly her presence would have been vital to helping the family deal with this loss.

It was expected that Bach would re-marry, such were the customs of the time. This he did eighteen months after Maria Barbara's death, taking as his second wife Anna Magdalena Wilcke. How they met or how long they had known each other before the marriage is completely unknown. Anna Magdalena was the daughter of a professional trumpeter so she and Bach may have met via his musical contacts. Church records indicate that they were both godparents at a baptism in Cöthen in September 1721, and they married in December of that year. At the time of their marriage Bach was 36, his new wife just 20.

We know so little about Anna Magdalena, but what we do know is that she was a strong woman with good musical training. She was a professional singer in her own right and a good keyboard player. In 1722, less than two years after they were married, Bach presented his wife with a Clavierbüchlein, a little keyboard book. He had begun such a volume for his eldest son two years before and now he gave to Anna Magdalena a volume which contained music to assist her development as a keyboard player.

The so-called "Anna Magdalena Notebook" is in fact two such books. The 1722 volume survives today in 25 sheets, and it is believed that this is only about a third of the original book. What became of the other pages is not known. The majority of the first Anna Magdalena Notebook is taken up with the pieces we now know as Bach's "French" suites, as well as a handful of smaller pieces, some of which are incomplete. The G major suite, BWV816, contains one of Bach's best-known tunes. [listen]

Gavotte from the French Suite BWV816 as it appears in the Anna Magdalena Notebook of 1722

The following year, 1723, was an eventful one for Anna Magdalena. In that year she had her first child, and at around the same time (May) the family moved to Leipzig. It was in Leipzig Bach had the post for which he is most remembered today, that of Thomaskantor, one of the most important musical posts in Germany at the time. He was to hold the post until his death 27 years later.

St Thomas' Church and School, Leipzig, around the time of Bach's appointment in 1723

Anna Magdalena's first child was a daughter, Christiana Sophia Henrietta, but she died at the age of three. Less than a year after the first birth came the second, in February 1724. This time it was a son, Gottfried Heinrich. Gottfried Heinrich was intellectually disabled but he lived into adulthood and according to Emanuel Bach showed "a great genius which failed to develop". Still, he seems to have been much loved and cared for by the family, and he is said to have been a good keyboard player. In 1750, after his father's death, Gottfried Heinrich went to Naumburg to live in the care of his brother-in-law. He died in 1763 at the age of 38.

It's more than likely that Gottfried Heinrich played the pieces in his mother's Notebook. She copied the minuets from the second and third "French" suites separately into the book and I can imagine her supervising her special son's practice of these pieces. [listen]

A little over a year after Gottfried Heinrich was born, Anna Magdalena gave birth to another son, Christian Gottfried. Sadly, the little boy died only three years later. Anna Magdalena's fourth child, born almost exactly a year after Christian Gottfried, was a daughter, Elisabeth Juliane Friederica. Almost nothing is known of her life but she lived until 1781 and was 55 when she died.

It was in 1725 that Bach prepared a much more elaborate musical notebook for his wife, the second "Anna Magdalena Notebook". This is the better-known volume but apart from the keyboard partitas which Bach copied in at the start of the book, the majority of the contents were copied in by Anna Magdalena herself. Much of this is by composers other than Bach, and some of the pieces are the earliest-known compositions of Carl Philipp Emanuel.

Some of the pieces long believed to have been by Bach himself have more recently been shown to have been by others. Perhaps the most famous of them all is now known to have been composed by the Dresden court organist, Christian Petzold. [listen]

The 1725 Notebook contains a large number of short pieces, some songs, and some cantata arias. Rather than being an indication of Bach's teaching methods, the fact that it was mostly compiled by Anna Magdalena herself makes it feel more like a domestic musical scrapbook, keeping tabs on much-loved pieces and preserving the first creative efforts of the older children. That the Bach household would have been full of music is probably one the greatest understatements of all time.

Among the pieces Anna Magdalena copied into her second Notebook was the Aria theme from one of JS Bach's most famous works, the "Goldberg" Variations. [listen]

The Aria from the Goldberg Variations as it appears in the 1725 Anna Magdelena Notebook

Anna Magdalena's almost constant state of pregnancy did not preclude her from being a vital player in the Bach household. In her domestic duties she was still assisted by Friedelena (the sister of Bach's first wife) who remained as housekeeper until her death in 1729. There are also indications that there was a maid attached to the house by as early as 1721. After Friedelena's death she was replaced as the main housekeeper by Bach's own eldest daughter from his first marriage, Catharina, then 21.

But Anna Magdalena's musical skills made her an invaluable professional assistant to her husband. Many of the surviving instrumental and vocal parts for the cantatas are in her hand and she was clearly part of the Bach "factory" which produced the performing materials for her husband's cantatas and other works each week. As the other children grew musically literate they too chipped in. In the era where every copy, vocal and instrumental, was hand-written, the sheer amount of work is staggering to consider.

There were even times when, between her pregnancies, Anna Magdalena managed to travel with Bach and perform with him, but these were infrequent. She continued to have children almost annually, with the next being a son, Ernestus Andreas. He was born in October 1727 but died after only two or three days of life. Less than a year later she gave birth to another daughter, Regina Johanna, but the little girl died at the age of 4 in 1733.

Christiana Benedicta was born in January 1730 but only lived for 4 or 5 days, and Christiana Dorothea was born in March 1731, but she died the following year at the age of 17 months.

In 1732, two months before Christiana Dorothea died, Anna Magdalena gave birth to her ninth child in nine and a half years; she was not quite 31 years old. This fact alone is testament to her personal strength.

This ninth child was Johann Christoph Friedrich. Christoph Friedrich is one of the four Bach sons who became respected composers, but he is often forgotten today. His life was relatively uneventful, spent mostly in the town of Bückeburg. It is for this reason that he is often nicknamed the "Bückeburg Bach".

Christoph Friedrich was born in the same year as Joseph Haydn and lived almost as long as the more famous composer. He died in 1795 at the age of 62 and left some remarkable music which is almost totally unknown today. He wrote symphonies, sacred and secular vocal music, chamber music, keyboard works and songs. This is a symphony he composed in the 1760s, right in the middle of "Sturm und Drang" period which saw Haydn compose some of his darkest and most daring orchestral works. [listen]

Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach

Unlike his father, Christoph Friedrich's life was not centred on composing for the church. He was a court musician and wrote a number of sacred works, but of possibly greater interest are his secular vocal works. His encounter with Italian music in Bückeburg opened up to him new expressive ideas which he had not encountered growing up in Leipzig. The dramatic cantata Cassandra (composed some time before 1770) is a major work for alto voice and string orchestra, lasting about an hour. Its eleven movements require a dramatic singer of the first rank. [listen]

Seventeen months after the birth of Christoph Friedrich, Anna Magdalena's tenth child was born. Sadly, Johann August Abraham Bach died after only one or two days of life. Nearly two years later, another son was born, one who happily survived to become yet another fine composer.

Johann Christian Bach was born in September 1735. Of all the Bach children, his life took him the furthest from his roots. Initially he went to Italy where he renounced his Lutheran faith and became a Catholic. Eventually he settled in London and it was there that he became one of the most influential musicians in the city's thriving musical life in the decades following the death of Handel. In a relatively short life (he was only 46 when he died in 1782) he composed across a wide range of forms, including Italian operas, concertos, symphonies, chamber works and church music.

JC Bach's music for the Catholic church shows his affinity with the Italian operatic style. This is his setting of the psalm Laudate pueri, composed in 1760 while he was still in Italy. [listen]

Johann Christian Bach

When he was in London, JC Bach wrote Italian operas but did not always have a lot of success in this field. His concertos and symphonies were extremely popular and he made the most of the flourishing publishing trade in London (and elsewhere) in order to disseminate his works as much as possible. His first major publication in London was released in 1763, a set of harpsichord concertos which were dedicated to Queen Charlotte, consort of George III. They are real chamber concertos, with the "orchestra" consisting of only two violins and a cello. [listen]

The year after these concertos were published, JC Bach met Leopold Mozart who was staying in London with his two talented children, Wolfgang and Nannerl. The boy Mozart was only eight but he and JC Bach hit it off as professional colleagues. Wolfgang wrote his first symphonies while in London, under the direct influence of JC Bach's fresh, new style; the two remained in touch and met again many years later. Mozart always maintained the highest respect for his older colleague. When JC Bach died on New Year's day, 1782, Mozart wrote to his father saying that his death was "a loss to the musical world". Given the elegance and polish evident in works like JC Bach's late C major sextet, one can easily understand Mozart's admiration. [listen]

Johann Christian Bach was Anna Magdalena Bach's eleventh child. A little over two years after he was born she gave birth to a daughter, Johanna Carolina. She lived until 1781 and was 43 when she died. It was four and a half years later, in February 1742 when she was forty, that Anna Magdalena gave birth to her thirteenth and final child. Regina Susanna had a long life; she died in 1809 at the age of 67. But again, of the lives of the Bach daughters we know virtually nothing.

Eight years after the birth of his twentieth child (seven by Maria Barbara, thirteen by Anna Magdalena), Johann Sebastian Bach died at the age of 65. At the time of his death eleven of those twenty children had predeceased him, one as an adult (Johann Gottfried Bernhard) and ten as infants or toddlers. Of the nine who survived him, four became well-known composers: Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel from Maria Barbara's children, and Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian from those of Anna Magdalena.

Bach senior's estate was divided among Anna Magdalena and his nine surviving children. While there is no evidence that Anna Magdalena was anything other than a loving step mother to Maria Barbara's children, there does seem to have been some friction among them following Bach's death. The end of Anna Magdalena's life was sad in the extreme.

She lived for a further ten years after her husband's death, dying in Leipzig in February 1760 at the age of 58. She was dependent on charity in her final years. It seems that her children did not assist her financially; if they had it is unlikely she would have died in abject poverty. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Leipzig Johanneskirche, where so many of her children were also buried. The final indignity came during the second world war when the church and the graveyard were destroyed by bombing. Anna Magdalena's final resting place no longer exists.

Music is made by people. The composer and the performers we know and see, but those who support the composers and performers are often hidden from view. Maria Barbara Bach and Anna Magdalena Bach supported and stood by one of the most supreme geniuses to have set foot on this planet, bearing his children and assisting in his work. This post is a tribute to these two remarkable women - and the countless women of their era like them - who are all too easily forgotten today.

There's only one piece we can finish with, the beautiful song which was long attributed to Bach but which is actually by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, copied by Anna Magdalena into her second Notebook. It's a song of love and devotion: "If you are near me, I can go happily to my death and my rest. Nor shall I fear what may befall me, because I will hear your sweet voice calling, and your gentle hands will close my eyes". [listen]

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February and March, 2010.

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Mar 20

Thank you for showing us the rest of the story. I sincerely appreciate your second to the last paragraph most of all.

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