The Practical and Personality Conflicts of J. S. Bach in Leipzig 1730
Author: Peter Metcalf (April-June 2008)
Most Serene Highness, Most Mighty King and Elector, Most Gracious
begins a letter by Johann Sebastian Bach to August the Strong, King
of Saxony, asking him to intervene on his behalf in a quarrel he had
with the town council concerning his job description and compensation
as Cantor and Music Director at St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig.i
An assumption of consensus regarding the hiring of Bach would be
correct, but it was a matter of the third best solution for two
factions of the council representing conflicting interest groups.ii
Council members had enormous stakes in decisions, both emotional
(“ideological”) and practical, being major participants
in those conflicting interest groups. For this and other reasons to
be discussed, Bach was at the outset in a disadvantaged position with
respect to job fulfillment. An exploration and possible
understanding of Bach’s response to this situation as it
evolved into conflicts, internal and external is the topic for this
that all individuals make choices, best perceived through their
actions, based on, and more importantly, derived from the deepest,
often hidden personal imperatives, I will nonetheless discuss some of
the circumstances of Bach’s life and times so as to provide
additional perspective from which Bach’s actions, as evidenced
by documents and his letters, and his choice of musical form, venue,
or even expression, may be understood.
was during Bach’s lifetime (as now) a city of great wealth when
compared with other Saxon urban centers. Since the 12th
century it was the site of trade fairs owing to its being situated at
the crossroads of important trade routes.iii
And, it was a city whose population was in transition – from
accepting and living in a social order based on the feudal or estate
system of socioeconomics, to one where an electoral government was
being trusted more and more, i.e., given by citizens more and more
authority to make decisions affecting their lives in areas that
formerly provided fertile ground for evolution of the feudal system.
one faction of the Leipzig town council held power in and valued the
traditional system of estates that evolved from the feudal system.
Although in 1713 the Prussian King Frederick William I eliminated the
legal status of the aristocracy,iv
old traditions and institutions die hard. Nobility were still raised
to assume roles in governing and manipulating virtually all aspects
of citizens’ lives, often now via positions created by the
reforms imposed by Frederick the Great after the 30 Years’ War,
and through the influence they still manifested (overtly, of course)
by occupying other positions in significant economic and social
institutions. Individuals on the council thus influenced society by
simultaneously holding executive positions in the judicial system;
churches and governance of associated schools (such as the
Thomasschule where Bach taught music upon his being hired as Cantor
and which was associated with St. Thomas’ Church); and
taxation, and by equally effective less formal means outside of
Needless to say, this was an archconservative group. The other
faction was derived from the middle class, through appointment by the
king. (Merchants were extremely useful to the court, as they played
such a prominent role in its wealth and viability – funding
Frederick the Great’s army – and were particularly
successful in Leipzig, a city of tremendous commercial successes.vi
Eligibility for council membership was inherited.
faction had a stake in the appointment of Cantor because of its very
public symbolic and practical significance: Church was central not
only to much of the population’s religious life, but also
played a major role in the social and business dynamics of Leipzig.
Furthermore, the cantor was responsible for the teaching of youth,
which in this as in most other societies in transition, represented
an array of educational choices to be proscribed and prescribed. The
position was also significant because the cantor was responsible for
composing and selecting the church music in this city of religious
folk holding and acting upon two extremely strong and opposed values:
traditional church music, represented to an extent by Bach, and music
that was more operatic and accommodated modern tastes, represented by
Telemann. The split in the council also was demonstrated in the
priority given to teaching vs. music making. One might judge by
reviewing minutes of meetings, public statements, and other
documentation, that teaching was not simply the highest, but the only
priority for the conservative faction. Opposing this intention,
creation of a municipal music director or “Kapellmeister”
(courtly musician in this city without a royal court) unencumbered
from teaching obligations was the strong – we could say,
energetic – aspiration of the liberal faction.vii
Prior to Bach’s appointment, the council had resolved their
differences by hiring musicians who were able and willing to fulfill
both tasks. Neither Bach nor Telemann (nor two other of the last
round of candidates for the position of Cantor) would teach other
than music if hired. Telemann and others were the preferred
candidates, for the same reason that symphony orchestras today desire
a well known conductor – to enhance orchestra prestige and
accomplishment of other musical goals, not all of which depend on
musicianship or musical skill.
seen in terms of factional preferences, the details of how Bach was
eventually chosen reveal that the musical basis of his employment was
simply a criterion of lower priority. Bach can then be understood as
a cog in the political machinery of two factions, neither of which
was particularly pleased with his appointment. Hiring Bach was the
best solution achieved by a council that could not have what it
wanted either in terms of reputation and attending “modern”
musicianship, or in terms of ability and willingness to teach
subjects other than music.
to protocol, the selection process allowed each faction opportunity
to present its own candidate. The oft quoted statement of councilman
Platz in reference to Bach, “since the best man cannot be
obtained, mediocre ones will have to be accepted,”viii
was made so as to suggest that no worthwhile candidates were being
considered, therefore the search must be continued. This would have
allowed the conservative faction to yet gain a candidate who would be
an academic instructor. The results of the council meetings were not
only open to discussion outside the meeting room, they were published
in the newspaperix.
Thus, there was a significant public that would not accept a new
Cantor if it was known that a superior one had applied. Deriving
authority by the acceptance or trust of a public deeply interested in
the music of their lives,
councilmen were held accountable. Already, we see that the
conservative faction was being influenced (or facing loss of prestige
if they were not so influenced) by the public, and most
interestingly, this concerned a musical issue. But this was politics,
and in this case, the stake for the conservative faction was
preservation of a way of life in apparent transition to another. The
remark obviously was as well an indication of the dissatisfaction
which conservatives had with their inability to win this round of
the groundwork for dissatisfaction on the part of Bach and both
factions was laid even earlier than the death of Kuhnau, the previous
This groundwork was an integral part of the change of social
consciousness that surfaced most conspicuously a century earlier with
Martin Luther’s affirmation of the worth of the common man when
he led the Reformation of the Catholic Church. It is ironic that with
respect to the consciousness of those embracing and promoting the
emerging separation of church and state, Bach was still a common man.
He had not the reputation of Telemann and was not well traveled as
was his contemporary Handel. Until his employment by the Leipzig town
council, his work history was confined to churches and out of the way
or minor secular positions. And in his job search he felt the
disadvantage of his lack of the same education possessed by those who
employed him, and desired such an education for his children.xi
would be reasonable to assume that Bach did not appreciate the
significance of the politics he faced, or more precisely, the
politics in which he participated wittingly or unwittingly while
securing the position of Cantor at St. Thomas’ in Leipzig.
with one notable exception,xii
was he always appreciated for who he was. As we shall see, this was a
central factor in Bach’s life with regard to his choice of
musical activities and efforts, culminating during his last two
decades in Leipzig in both the radical and phenomenal music he
composed and in his conflicts with his employer and others.
course, everyone likes to be appreciated. For one such as Bach, an
extraordinarily creative, spiritually passionate (albeit not always
as a Lutheran of the sect most apt to endear him and his music to an
employer), musical genius whose music was bound to cross into
this response or none at all for his compositions and
improvising started at least as early as age 21.xiii
At that time he was employed as organist at New Church in Arnstadt.
Even when he appeared to be very appreciated, as acts convey more
than words or titles, he discovered and bore the consequences of
political or despotic values in his employers, as occurred at his
next job as court organist
in Weimar, when he was not named successor Kapellmeister at the court
of Wilhelm Ernst, Duke of Saxony. Since he was promoted to the
position of concertmaster (Bach was also a violinist) six years after
being hired and had been taking over the duties of the current and
aging Kapellmeister, he was presumably expecting the job when old
coming upon or discovery of – as the case may be –
indifference and worse, regarding not only his music, but his effort,
his worth, was an occurrence that he experienced over and
over in his professional life. The only employer of Bach about whom
we are certain did appreciate him is Prince Leopold, whom Bach left
because the prince married a woman who did not care for music, and
Bach’s talents and skills were not manifesting through
experience of other employers’ lack of receptivity to his music
is evident not only in church documents, but also in his own writing
of the letter to Erdmann, wherein he writes wistfully of his
employment at Cöthen: “There I had a gracious Prince, who
both knew and loved music, and in whose service I intended to spend
the rest of my life.”xiv
This is a profound statement. He writes “I had a gracious
Prince” rather than “I was employed by…”
This is a mark of close friendship, of fulfillment, of longing for
that combination of livelihood and music that he once knew.
his reluctant, at times pugnacious unwillingness to let go of an
insult or abuse without satisfactory resolution or some kind of
personal satisfaction (as, for example, in his dealings with the
church referred to in the opening letter to King, resolution of which
he never received, so far as can be ascertained through documents),
and of course having the sensitivity to emotional hurt that
frequently accompanies brilliance – certainly in a musician –
the response to his music, which was after all, himself, and to his
sense of self worth vis-à-vis his contributions, was bound to
be a major factor, perhaps the only one, motivating Bach to once
again in 1730, seek a job with an employer who appreciated, or better
still, truly appreciated him.
Bach was ever again a man outside the establishments of his day and
cultural milieu, both secular and religious. Some people survive or
create for themselves a comfortable or even fulfilling life by
currying favor or simply performing the requirements of a job,
ignoring aspects of it that, sooner or later, would for Bach be
motivation to move on. But Bach from an early, early age, manifested
not only musical talent, but the actions that would bring it to
It was not a question of changing his path or devoting energy to the
public issues of his day, which might have gained him favor with one
or the other social movements. The question for Bach was, given his
musical path and priorities as a householder, how to bring himself to
an outsider with respect to institutions and conservative
establishments could only have exacerbated the sensitivity or
impatience Bach exhibited on occasion when confronted with others’
musical disapproval or lack of appreciation for his natural
outpouring, an outpouring so far beyond what any reasonable person –
rather, far, far beyond what any musician, let alone lay
person of the time, could have imagined or executed. In this,
Bach shares much with other musical geniuses. But given his
“outsider” social status, when he is confronted with
someone who not only insults him, but does it publicly, as did the
St. Thomas Rector J. A. Ernesti in so many ways – forbidding
students to act according to Bach’s requests in the context of
rehearsing, for example – it hit an already raw nerve.
personal friend and favorite benefactor/employer, Prince Leopold of
Anhalt-Cöthen, died in November 1728. Bach was requested by the
prince’s court to “attend to the funeral music”. He
composed the music, BWV 224a, Klagt, Kinder, klagt es aller Welt,
for double chorus (as usual, utilizing for some movements
portions of his other music, in this instance, the St. Matthew
Passion and a funeral ode written two years earlier) which was
performed for the interment of his friend March 23, 1729, and for the
sermon the next day. This is just two days after Bach’s
birthday. The music was reported to have been extremely moving.xvi
emotional impact of all this on Bach, 43 at the time, who traveled
with his wife and son to Cöthen, a carriage journey of perhaps
two days that must have taken him back ten years, was certainly
significant. Loss through death has effects on account of and beyond
grief, common to individuals having a special affection for someone
who is bound to die, some day. Among these is heightened awareness of
one’s own mortality, understandably often accompanied by a host
of emotional experiences and memories that generate insights,
observations, conclusions, and/or confusions, and perhaps ultimately,
specific consequences of realizing the fact of death (anew, as Bach
had lost many children) is dependant on the personality, which will
to varying degrees be responsive to external circumstances. In some,
it will create what appears to be aggressive and impatient behavior
out of proportion to a “normal” or average response to a
disturbance. In others, it could be depression. Regardless of
circumstance, I have yet to hear or read of Bach demonstrating
symptoms likened to those of depression. Anger, yes. Impatience,
Prince Leopold died, Bach may have been approaching the limit to his
tolerance and patience, as well as their counterpart: frustration. He
may have as well experienced a sense of loss of power created by his
knowledge that despite having done everything humanly possible, he
still failed to provide for himself a new source for those
ingredients of life that so fulfilled him musically, and which he
lost when the prince married a woman who cared not for music and to
whom Bach later referred as Amusa, Latin for “being
without a muse.” xvii
months after the funeral and accompanying vivid recollections of the
life Bach once enjoyed in Prince Leopold’s court, Bach was
dealing with inadequate resources for his chorus, for which he was
expected to compose church music for each Sunday, and in addition,
coping with the church, who found fault in him. Bach’s response
as usual was to attempt, and fail, at recreating as best he could the
idyllic circumstances of his employment with Prince Leopold,
including factors both of compensation and musical resources. He
wrote letters not once, but multiple times, to the king concerning
and wrote multiple letters to the church concerning lack of resources
and funding for music. xix
(For examples of each issue, see endnotexx).
are just a few of the many other strains on Bach between 1726 and
Jan. – Bach received a denial letter from the king
concerning his request for royal intercession in order to claim the
traditional privilege accorded to the Cantor, (abrogated by Gormer,
another organist, prior to Bach’s employment at St. Thomas’),
of being the one and only organist for gigs at the church. This was
four months after Bach made his request, and was his final attempt to
resolve the situation after a year of effort.xxi
May – Bach felt compelled to ask town authorities not to
hold him responsible for the acts
behavior of his 23 year old son Johann Gottfried Bernhard, who had
fled to Sangerhaussen, 70 miles away, in order to escape paying his
debts (or face consequences). xxii
May – The death of Johann Gottfried, who had returned home,
was, if not outwardly, then inwardly an emotional roller coaster for
Bach, who must have been very happy with his son’s choosing to
face the challenges at home, and had even enrolled in the university.
A terrible blow.
or not Bach was aware of these emotions and impulses, it is unlikely
that he would be less than human in his response, nor beyond ordinary
human responses. He was affected, and it did color his experience of
life; the question is how. If one assumes that this experience was
one of many having a cumulative effect on Bach’s personality
and consciousness, as would be typical for a person under tremendous
strain, then it is plain that he would eventually express his
distress in ways that did not serve his presumed objectives.
might this expression be towards church employers who complained
about the lack of music while refraining from giving Bach the
resources he needed for effective music making and for composing
works that were for him, inspiring? How did Bach respond to his
church employer who found fault with his reluctance to teach
academics – an activity for which he was ill suited and which
necessarily sacrificed time in his extremely busy life,
time for family, teaching, time that could be used fulfilling his
truest and most worthwhile gift to humanity? Can there be a more
frustrating employment/social interaction for one such as he?
Bach the resources, an appreciative ear, and respect, and he will
Brandenburg Concerti (for which Prince Leopold was his audience and
producer); the Clavier-Ǜbung, which included the Italian
concerto for unaccompanied harpsichord and French Overture, either of
which may have been composed while he resided in the court of Prince
Leopold, and which Bach published anticipating that those who valued
his music would of course buy the volume of clavier works, come to
hear more of his music, become his private students, etc.); and the
concerti for orchestra and harpsichords (based on Vivaldi violin
concerti, and which debuted at the Musik-verein described below). In the context of
composition, Bach’s creativity was never
for himself up to the time of his letter to Erdmann indicating
he wanted a new job (1730). Bach wrote music for his livelihood and
for friends, family, and that special area of social interaction and
livelihood which is something of a hybrid of friends and family –
his students, or he wrote in hope for or anticipation of a receptive
during the years 1726-1739 he wrote not only sacred cantatas and
shorter pieces for services at two of the four churches in Leipzig
for which music he was responsible, but also completed in 1738 his
longest orchestral/choral work, the B minor mass. Despite the mass
not having been commissioned or composed for a specific occasion (so
far as is known), as the Bach scholar Spitta remarks, Bach was not
one to write a piece “simply to bury it unheard”.xxiii
As is evident through documents, from Spitta’s writing, and
from that of other Bach scholars, Bach was ever aware of and wanting
to be prepared for moving into the mainstream of musical life, which
came to mean secular musical life not long after the beginning of his
employment in Leipzig. xxiv
combined congregations of the two main churches for which Bach wrote
totaled about 3,000 people; total attendance at all four churches
under Bach’s musical supervision was about 9,000 in a
population of 30,000.xxv
Bach therefore had ample reason to be prepared with a stunning piece.
Not surprisingly, considering the issues his employers had with him,
and he with they, he also had an interest in working in Dresden,
which was far less conservative and unlike Leipzig, did not shut down
their opera house for religious reasons! The B Minor Mass did make it
to Dresden in 1733 prior to its completion (1738) in the form of two
movements, the Kyrie and Gloria, the music to which Bach sent the new
king as an introduction to his merits, his worth. No job offer
was forthcoming from Dresden.
did find two areas of musical joy, unconstrained by church dictates
and free of the dissatisfaction of broken contracts and lack of
appreciation: one was in the Musik-verein (music club),
established by Telemann while a student at the university. In 1729
Bach joined as conductor and of course composer for this group
welcoming university student instrumentalists from anywhere, who
tended to be more advanced players than those associated with the
churches of Bach’s employ. Was this related to the loss and
remembrance of his “gracious Prince”? Bach writes in a
letter sent to his colleague and friend Wecker, “P.S. The
latest is that the dear Lord has now also provided for honest Mr.
Schott, and bestowed on him the post of Cantor in Gotha; wherefore he
will say his farewells next week, as I am willing to take over his
This letter was sent March 20, 1729, three days prior to the funeral
of the prince. Bach wrote a number of masterpieces for performance in
this venue, including the concerti for harpsichord.
to Spitta, this is to be distinguished from the Collegium Musica,
which was conceived and established by Zehmisch in 1741 as an
alternative musical society to promote secular concerts for the
general population; its activities were supported by dues and its
membership welcomed any fine artists to perform. The society was a
success from its first concert, and grew to supplant the university
verein which Bach conducted; Bach resigned from the group
prior to 1747, by which time it was conducted by Gerlach. This
society by the way, still meets – it is the Gwandhaus
other area of musical freedom for Bach was the Zimmermann Coffeehouse
on Catharine Street, a coffee house hosting musical events.xxviii
Bach composed his humorous Cofee Cantata for this venue, which
must have been a welcome relief from the conditions he experienced as
part of his job with St. Thomas’.
there was another consistently satisfying musical outlet for Bach.
Bearing in mind that private students came to him, not vice-versa, it
is obvious why he would find fulfillment as a private instructor once
his local presence and reputation as established. He could always
count on his offering being received with gratitude and appreciation.
His students universally adored him.
the questions phrased above, “What might Bach’s
expression be towards church employers who complained about the lack
of music while refraining from giving him the resources he needed for
effective music making and for composing works that were for him,
inspiring?” and “How did Bach respond to his church
employer who found fault with his reluctance to teach academics –
an activity for which he was ill suited and which necessarily
sacrificed time in his extremely busy life, time for family,
teaching…time that could be used fulfilling his truest and
most worthwhile gift to humanity?”
sought the company of competent musicians and appreciative audiences
such as he had known in the company of Prince Leopold, and did
experience in Leipzig at the Collegium and at Zimmermann’s, and
as he was sure he would find if his Mass in B Minor opened the royal
heart and coffer to him in the Dresden court of his “Most
Serene Highness, the Prince and Lord , Frederick Augustus, Royal
Prince in Poland and Lithuania, Duke in Saxony…his Most
of Obituary written for J.S. Bach
his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Friedrich Agricolaxxx
Sebastian was not yet ten years old when he found himself bereft of
his parents by death. He betook himself to Ohrdruff, where his eldest
brother, Johann Christoph, was Organist, and under this brother’s
guidance he laid the foundations for his playing of the clavier. The
love of our little Johann Sebastian for music was uncommonly great
even at this tender age. In a short time he had fully mastered all
the pieces his brother had voluntarily given him to learn. But his
brother possessed a book of clavier pieces by the most famous masters
of the day – Froberger, Kerl, Pachelbel – and this,
despite all his pleading and for who knows what reason, was denied
him. His zeal to improve himself thereupon gave him the idea of
practicing the following innocent deceit. This book was kept in a
cabinet whose doors consisted only of grillwork. Now, with his little
hands he could reach through the grillwork and roll the book up (for
it had only a paper cover); accordingly, he would fetch the book out
at night, when everyone had gone to bed and, since he was not even
possessed of a light, copy it by moonlight. IN six months’ time
he had these musical spoils in his own hands. Secretly and with
extraordinary eagerness he was trying to put it to use, when his
brother, to his great dismay, found out about it, and without mercy
took away from him the copy he had made with such pains. We may gain
a good idea of our little Johann Sebastian’s sorrow over this
loss by imagining a miser whose ship, sailing for Peru, has founder
with its cargo of a hundred thousand thaler. He did not recover the
book until after the death of his brother. [Johann Sebastian was then
36 years old). But did not this very passion to improve himself in
music and the very industry applied to the aforesaid book perhaps by
coincidence provide the first basis for the cause of his own death? –
as we shall later hear.”
Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolf. The New Bach
Reader. New York: Norton & Co., 1972, p. 118, document #119.
Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolf, p. 102, document 398;
further background on pp. 99-101, documents #93, 94; also see:
Carol K. Baron, Editor.
Bach’s Changing World. New York, University of Rochester
Press, 2006, p. 148 (pp. 131-149 for background details).
Carol K. Baron, Editor. Bach’s Changing World. New
York, University of Rochester Press, 2006, p. 55.
Carol K. Baron, Editor, p. 3.
Carol K. Baron, Editor, p. 137.
Carol K. Baron, Editor, p. 129.
Ulrich Siegele. “Bach’s Situation in the Cultural
Politics of Contemporary Leipzig”. Edited and abridged by
Carol K. Baron with translation assistance from Susan H. Gillespie
with Ruben Weltsch. New York, University of Rochester Press, 2006,
chapter 5, pp. 127-149.
Davitt Moroney. Bach – an extraordinary life. London:
Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music Limited, 2000, p. 56.
Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolf, p. 101, document #95.
Philipp Spitta. Johann Sebastian Bach. New York: Dover
Publications, Inc. 1979. vol. 3, p. 17.
Davitt Moroney, pp. 53, 67.
Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolf, p. 101, document #96.
Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolf, p. 46, document #20.
Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolf, p. 151, document #152.
Philipp Spitta, vol. 3, pp.1-16.
Davitt Moroney, p. 75
Davitt Moroney, p. 75.
Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolf, p. 118, document #119.
Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolf, p. 140, document #141,
Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolf, p. 140, document #141,
Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolf, p. 118, document #119.
Davitt Moroney, pp.89-90.
Philipp Spitta, vol. 3, p. 40.
Philipp Spitta, vol. 3, p. 17.
Carol K. Baron, Editor, p. 175.
Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolf, p. 132, document #130.
Philipp Spitta, vol. 3, pp.18-20.
Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolf, p. 156, document #159.
Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolf, p. 158, document #162.
Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolf, p. 295, document #305.