Köthen 1717-1723

Part 1 (1717-1720)

Sebastian started his new job as Capellmeister in Köthen in December 1717. He had a lot of freedom there, because already on December 16 he was in Leipzig to test a new organ (leaving his family, one has to assume, with the mess of the move from Weimar to the new house). His new patron was Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen (1694-1728), a 23 year old boy and music enthusiast who was "dearly loved" by Bach. Most surviving portraits show the prince as a sweet, somewhat decadent Mona Lisa:

Two years before, young Leopold had taken over the government of the princedom from his mother, Gisela Agnes, an active Lutheran at this Calvinistic court, who still held considerable power. Neither Calvinism nor mama prevented Leopold from spending almost a quarter of the total revenue of the princedom to his great hobby: the band. The prince had hand-picked his expensive virtuosos from Berlin and now things even became super for the young ruler because he succeeded to attract already famous Johann Sebastian Bach as his Capellmeister, for the considerable sum of 400 Taler a year.

The prince played the violin, the viola da gamba and the clavier himself and loved to join the band as a sophisticated Karaoke player. Aparently, mama did't want to have the band in the palace all the time, so, they had to practice at the house of Leopold's friend Sebastian, who received some extra money for the inconvenience (Bach loved extra money for this or for that).

Apart from repertoire for the band, Bach wrote lots of chamber music in Köthen. In 1719 he went to Berlin to get a great Mietke harpsichord for the court, which greatly stimulated his keyboard output. Bach did not have to write church music at this Calvinistic court. Interestingly, he did not seem to miss this at all because from the record it appears that he had the time of his life, just by producing chamber music in relative freedom, or by making a trip now and then to test an organ. Playboyish prince Leopold even took his musicians to Carlsbad, where he "took the waters" during the summers of 1718 and 1720. This was quite a trip (even today there is no easy route from Köthen to Carlsbad (in the current Czech Republic)).

Everybody knows that water in such places, even with some mineral salts added to it, does little more to human health than water at home and that "taking the waters" must be seen as an alibi for society entertainment and for showing off (for instance with your band). The lover of Bach's music would like to spend a fortune to experience for one day (or even an hour) how his hero moved around in this elegant atmosphere. Were the singers taken along, including Bach's wife of next year Anna Magdalena (employed by Leopold since 1720)? No matter the quality of the water, they must have had a great time.

Go to Köthen, part 2

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