Köthen 1717-1723

Part 2 (1720-1723)

But, alas, death struck again in Bach's life. Upon his return in Köthen, he learned that his wife Maria Barbara had died after a short illness and that she already had been burried on July 7. Bach was left behind with four children: Catherina Dorothea (12), Wilhelm Friedemann (10), Carl Philipp Emanuel (6), and Johann Gottfried Bernhard (5 ). Three other children had died in infancy. The usual biographical story at this point says that poor Bach "needed" a "new" wife to take care of the children. This underrating of Bach as a human being, however, must be a distortion based on the mistaken view that Bach was a kind of saint, in fact the "fifth evangelist", on his long march towards the St Mattew Passion. Women, in this view, only play a role as child bearers and caretakers, who, at best, copy their master's music or sing and play some easy pieces on the home virginal.

All available evidence, however, points in a different direction. First of all, recall that Maria Barbara's sister, Friedelena Magdalena, was part of the Bach household till her death in 1729. Was she unable to take care of the children? The "new" wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcken (or Wülken; daughter of the trumpeter of the Weissenfels court), was a very gifted soprano, who even earned half the salary of her famous 16 year older Capellmeister and lover Sebastian. Anna Magdalena was probably only 19 years old when she and her 35 year old boss fell for each other. They had been working together for more than a year when they finally got married on 3 December 1721, just after they had been godparents together of the child of the Köthen cellar master (Bach had something with wine cellars: recall Arnstadt). How and when had their courtship begun? How do we have to explain the life-long resentment of the children from the first marriage, who completeley left her alone after their father's death in 1750? Although Bach's first marriage was reportedly a happy one, there is much more evidence for the happiness of the second marriage.

Prince Leopold was inspired by all this to marry one week later, to his cousin Friederica Henrietta von Anhalt-Bernburg (inbreeding was not limited to Thuringia). This charming princess (see picture) has become the most famous amusa (i.e., anti-musical persona) of the history of music. This is due to the fact that Bach himself blamed the declining climate for music in Köthen on the poor princess (in a letter to Georg Erdmann of 1730). Modern scholarship has established, however, that Leopold had to contribute more and more to the Prussian military, so that he had less money for music. It should also be mentioned that the terrible amusa had already died before Bach's departure to Leipzig.

No matter the causes of the declining musical life in Köthen, Bach applied three times for another post since 1720. Already at the end of 1720 (a year before Leopold's marriage to anti-musical Friederica), Sebastian applied for the position of organist at the Jacobikirche in Hamburg (picture on the left). This church had a famous four-manual Schnitger organ. Bach gave a glorious concert, impressed almost 100 year old Jan Adam Reinken, was offered the job, but refused to pay a considerable sum to the church funds, so that the job went to somebody else.

Another indication that Bach was looking for another job was the dedication of his six Brandenburg Concertos to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg. Christian Ludwig had a band in his Berlin Castle, and Sebastian reminded him of "the small talents for music which Heaven had granted him". This implicit application did not have any effect. Sebastian's third application was successful, however, be it that he was only third choice. In April 1723, Bach became the successor of the Leipzig cantor Johann Kuhnau, after Georg Philipp Telemann (musical director at Hamburg now) had declined the job and Christoph Graupner was not released from his court position at Darmstadt.

Apart from the declining musical situation in Köthen, Bach was seeking another position in connection with the educational needs of his sons (letter to Georg Erdmann, 1730). Another common biographical interpretation is that Bach wanted to write vocal church music again, hence his intererest in the Hamburg and Leipzig positions. Some biographers even associate this alleged new interest in church music with the death of Bach's first wife. There is almost no evidence, however, that Bach saw church music as his true vocation. Although he certainly wrote a lot of church music, his purely instrumental output was much more constant and spread over a much larger part of his life. The documentary record seems to show that Bach's applications were almost always motivated by a down-to-earth desire to improve his position, musically, but certainly also in terms of prestige and, above all, money. It should also be noted that his flirtation with the Margrave of Brandenburg had nothing to do with church music.

It is, in this context, also somewhat curious that Bach's 20 year old wife Anna Magdalena is almost never mentioned. How could a composer, dearly in love with a gifted soprano, fail to have some renewed interest in vocal music? What Sebastian's three applications have in common, however, is that they are for positions in big cities. One can easily imagine that Anna Magdalena and the upgrowing children were bored to death in Köthen:

There is absolutely no place here where one can spend one's Talers or have some fun. So: "Dad, let's go to Hamburg or Berlin for a change, and perhaps even Leipzig will do"! In spite of the Bachs's move to Leipzig, Sebastian continued to serve his prince as honorary Capellmeister, the prince he had so dearly loved and who died in 1728, at age 33.


Traditionally, the Köthen period is seen as the culmination point of Bach's chamber music output. There is good evidence, however, that Bach was just as productive in this field in Weimar and in Leipzig (Collegium Musicum). Unfortunately, most of Bach's chamber music is lost. Most famous works of the Köthen period are the six Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051. These were finished by March 24, 1721. The numbers one and six are often said to go back to the Weimar period. Other great works finished in this period are the unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas (BWV 1001-1006) and cello suites (BWV 1007-1012). Traditionally, Bach's great violin concertos in A Minor (BWV 1041), E Major (BWV 1042), and the double concert in D Minor (BWV 1043) are also ascribed to this period. Particularly, for BWV 1041 (A Minor) and BWV 1043 (double concert) this is more controversial. The harpsichord masterpiece of the Köthen period is the collection of 24 preludes and fugues found in Das Wohltemperierte Clavier I, BWV 846-869. Furthermore, Bach wrote the two-part Inventions, BWV 772-786 in Köthen and a version of the three-part Inventions (or Sinfonien), BWV 787-801. Also, the French Suites, BWV 812-817, and presumably the English Suites, BWV 806-811, were composed in Köthen.

Bach wrote little organ music in this period and occasional cantatas (for instance, for the prince's birthday), of which in most cases only the texts have survived. Of special interest is the Clavier-Büchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, begun on January 22, 1720.

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