Weimar (II) 1708-1717

Here we are in Weimar, one of the major courts in the area in which Johann Sebastian rose to fame. His move to Weimar, 40 miles to the north of Mühlhausen, was a significant step in his career, both financially (his salary was doubled) and professionally. Bach had been here before, for a very brief period as violinist in 1703, and we already met one of the dukes of Weimar, Johann Ernst, who died in 1707. Weimar, uneasily governed by no fewer than two dukes, was now governed by the formadible looking duke Wilhem Ernst (picture on the left) and since 1709 also by his nephew and successor of Johann Ernst, Ernst August (smaller picture on the right). Wilhelm Ernst (1662-1728) was a Lutheran ruler and a sponsor of the court music. He hired Bach as organist and member of the orchestra, and encourgaged Johann Sebastian to exploit his unique talents for the organ. Bach was also on friendly terms with Ernst August (1688-1748) and his younger half-brother Johann Ernst Jr. (1696-1715). In the long run, Johann Sebastian ran into some trouble with this double loyalty, because there were lots of tensions, intrigues, and even open hostilities between the courts of the two dukes, Wilhelm Ernst and Ernst August. Especially, Johann Ernst Jr., who died when he was only 19 years old, was musically gifted. He took composition lessons from Bach's friend and relative in Weimar Johann Gottfried Walther. Johann Ernst also had the the good idea to make a trip to Amsterdam, to return in 1713 with a rich collection of Italian music. Johann Sebastian Bach made various organ transcription of the Italian material, and particularly Vivaldi's 1712 collection of concertos, L'Estro armonico had a profound influence on Bach's style of composition. This was in fact a decisive moment in Bach's development: from now on he combined his earlier counterpoint style, with its northern German and French influences, with Vivaldi-like harmonic planning and thematic development.

Bach was only 23 now, relatively well-paid, and married to Maria Barbara. Soon upon their arrival in Weimar (1708), their first child, Catharina Dorothea, was born. Unlike Wilhelm Friedemann (born on 22 November 1710) and Carl Philipp Emanuel (8 March 1714), she was not raised to become a great composer. Although we get the impression of a happy incipient family life, the Bachs also lost the twins that Maria Barbara had given birth to in 1713. Some of the children had famous godfathers, such as Georg Philipp Telemann, director musices in Frankfurt am Main since 1712. He had a friendly relationship with the Bachs and was the godfather of Carl Philipp Emanuel.

Throughout his life, Bach was preoccupied with the improvement of organs, and also the organ of the Weimar court chapel was remodelled by Heinrich Trebs on Bach's instructions. Particularly in the period 1708-1714, Bach is supposed to have been concentrating on organ playing and composing: most of his major organ compositions stem from the Weimar period. We are not completely certain, however, about his activities in other realms during those years. Cantata composition was not neglected, because in 1713 the 'Hunt' cantata Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV 208 was performed at nearby Weissenfels for the local duke. This was Johann Sebastian's first secular cantata, and also the first cantata in the new Italian style with recitatives and da capo arias. Duke Christian of Saxony-Weissenfels, incidentally, was an extravagant despot, who brought his dukedom in serious crisis. Bach never hesitated to seek the favors of such hunt-loving tyrants if he thought that he could improve his position. This great hunter of Weissenfels was addressed as "gentle Christian" and "good shepherd" in Bach's homage cantatas.

In 1713, Bach had the opportunity of succeeding Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, former teacher of Handel, at the Liebfrauenkirche in Halle. Bach gave an organ concert here and perhaps a performance of the cantata Ich habe viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21 (this is highly controversial). He was also locked into a room to write a cantata on the spot on a text by his local supporter, the Halle pastor Johann Michael Heineccius. He was lodged in the best hotel, Zum goldenen Ring, where, according to the surviving invoice, food, tobacco and spirits were lavished on him. Most important of all, he was offered the job, but decided to stay in Weimar when duke Wilhelm Ernst doubled his salary. Eventually, Wilhelm Ernst appointed him Konzertmeister on March 2, 1714. As we saw before, Bach was a rather earthly human being in his career behavior. He also had to support a growing family, including Maria Barbara's unmarried sister, Friedelena Margaretha, who was an often overlooked member of the Bach household till her death in 1729.

In his new function, Bach had to write one cantata per month (in Leipzig, later on, he wrote one cantata per week during certain periods). These were cantatas in the new Italian style that Bach had adopted in 1713. Most texts were written by Salomon Franck (1659-1725), senior consistorial secretary, court librarian and director of the numismatic collection at Weimar. Other Bach cantata texts (of both Weimar and leipzig) were written by Georg Christian Lehms and Erdmann Neumeister. Neumeister (1671-1756) was senior pastor of the Hamburg Jacobikirche since 1715 and initiator of a modernizing reform of cantata texts:

Bach's fame began to extend far beyond Weimar in these days. One of the most important writers on music, Johann Mattheson (1681-1764) of Hamburg referred to Bach as "the famous organist of Weimar" in his book Das Beschützte Orchestre. Hamburg, 1717. Another indication of Bach's growing fame is the anecdote of the contest with the famous French court keyboard virtuoso Louis Marchand (1669-1732). According to the legendary story, Bach travelled to Dresden in the fall of 1717 to meet Marchand for a harpsichord contest. Marchand was so impressed by Bach's reputation that he never showed up.

Bach's fame also attracted more and more students, such as Johann Tobias Krebs and J.M. Schubart (no family, the later successor of Bach in Weimar). The circle of students also included Bach's relatives Johann Lorenz and Johann Bernhard.

Bach's job in Weimar ended in a rather dramatic way. Since he was close to the co-regent Ernst August, the other duke, Wilhelm Ernst, forbade Johann Sebastian any musical service to his rival. Stubbornly, Bach refused to comply and was passed by for the function of Capellmeister when the old one, Johann Samuel Drese, died in 1716. Drese was succeded by his insignificant son Johann Wilhelm and the great Bach was not even short-listed. Bach was offended and abruptly stopped his production of cantatas that year (1716), which casts some doubt on the idea that Bach produced his church music only to the honor of God. Fortunately, Bach made a great impression on Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen with his wedding music for Leopold's sister, when she got married to Ernst August. Bach received a job offer (this time as Capellmeister) from Leopold, but Wilhelm Ernst refused to let Johann Sebastian go to the brother in law of his rival Ernst August. Bach was even arrested and imprisoned for a month (November 6 - December 2) before he was dismissed "without honor". Bach could move to Köthen now. This is the incredible conclusion of one of the most creative episodes in the history of western music.


Bach wrote the following cantatas in Weimar (titles can be found via the Bach Home Page, Cantatas): BWV 132, 152, 155, 80a, 31, 165, 185, 161, 162, 163 (on texts of S. Franck, Evangelisches Andachts-Opffer. Weimar, 1715. BWV 182, 12, 172, 21 (presumably, on unprinted texts of Salomon Franck). BWV 70a, 186a, 147a (texts: S. Franck, Evangelische Sonn- und Festtages-Andachten. Weimar, 1717. BWV 61, 18 (texts: E. Neumeister, Geistliches Singen und Spielen. Gotha, 1711. BWV 54, 199 (texts: G.C. Lehms, Gottgefälliges Kirchen-Opffer. Darmstadt, 1711. BWV 63 (perhaps on unprinted text by J.M. Heineccius). Bach also wrote a major Passion Music in Weimar, that has not been preserved.

Bach wrote most of his major organ compositions in Weimar, for instance, the Orgel-Büchlein, all but the last of the so-called eighteen "Great" chorale preludes, and most of the preludes and fugues. Many harpsichord compositions were started in Weimar (for instance, part of Das Wohltemperierte Clavier I). Most of the orchestral and chamber works of this period did not survive, unfortunately, except perhaps in the form of later adaptations, like the Brandenburg Concertos 1 and 6.

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