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Anna and the Glass Ceiling

When it comes to the commemoration of dead musicians, few women enjoy even a moment in the posthumous spotlight. They were rarely given the chance to compose, and until the 19th century—and even then—did so for the most part furtively, if at all. The influential Viennese music critic, Eduard Hanslick, writing in 1854 summed up the prevailing view, one still not fully laid to rest, when he claimed that “women are by nature preeminently dependent upon feeling [and therefore] have not amounted to much as composers.” According to this nonsense, composition required masculine control of musical material, rather than feminine outpourings. The composer broods, his woman sulks. Although Robert Schumann and Frederic are both somewhat androgynous figures, they nonetheless have been getting something of their celebratory due in this, the bicentennial of their births.

Female public performance was also curtailed by European musical culture, especially in church. The literary adventurer C. F. Hunold, one of J. S. Bach’s librettists, summed up the Taliban-like distrust of the female voice so easily condemned by self-proclaimed defenders of West values against the barbaric East. For Hunold and the majority of literary and intellectual figures of the early Enlightenment, the female voice was all the more sinful for its beauty: “Noble Music is in the same way disgraced, when it emanates from the mouth of a lascivious female person, so that in the same way people can rightly say: that she makes her profession not of music, but lust through music.” Clearly, these fulminations belied Hunold’s own lusts; he also wrote opera librettos which used women, much to the dismay and disgust of contemporary clerics.

A few rational forces worked against these supposedly gallant, Enlightened literary types and their anti-female bedfellows in the church.  The critic, translator, musician, and diplomat Johann Mattheson, a contemporary and admirer of J. S. Bach, was proud to use his influence to introduce women into sacred music against stiff opposition. As director of music at the Hamburg Cathedral, Mattheson decried the resistance he encountered from some of the cathedral’s congregants, who complained about the affront caused by this new role for women and their visible bodies when Mattheson had female stars of the Hamburg opera sing in the service in 1716:

“I am probably the first to have introduced three to four female singers into normal performances of large-scale church music before and after the sermon.  But the difficulty, trouble, and grumpiness encountered defy description. In the beginning it was requested that I should not bring any women into the choir of the church. But in the end the congregation could not get enough of them.  [But] I was forced to put up a screen — one which also blocked some of the sound … not to speak of a hundred other petty things that caused me so much trouble.”

The beauty of these unseen voices eventually persuaded a relaxing of the theocratic restrictions.

The historic and enduring musical barriers—literal, legal, and ethical—erected against women are no secret. It would be comforting to relegate them to the past, even one not so very distant. Only about a tenth of the members of the Rock & Roll Halll of Fame are female.

In spite of the oppressions of misogyny, women made music. One of them died 250 years ago: the singer Anna Magdalena Bach.

On the 15th of June, 1721 the nineteen-year-old Anna Magdalena Wilcke took up her post as Hofsängerin, Court Singer, in the central German principality of Cöthen. Hired by the music-loving Prince Leopold and clearly having been recruited for the job by his Capellmeister Johann Sebastian Bach, she became the second highest-paid member of the court’s musical establishment. Only the Capellmeister himself—her future husband—was paid more. After their marriage five months later, the Bachs were taking home a third of the Prince’s entire musical budget. Anna Magdalena Bach’s salary of 300 Thaler was twice that of the other court musicians—who would likely have been the sole wage earners in their families. The Bachs lived well. Johann Sebastian would later complain in Leipzig about the decline in his standard of living compared to what he had enjoyed at Cöthen. Anna Magdalena’s was the kind of salary that implies substantially greater musical value than might be inferred from Bach’s later understated claim that his wife “could sing a good clear soprano.”

As a young woman the possibility of celebrity and even wealth must have been enticing: she and her husband pulling in plentiful salaries in the low-cost provincial enclave of Cöthen. The Bachs would later count Johann Adolph Hasse and his Italian wife Faustina Bordoni, formed perhaps the most famous of the numerous husband-wife teams of the period and two of the most celebrated European musicians of the age. But there were many other such musical pairs in prominent and well-paying jobs in central Germany. The Bachs, too, must have seen themselves as a star couple, at least at the outset of their marriage.

One of Anna Magdalena’s own models, and perhaps one of her teachers, too, was Pauline Kellner. In 1708 Kellner made her first appearance on the stage in Weissenfels near Cöthen, and was called back there in 1710. Kellner likely premiered the difficult role of Diana in Bach’s Hunt Cantata composed for the Weissenfels Court in 1713. In the Vokation in the Saxon State Archives she is described somewhat ambiguously as “Unsre liebe Getreue” [our beloved follower/adhere/stalwart] an appellation subsequently crossed out, perhaps on account of decency, and suggesting that Kellner was the mistress of the fun-loving Duke Johann Georg. Kellner’s salary of 500 Thaler was almost as high as that of the Capellmeister (more than that of Bach at Cöthen), and that figure does not include various bonuses and emoluments.  For performances and for her own pleasure the ducal coach was at her disposal. Kellner was allowed to make frequent guest appearances at other courts where she would have received additional fees. In 1719 Anna Magdalena Wilcke—within two years to become wife of Johann Sebastian Bach— arrived in Weissenfels with her family, so that her father could take up his post as a court trumpeter there. She would have enjoyed Kellner’s tutelage and perhaps been able vicariously to experience her lifestyle and musical opportunities. But a fine singer was an expensive habit. Kellner was requesting more than 1,600 Thaler in back pay in 1726, three years before her death. These were the kinds of crushing debts that ultimately led to the dissolution of the Weissenfels Duchy in 1746. The small principality was not too big to fail.

We can get a sense for how and what Anna Magdalena sang from the congratulatory cantata, “Durchlauchster Leopold,” (Most Serene Highness Leopold) BWV 173a, composed by her husband in honor of their mutual employer, and first performed on December 10, 1722. (The cantata, divided into two segments, can be heard on YouTube. The work includes two soprano arias that feature the court’s young star singer: the first, “Güldner Sonnen frohe Stunden” (Happy Hours of Golden Sunshine), is one of the most graceful and courtly of Bach’s creations, requiring poise, finesse, and agility on the part of the performer. The second, “So schau dies holden Tages Licht” (Look Upon this Day’s Lovely Light) allows the singer greater opportunity to demonstrate her range and virtuosity: Anna Magdalena’s virtuosity would have soared with Bach’s buoyant lines, exuding optimism and surety both in the passage work and long-held notes, particularly low in her range. All of this required technique, expressivity, and breath support. I mention the last especially, for at the time of the performance, the court singer was pregnant—perhaps even into her third trimester. Early the following year she gave birth to her first child, Christina Sophia Henrietta, who would die three years later.

Soon after this birth, the family left Cöthen and moved to Leipzig so that the paterfamilias could take up the prestigious post of Director of Music for that city. The talented wife would give up her lucrative job as court singer and, as her pregnancy presaged, she would devote herself increasingly to motherhood—although she would continue to make guest appearances at the courts of Cöthen and Weissenfels through the 1720s. The move to Leipzig was one away from the secure, small-town delights of music-making in a courtly establishment to a major city with its trade fairs, famous university, thriving coffee house scene, middle class amateur and student musicians, and vibrant concert life.

Anna Magdalena Bach’s life offers abundant refutation of the Whig view of history as one of inexorable progress towards greater good, happiness, and freedom. The move from the provinces to Leipzig seems to have been one of lesser possibilities and less freedom, at least professionally, for women.  Furthermore, in contrast to her own youth in the small courts of Saxony where female singers were everywhere to be seen and admired, the Bach daughters who survived to maturity in Leipzig would be presented with very different models for public musical performance and would be able to envisage much more limited opportunities for their gifts.

Anna Magdalena Bach is now chiefly discussed in the scholarly literature as the graceful copyist of some of his most cherished works and mother to the many children from both of her husband’s marriages. A recent attempt to claim her as the composer of the cello suites, which survive in a manuscript in her hand, is the musicological equivalent of a conspiracy theory.

Younger than her husband by sixteen years she outlived him by ten, and her widowhood, like that of so many women of the period, musical or otherwise, was one of crushing poverty after the middle-class existence of her married life. Unmarried or prematurely widowed, her daughters remained with Anna Magdalena subsisting through primitive forms of social welfare and by menial labor. The Bachin, as she was sometimes referred to, does not rate her own entry in any music dictionary.

In one sense her story is a modern one, too. She gave up a promising career supposedly for the sake of the family. The relatively few, glorious performances, confined to a decade of her sixty years, must have been something to hear.

Brutalized by the probate proceedings which left her with a third of her husband’s estate but all the expenses and debts as well, she died after a decade of piecing together an existence probably doing odd jobs such as sewing and perhaps using her skill as a music copyist to earn a few pennies. Her poverty and that of her daughters would probably not have been much different if Bach had practiced another profession to win the family bread. Even if her last years were neither sunny nor golden, Anna Magdalena had not only the memories of glorious song, but also her voice.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at




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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at

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