The Widow Bach: Anna Magdalena Rediscovered

If fame is in the name, then Anna Magdalena Bach is history’s most recognizable, indeed celebrated, musical woman.

It wasn’t always so.

During the grim poverty of her last decade she had already been largely forgotten: outliving her older husband Johann Sebastian Bach by ten years, this widow’s lot, like that of so many others of her time, was to withdraw from view, surviving through alms and prayer and piecework, waiting to be rescued by death.

Her poverty and isolation offered a bleak contrast to the self-sufficiency she had already attained before she entered the Bach family. Hailing from a musical clan, Anna Magdalena Wilcke had been a star singer as a young woman, well paid by the Prince of Cöthen, ruler of the central German court where—not coincidentally—Johann Sebastian Bach was the top musician.

Within a year of taking up her post as leading lady performing in the many entertainments the Prince enjoyed, and in which he himself often participated as singer and string player, the twenty-year-old Anna Magdalena Wilcke had married the court’s musical director, a widower of thirty-six with four children. Over the ensuing two decades she would bear him thirteen more children. Only six survived their mother.

Little more than two years after her marriage, Anna Magdalena gave up her career when the family moved to the thriving commercial city of Leipzig. There the Bach boys—though not the many girls in the family—would be able to enjoy the university education Johann Sebastian had been deprived of. In Leipzig Anna Magdalena was utterly dependent on her husband’s career, whereas before the move she had been a vital financial contributor to the domestic economy. When the male breadwinner died in 1750, poverty was her inheritance.

As her husband’s life and works became the object of historical study and also a galvanizing force in the rise of German nationalism in the nineteenth century, Anna Magdalena, too, became a point of interest, even if the first large-scale Bach biography by Johann Nikolaus Forkel of 1802 made no mention of her.

By contrast, Carl Hermann Bitter’s two-volume biography of 1865—now a largely discredited work because of its supposedly fanciful interpretation of the historical sources—shows a touching fondness for Anna Magdalena, devoting no less than a dozen pages to her and especially to the two musical notebooks her husband presented her in the first years of their marriage. These musical collections offered, Bitter, claimed, “a simultaneously joyous and instructive look into the innermost folds of his [Johann Sebastian’s] heart.” But what the music, especially the many songs, may have said about her heart is not taken up by the Prussian statesman and music lover.

The rediscovery of Anna Magdalena—or perhaps better, her reinvention—cast her as an inverse image of husband: a pliant and capable wife to the man Bitter, and others, called “the strict contrapuntist.” Her celebrity came not from playing a leading role, but a supporting one. Like Tammy Wynette, she stood behind her man. Anna Magdalena’s own talents as a performer were left unmentioned by most, except as a private Bachian asset: a 1730 letter written by Johann Sebastian praised his wife’s “good, clear soprano voice” and gently boasted of his family’s domestic music-making prowess.

It is an intriguing coincidence that the year of 1894 witnessed both the exhumation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s skeleton—or at least a set of bones that might be his—and the publication of the music of Anna Magdalena’s notebooks. These appeared in one of the final volumes of the nearly half-century-long project that undertook to publish Johann Sebastian Bach’s complete works in scholarly edition under the auspices of the Bach Society founded in Germany in 1850, the centennial of the composer’s death.

After the publication of the notebooks, held by Bitter but few others to offer an intimate, even occasionally erotic look into the Bach’s marriage, a vast number of editions have been issued and its favorite keyboard pieces anthologized in countless volumes mostly intended for beginners.

Since the Bachian excavations and disseminations of the late nineteenth century millions of keyboard players around the world have learned to play many of the simple, charming pieces from these notebooks presented to the singing wife by her famous husband back in the 1720s. Even if all these modern musicians, both young and old, don’t know much about the dedicatee, millions can say her name, even if “Magdalena” doesn’t roll off of most tongues, Anglophone or otherwise. These modern fingers, too, mimic the movements of the woman who played these pieces first nearly three hundred years ago.

Mostly written out either by Johann Sebastian or Anna Magdalena, the collections also contains little works by others including German musicians known to the Bachs. Indeed, the most oft-played of all the slight dances among the notebooks’ contents, which also include demanding suites by Johann Sebastian, is the beloved Minuet in G. This piece is actually not by a Bach, but by Christian Pezold, organist in the not-so-distant musical capital of Dresden. Johann Sebastian had played a concert in Pezold’s church on its famous organ in 1725, the same year he presented the second notebook to Anna Magdalena.

The catchy minuet was already a piano favorite by the time the American bandleader Freddy Martin, who specialized in transforming well-known classical pieces into pop pleasers, set it as “A Lover’s Concerto” in 1941—the title making coy reference to the baroque pedigree of the piece, even though its diminutive size was anything but concerto-like.

But it was twenty-five years later that this most famous piece from Anna Magdalena’s notebooks went stratospheric. On August 24th of 1965 black girl group, The Toys, released their version of A Lover’s Concerto. Anna Magdalena’s little piece had now been given another beat per measure, and therefore was no longer a minuet at all. Equipped with a groovy introduction and lyrics by songwriters Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, the trio made up of Barbara Harris, Barbara Parritt and June Montiero sang of the warm, idyllic love that the many female novelists who have fictionalized Anna Magdalena’s life over the last hundred years imagined shining forth from the notebook’s first owner:

Now I belong to you
From this day until forever
Just love me tenderly
And I’ll give to you every part of me

Oh, don’t ever make me cry
Through long lonely nights without love
Be always true to me
Keep this day in your heart eternally

The girl group The Toys performed the hit on the short-lived national television variety show Hullabaloo, their forms swaying to the beat behind a stern and massive bust of Johann Sebastian Bach, still then held to be the composer since Pezold’s authorship would only be discovered five years later.

Noted music critic Dave Thompson has praised the number as “one of the most deceptively hook-laden melodies ever conceived” and he elevated it to the “apogee of the Girl Group sound.” It was just that catchy quality which had gained its inclusion in Anna Magdalena’s notebook in the first place.

A Lover’s Concerto was quickly covered by a host of singers, beginning with the Supremes the next year. Within a few years there were German, Spanish, Finnish covers. Neil Sedaka did it in Italian.

The little pearl deposited in Anna Magdalena’s musical jewelry box had yielded incredibly riches, proving that a good tune expertly elaborated can thrive across the centuries and the continents.

But what the singing women of The Toys unwittingly also allow the historically imaginative to hear in their version of the Minuet is the singing woman who played it, perhaps humming along as she did so nearly three hundred years ago. In these twentieth-century American voices we can hear try to hear the long-silenced Anna Magdalena’s too.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at