The Case Against Bach

On November 11, 1706 the twenty-one-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach was hauled before the central German town of Arnstadt’s church council. The panel of stern clerics demanded to know “by what right he recently caused the unfamiliar maiden (frembde Jungfer) to be invited into the choir loft and let her make music there.” The identity of this young woman has not emerged in the intervening three centuries, though there has been much speculation. Whether she was the young organist’s second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach, whom he would marry a year later is unknown, as is the timing of the duetting that was deemed so inappropriate by the church fathers. Did it take place during the service or at a more clandestine hour?

Many German organs of the period had a smaller version of the main case perched on the gallery rail. Aside from adding spatial depth to the sonic effect of the instrument, this so-called Rückpositiv (“small organ at the organist’s back”) hid the player and anyone nearby from the probing eyes of the congregation down below or from the still more threatening brimstone glare of the  preacher holding forth from his pulpit. Singing maidens were generally banned from participation in liturgical music; but in some parts of Germany they were allowed to sing, as long as they remained hidden.

Untoward things can be gotten up to behind a Rückpositiv. Legion are the tales of organists down the ages sitting on the organ bench without their trousers on, shedding their attire for the aerobic workout of a Bach prelude and fugue or the vigorous accompaniment of hymns to God and country. Organ lofts can become uncomfortably warm in summer, this thermodynamic fact supplying the purported motivation for such disrobings. These stories universally involve lone organists and do not include a dramatis personae of choirboys or “strange maidens” who would be close enough to see bare legs and more.

Yet one could be forgiven for asking, for example, whether the naked organist leitmotiv seen and heard in so many episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus might derive from the English boarding school chorister experiences of one or another of the celebrated comedy ensemble’s members. Perhaps it is precisely because church organists are so frequently concealed that there is a strain of exhibitionism that runs through the still-unwritten history of organ performance.

In Bach’s day organs with a Rückpositiv were increasingly considered old-fashioned: with this division gone it became easier for singers and instrumentalists to gather in the organ loft for the performance of the cantatas that were beginning to be central to the Lutheran service. But perhaps the disappearance of the Rückpositiv also had to do with the desire of ecclesiastical authorities to be able to police more closely the behavior of their organists.

Even though it had no Rückpositiv, the Arnstadt organ was tucked up under the vaulted wooden ceiling high up in a balcony and far enough away from prying eyes to escape close surveillance.  Still, someone saw—or heard—the strange maiden of dark November 1706, and Bach was called to task for it.

The Arnstadt instrument was white with gilded filigree—like a wedding cake or a slice of heaven.  It may have been an instrument of God, but it could surely also have been a tool of seduction.  Organ-playing was recognized as the most physical form of music making, and the organ’s erotic implications were well known to—even celebrated by—Lutheran men.

This much is clear from a 1723 nuptial poem entitled “The Organ of Love” penned by Christian Friedrich Henrici [aka Picander], Bach’s most frequent literary collaborator. Picander is now most famous for his librettos for many of Bach’s sacred cantatas and the St. Matthew Passion, but the poet also churned out mountains of scurrilous verse. The Leipzig of Bach’s day was both a theocracy and a modern consumer culture of coffee, clothes, and increasingly carelessness: collections of sermons were published there, but so were volumes of dirty jokes.

Commissioned for an organist’s wedding of 1723, Picander’s poem has rafts of double entendres that play on the pleasure of organs, both sensual and musical.

The bed is your organ loft, where you can make music.
Love will give you the beat of the proper tempo.
This much I can see in advance,
That the entire organ sounds forth in chamber pitch.
In the meantime you will play a happy little piece,
That you will one day laugh about,
When at its proper time, much-beloved couple,
A young little cantor cries next to your organ.

It is not known whether Bach tried a similar, if less virtuosic, rhetorical strategy with the organ loft maiden of 1706 (who may well have been the woman who bore him seven children over the first decade of their marriage), though the poem’s concluding image of fecundity is consonant with Bach’s prodigious paternity: it is not unlikely that his numerous children were, proof, as Picander would later have it, that virtuosic organ playing was a signal of virility.

Maria Barbara Bach died unexpectedly at the age of thirty-five in the summer of 1720, while Bach, by then occupying the prestigious post of Director of Music for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, was away with his employer at the Bohemian resort of Karlsbad.  The widower was soon in search of a wife to help with the family, even expand it.  And expand it the second wife did, giving birth to thirteen children over the next twenty or so years.

There were many musical establishments in the patchwork of central German principalities where the Bach clan lived and worked and reproduced. One particularly lavish one (despite the disastrous state of its finances) was to be found in the nearby duchy of Weißsenfels. There the court chapel was home to an extraordinary organ with a uniquely large pedal range for which Bach likely wrote his famous Toccata in F Major, a work that dazzles with its pair of acrobatic pedal solos.  At the time of the death of Bach’s first wife, Weißsenfels was also home to the promising nineteen-year-old singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke. Bach must have heard her sing there, and perhaps he was able to impress her in the organ loft with his dazzling Toccata or kindred displays of manly performance at the organ.

By the summer of 1721 Anna Magdalena had been hired by Bach on behalf of Prince Leopold in Köthen. She was the second highest paid musician at the court. Six moths later—less than a year-and-half after the death of his wife—Bach had married her. The Kapellmeister groom was thirty-six, his singing bride twenty.

Seen in light of the continual American news stories of sexual harassment by entertainers and politicians of women working for them, the scenario in which an established man quickly marries someone under his control might give one pause to reflect on the dynamic of power that could have been at play in Johann Sebastian Bach’s second marriage.  Anna Magdalena Bach—as she became known on her marriage in December of 1721—had probably studied in Weißenfels with a famed soprano who remained unmarried and proudly independent throughout a long career. Did the young Anna Magdalena have to hold off unwanted advances when she left home and took up her first job as soprano, an object of aural and visual desire?

Whatever the case, Anna Magdalena Bach soon gave up her career when the Bach family moved to Leipzig in 1723. In early 1742 she gave birth to the thirteenth and last of her children, only six of whom outlived her. Six months later, in the summer of 1742, Bach and Picander collaborated on a secular cantata marking the birthday of an aristocrat who had his estate on the outskirts of Leipzig. This so-called “Peasant Cantata” (BWV 212) features a pair of servants singing in a mock version of the Saxon dialect; they have simple tastes and simple lusts, expressed in mostly simple music. Herself a native Saxon (in contrast to her Thuringian husband), Anna Magdalena might even have taken the soprano part in this intermezzo.

After an opening duet proclaims the arrival of the local magistrate (the honoree of the cantata), the bass immediately harasses the soprano; she throws up some resistance, but in a flash gives up according to the usual male fantasy here purveyed by Bach and Picander: no means yes. The implication is clearly that she wants it and that the Lord of the Manor approves of such advances, welcomed or not:

Bass: Mieke, give me a smooch.

Soprano: If that was all you wanted!

I know you old bear hide,

You’d be wanting more soon.

Our new boss has a sharp eye.

Bass: Oh! He doesn’t mind;

He knows as good as us, and even better,

How nice a little fling tastes.

(this excerpt starts at 3:25 of this YouTube performance of the cantata.)

Right after Mieke warns her pursuer and herself that there’ll be more than a kiss, the strings strike up the German popular song “Mit dir und mir ins Federbett”: “Me and you in the featherbed, with you and me in the hay; there not a feather pricks us, no, there bites us not a flea.”

It’s all jolly, rustic, and of its time—and Roger Ailes’ time, too. It’s a vignette played out a thousand times in operas and intermezzos.

Did Bach try similar stunts twenty years prior when pursuing the much younger singer who worked for him, the woman who would soon become his wife?

We’ll never know, though Bach’s music suggests that he might well have believed that a wink and pat—and more—made for good relations and good music.

At this point I’ll resist the temptation to invite you into my dressing room to tell you this stupid joke: What do Harvey Weinstein and Johann Sebastian Bach have in common?  They both liked to show women their organs.

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