Bach on Ice

The notion that a composer would spend much of his time writing music to glorify, not to say fawn over, a princely employer is one that doesn’t sit well the shibboleths of artistic autonomy. The nineteenth-century Bach Revival went in search not only of the great man’s music but also of a hero whose masterpieces would play a significant role in fostering a sense of German national identity. This earnest, unyielding Bach was foremost an organist and composer who served his craft by serving his God.

It’s not surprising that this religious and nationalistic image of Bach has taken a beating in recent decades. In the place of the austere figure clad in the black robes of a cantor has emerged an upwardly mobile man in piped coat interested in bourgeois accouterments and professional prestige; a man aligned with monarchic politics and therefore chronically cantankerous when dealing with the dictates of civic leaders.

By his early thirties Bach had ascended to the post of Kapellmeister (sometimes translated as chapel master, but “Kapelle” refers to an entire musical establishment rather than just a house of worship); this was the highest honor and best-paid post for a musician working at a princely court of which there were so many in the patchwork political fabric of central Germany. In just fifteen years Bach climbed his way up from being a teenage musical lackey at one such court to the top of his profession at another.

Bach’s admirer and occasional critic Johann Mattheson published a book in 1739 a book called Der vollkommene Capellmeister (The Compleat Capellmeister): in 1717, at thirty-two years of age, Bach had become one in Cöthen. A few years later, after the death of his wife, Bach married the court’s much younger star singer, Anna Magdalena Wilcke, adding to the luster of his image.

Situated in the gentle central German countryside, Cöthen was sometimes dismissively referred to as “Cow Cöthen.” With a couple thousand residents it was small and, by definition, provincial. But it was reigned over by a young, music-loving prince Leopold who was willing to pay handsome sums to both Bach and his wife. Together the pair drew a third of the court’s entire musical budget; Anna Magdalena herself made twice that of the next best-paid members of the Kapelle. These other players were themselves among the best musicians of the day, many having come from Berlin where King Friedrich Wilhelm had disbanded his orchestra so he could spend more money on his army, especially his special regiment the “Potsdam Giants” comprised of soldiers (most of them empressed) at least 6’4”—a good foot taller than the average recruit.

Many were the secular masterpieces that flowed from Bach’s pen between 1717 and 1723 while he lived in Cöthen, among them the six Brandenburg Concertos, the solo works for violin and cello, and the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier.  Aside from these were a string of mostly lost congratulatory cantatas for Leopold’s birthdays and for kindred court events. These laudatory texts—and much more so Bach’s settings of them—were impressive for the vast inventory of sycophancy they present.  Bach’s music soars when he is at his most obsequious.

Amidst the frustrating restrictions and increased expense of Leipzig, Bach would look back fondly at his five-year stint in Cöthen; there he enjoyed a generous and enlightened employer, who also played the viola da gamba, rewarded him and his wife with enough money to lead a contented and musical enriching bourgeois lifestyle, and even stood as godfather to one of their sons, who sadly died in infancy.

Why did Bach give up the post to become a harried school official and municipal musical director in the city of Leipzig? One frequent reason given is that it allowed his older sons from the first marriage to have to go to university there—opportunities Bach himself probably regretted not having had himself.

In a letter of 1730 to a boyhood friend, Bach claimed that Leopold’s wife, whom he married in December of 1721 a week after Bach had married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, was an amusa and no friend of music. This misogynistic justification for a decision he seems later to have regretted has been contradicted by research into the account books of the prince that show that his musical disbursements remained robust after Bach left Cöthen.

Even after he moved from Cow Cöthen to Coffee-House Leipzig, Bach remained Leopold’s honorary Capellmeister, and, along with his young wife, was continually called back for performances. Bach could not only augment his Leipzig income, but also retain what he saw as the more prestigious title of Kapellmeister.  As long as he held the post, Bach signed his name first with that title, placing it before that of Director of Music in Leipzig.

In November of 1728 the thirty-four-year-old Prince Leopold died of smallpox, just two months after his two young children from his second marriage (the above-mentioned amusa had died in 1723 a month before Bach left for Leipzig) had been claimed by the same disease. A full four months later, in March of 1729, Bach and his wife were called back to Cöthen to perform what was Bach’s most ambitious work in honor of the Prince: the Trauer-Music for the burial— the body had apparently been on ice for the intervening winter months) and commemoration.

Bach often repurposed his music for different instruments and occasions. He re-used many of the congratulatory cantatas for Leopold in his Leipzig church music. The repurposing went in the other direction for Leopold’s last send-off.  Only the text of the Trauer-Music survived, but early on Bach scholars realized that the texts mapped closely onto the movements of other well-known works composed shortly before the princely obsequies in Cöthen in 1729. One of these works was the Trauer-Ode (Ode of Mourning) for the Saxon Electress Christiane Eberhardine; the other was the St. Matthew Passion, whose libretto had been written by Bach’s poetic collaborator Christian Friedrich Henrici, who wrote under the penname Picander. Henrici was then called upon to put together texts for Leopold’s burial and memorial service. The poet was in a good position to undertake this poetic retrofitting since he had been the author the text for St. Matthew, heard first just two years previous.

The recycling of movements from two of Bach’s most ambitious public works was not merely a way to save time and effort; the commission, which in the end yielded what amounts to four separate cantatas, gave Bach the chance to collect his greatest hits of the later 1720s for the Cöthen service that bid farewell to the musical Prince.

English conductor and early music specialist Andrew Parrott’s recording of his own reconstruction of the work with his Taverner Consort presents again this watershed performance in Bach’s career, not to mention that of his wife, for whom this was probably one of her last courtly appearance; she increasingly dedicated her time and talents to the demands of motherhood.

Parrott’s edition of the Trauer-Music offers a convincing musical solution to the poetic overlay of the re-used movements; he also capably composed and stitched together the intervening recitatives because no trace remains of Bach’s. In addition, Parrott has proposed a solution to the central riddle of the text by hypothesizing that its third section was actually heard first at the burial which took place the night before the main church service where the rest of the Trauer-Music was performed.  This is music of unrelenting pathos, hot tears, and, at last, faithful acceptance of a death.

In Parrott’s configuration, the proceedings commence with “Laß, LEOPOLD, Dich nicht begraben” (Leopold, do not let yourself be buried), its music taken from the Matthew Passion’s Komm, süßes Kreuz (Come, sweet cross) with its sublime, heart-rending viola da gamba solo here transformed from a confrontation with the crucifixion to become an embodiment of the dead prince making music on his beloved instrument as if lamenting his own death as he is lowered into the grave.

With great nuance, rhetorical power, and natural agility Emily Van Evera sings the three soprano arias—all of them from the Matthew Passion, two being the most plaintively expressive numbers from that work and the last an expansive plea for the end to grieving—that would have shown the wide-ranging vocal abilities of the composer’s wife.

Parrott also wrote a book on the nature of Bach’s choruses in which he argues persuasively that Bach typically had only one singer on each part.  These are the performing forces Parrott deploys here. Usually given ponderous overemphasis from far too many singers even in “historically informed” versions, the choruses under Parrott become far more intense and foreboding. These movements achieve a power all the more tragic for the intimacy of their deliver especially in the final chorus—also the last of the Mathew Passion— where the mourners gaze into the crypt with lulling the body to sleep with their voices. A movement originally written to lament a heavenly king becomes a majestic tribute to a princely patron and, now again, a monument to the glittering musical pair that served him so well.

For another recording of the work here is Raphael Pichon directing the Ensemble Pygmalion.

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