From left to right, the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, where the Bach family lived in a large apartment on the left side (or front, seen like this, with a view over the park), the St. Thomas Church right next to the School (with such a high roof and spire it could be seen from all over the city), and the St. Nicholas Church at walking distance. Bach’s cantatas were performed in both churches.

No discussion of Bach cantatas until Easter, because Bach did not write any cantatas for Lent (the 40 days before Easter). Read more about this in my post from last week.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote most of his cantatas, motets, masses, and passions in Leipzig. He moved there on Saturday May 22, 1723.

Christoph Wolff includes this account of the event by a Hamburg newspaper in his The New Bach Reader“This past Saturday at noon, four wagons loaded with household goods arrived here from Köthen; they belonged to the former Princely Kapellmeister there, now called to Leipzig as Cantor Figuralis. He himself arrived with his family on two carriages at 2 o’clock and moved into the newly renovated apartment in the St. Thomas School.”

By that time, Bach’s family consisted of:

his wife Anna Magdalena (he married her in Köthen in 1721 when she was 20 years old),

four children from his first wife Maria Barbara (she died in 1720).

one child from Anna Magdalena,

and most probably his sister-in-law Friedelena Margaretha Bach  (sister of his first wife Maria Barbara, who -according to Wolff- lived in the Bach household from at least 1709 at age 34 to her death in 1729. I will probably write an entire post about all the stories and non-stories about Bach’s wives soon, but let’s just leave it at this for now, here :-)). That her last name is also Bach is because these sisters were Bach’s second cousins.

Until 1742, Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian would have 12 more children in Leipzig, of which they would lose six. They would also take some nephews under their wings (a normal thing to do in the extended Bach family—Bach himself had lived with a relative after his parents died) and have a mind-boggling number of private students.

Leipzig was a bustling town, the second largest in the region, with a highly regarded university as well as three annual trade fairs, which brought merchants, artists, and tourists from all over Europe to the city. It happened most probably during one of these fairs that Leipzig instrument maker J.H. Eichentopf came into contact with some eastern instruments on which he based the concept of the oboe da caccia he developed around the time of Bach’s arrival in the city, and which Bach used in many compositions, such as cantata 65. The only thing the city didn’t have was an opera house. The one in Dresden was about 112 kilometers, or 70 miles, or a day’s travel away. The other famous one, in Hamburg, was almost three times as far away.

In addition to teaching the boys of the St. Thomas School in music and many other subjects, Bach was to supply music for all Sundays and church feast days in both the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches. No-one had specified that these had to be cantatas. A simpler form of composition would probably have suited the council better, as many of the members opposed the Italian, operatic style of some of the arias, or the French character of many of the opening sinfonias. If Bach would sometimes have programmed music by other composers, that would not have been a problem either.* It was his own choice to write a new cantata for every Sunday, most probably driven by a strong desire, a promise to himself (or “life goal,” as he calls it when moving from Mühlhausen to Weimar) to change the concept of church music, glorifying God but also educating the congregation in Lutheran theology. And as far as we know now, he kept that promise, writing a new cantata every week, for almost three full years.

The churches would be full, with one to three thousand (!) people attending the services. But however large in number, the congregation did not necessarily form a captive audience. Many of them, especially the women, seated in the main, “ground floor” section of pews, would arrive late and make quite an entrance, taking time to greet their neighbors, and making sure to get the attention of the men who were sitting in the balconies. The men would sometimes throw the 18th-century equivalent of paper airplanes to the women to catch their attention. Upper class families had their own boxes, or “chapels” in the church, and were often laughing and talking very loudly in them.

In another part of his Leipzig life, Bach had more attentive audiences in “Zimmermann’s,” one of the six coffee houses in Leipzig, where he lead the Collegium Musicum of the university in performances of instrumental music and secular cantatas. They performed at least once a week on Wednesdays, and twice a week during the three annual trade fairs. At first Bach was principal guest conductor, from 1729 he was the director of this elite ensemble of virtuoso instrumentalists. It is safe to say that even though he owned an entire library of theological books and was committed to teaching his “neighbor” through his church music, he composed and performed as much (and maybe more!) instrumental and secular music in Leipzig as he did sacred music.

To read more, I highly recommend Christoph Wolff’s The New Bach Reader and John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.

Wieneke Gorter, February 21, 2016, updated February 20, 2021

*After a while, Bach did indeed perform music by other composers. Read more about this in a background article I wrote for California Bach Society’s blog, here.