From 1708-1717, Bach worked at the castle Wilhelmsburg in Weimar. Though it seems quite isolated in this painting, the castle was actually in town. Bach moved there from Mühlhausen with his wife Maria Barbara. Their first child was born that same year, and Maria Barbara’s older, unmarried sister Friedelena Margaretha joined them a year later, probably to help run the household, and-as far as we know-stayed with the Bach family until her death in 1729 (see my post about the Bach family in Leipzig).
From 1708 to 1714, Bach worked as a chamber musician for the Duke, but also as organist in the beautiful chapel in the castle (the one with the church tower, on the left in painting above). The chapel was called the Himmelsburg for a painting depicting the “opening of the heavens” in the ceiling of the chapel, right above the organ loft. The organ loft was about 65 feet (or 20 meters, or four two-story houses) above the floor of the chapel (!). It was here in Weimar that Bach perfected his organ playing skills and that he started studying Vivaldi’s music and incorporating Italian and French composition styles into his instrumental music.
In 1713 Bach went to advise the city of Halle regarding the building of a new organ, and was informally offered the post of organist there. Upon his return to Weimar, he told the Duke that he was in negotiations with Halle. When he finally received the official offer from the city of Halle, they had added some stipulations which would have been insulting to any good organist, and he rejected the offer. The Halle authorities then got so angry, suggesting that he had led them on all that time, that they wrote to Bach’s employer at Weimar, Duke Wilhelm Ernst, that Bach probably had only applied for the post in Halle so he could get a raise in Weimar. Wilhelm Ernst’s response to this was to not only double Bach’s salary, but also offer him the position of Konzertmeister (leader of the orchestra) and they agreed he would write a church cantata every month.
Whenever these cantatas were performed in the Himmelsburg, all musicians would have to stand in the small organ loft. It was a pretty small space, that only fit 7 singers and 5 instrumentalists. The cantatas performed here must have thus surely been performed one-on-a-part.
A beautiful example of the cantatas written for this space is cantata 182 Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen! (written for March 25, 1714, when Palm Sunday and the feast of the Annunciation fell on the same day). I recommend the recording by Montreal Baroque of this cantata. Listen here on Spotify, or here on YouTube. Their one-on-a-part performance features fabulous singing all around (soprano Monika Mauch, countertenor Matthew White, tenor Charles Daniels, bass Harry van der Kamp). This cantata was repeated a couple of times in Leipzig, but never on Palm Sunday, as the Leipzig rules dictated that no music was performed on that day, it still being within the period of Lent (the 40 days before Easter).
Many of Bach’s Weimar cantatas (for example cantata 21 Ich hatte viel Bekummernis, 18 Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt, and 61 Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland) start with an elaborate instrumental ouverture or sinfonia. This is probably not just because Bach was eager to try out the Italian and French composition styles he had studied, but also for the simple reason that while these cantata openings were being performed, the Duke and his entourage would slowly walk into the chapel and take their seats.
When the post of Kapellmeister (head of the court musical establishment) opened up in 1716, Bach was passed, in favor of an incompetent candidate. Furious, Bach asked to be dismissed. (When in the employment of royalty, one couldn’t just quit). Extremely annoyed with this, Wilhelm Ernst had Bach jailed for four weeks in a fortress before he accepted his dismissal and Bach could move to Köthen.
Wieneke Gorter, March 26, 2016