From 1708-1717, Bach worked at the court of the Dukes of Saxony-Weimar. Two dukes, an uncle and his nephew, co-reigned the Duchy and the town, each from their own castle: the uncle, Wilhelm Ernst, from his impressive Wilhelmsburg (pictured above); the nephew, Ernst August, from his Rote Schloss (Red Palace, so called for the red window frames in the otherwise grey colored castle). The uncle was a devout Lutheran and amateur preacher, while the nephew was much more interested in chamber music. Though the complex of buildings seems quite isolated in the image above, it was actually in town.
Bach moved to Weimar from Mühlhausen with his wife Maria Barbara. They lived in an apartment on the town square, a short walk from the Wilhelmsburg, but directly around the corner from the Red Palace. Their first child was born that same year, and Maria Barbara’s older, unmarried sister Friedelena Margaretha joined them a year later, in 1709, probably to help run the household. As far as we know she stayed with the Bach family until her death in 1729 (see my post about the Bach family in Leipzig).
At first, from 1708 to 1714, Bach worked as a chamber musician for both the uncle and the nephew, but also as organist in the beautiful chapel in the Wilhelmsburg, the castle of the older Duke. 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. Bach was also good friends with the organist of the St. Peter und Pauli (St. Peter and Paul) church, also called the Stadtkirche (town church), and nowadays known as the Herderkirche. So while he must have practiced on the organ every day, it is possible that he did not have to climb all those stairs to the organ in the Himmelsburg every time, but also used the organ in the Peter and Paul church. For a picture of the inside of this church, see my post Easter in Weimar 1715.
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, he didn’t like the terms and rejected it. The Halle authorities then got so angry, suggesting that he had led them on all that time, that they wrote to 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). They agreed that Bach would write a church cantata every month, for which he could use any musician from either palace.**
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.***
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. It is possible that Wilhelm Ernst had done this on purpose, to punish Bach for spending too much time with his nephew in the Red Palace. Furious, Bach asked to be dismissed. (When in the employment of royalty, one couldn’t just quit). In turn, 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, updated April 5, 2020.
** There were two boy sopranos, one male alto, two tenors, and two basses on the list of musicians employed by the Dukes, but Bach could also use boy singers from the local gymnasium, where his own former principal from Ohrdruf was now the rector.
*** On feast days the cantatas were sometimes performed in the town church, see my post about Easter in Weimar 1715.