Site ©1996 Timothy A. Smith

Leipzig (1723-1750)

Previous Bach's World Education & Career
The rationale for the move to Leipzig has prompted considerable speculation, as it appears to have been a step in the wrong direction. Not only did Anna Magdalena loose her stipend as a singer, Bach's own salary dropped to 700 Thaler, although he did not have to pay for room and board. In today's terms, Bach's salary would be equivalent to the average wage of a mason or metal worker. Bach's social standing as a member of the teaching staff of the boy's school was less than that of Kapellmeister. In Cöthen he had been Hofkomponist--a position of considerably elevated social standing--and he would legitimately retain this title, though not the pay, for the rest of his life.


Bach's Leipzig responsibility was primarily the education of several hundred boys in the St. Thomas School. But, because these boys were also choristers in the various churches of Leipzig, Bach was also responsible for the music in the town's four churches: St. Nicolas, St. Thomas, St. Matthew (the "New") and St. Peters. Bach himself was personally responsible to direct the music at St. Thomas and St. Nicolas. On the average he had about 55 boys in the Thomas school choir, who alternated singing at the two churches, one cantata every two weeks. Bach also supervised a prefect who directed second-string choirs at the other two churches. While not obligated to fulfill this function, Bach was able to pick up some extra income writing and performing music for special occasions such as weddings and funerals. In an average week Bach would perform nearly every day. Needless to say, these performances were usually poorly rehearsed (sometimes not at all) and often fell apart.

Musical Resources

Compared to the professional musicians at his disposal in
Cöthen, the musical resources at Leipzig must have been a disappointment. Here Bach had to rely upon the hoarse and oversung voices of the boys plus an occasional singer from the community or the University. In those days a boy's voice would change at around 17 or 18, so Bach would normally have his sopranos and altos for about five years. Although they were not the best of musicians, because their voices changed late, the treble voices of Bach's choir would have been more accomplished than today's boys.

Most writers agree that Bach suffered the indignities and privations of Leipzig because of high ideals, and because of a desire to return to the service of sacred music which was neglected at Cöthen. As Dadelson and Dürr have shown, Bach began his tenure in Leipzig with an incredible spurt of creative activity that included four passions, several oratorios, and nearly three hundred sacred cantatas in the first five or six years. It seems clear that Bach maintained his enthusiasm until about 1735. The last fifteen years of his life were more withdrawn, the compositions tend to be more for keyboard (Art of the Fugue, Well-Tempered Clavier, Musical Offering, etc.), although the great Mass in B Minor (see YouTube instructions) and the chorale cantatas also come from this period.

Görner's Incompetence

While in Leipzig Bach was insulted many times by the town council. Three of these incidents are worthy of mention. From the time that Bach first arrived in Leipzig he had assumed that, like his predecessor Kuhnau, he would have access to University musicians and some role in the program there. But the University favored a man by the name of Görner, organist at St. Nicolas and later St. Thomas, and a man whom Sebastian considered to be incompetent. It is reported that on one occasion Bach became so upset with Görner's playing that he snatched off the man's wig and threw it at him. In 1727 Bach was commissioned to write a funeral work for Christiane Eberhardine, queen of Saxony. A young man from the University, Kirchbach, was co-commissioned to coordinate the writing of the poetry, music, and performance. Because of the University connection, Görner became involved and petitioned the University to exclude Bach from the project. The University acted on Görner's behalf, sending a messenger to Bach's house with a document to sign. This document stipulated that Bach would promise never again to call himself the University's "Director of Music," nor would he accept a commission where the University was involved. Bach refused to see the messenger, who waited in the parlor for an hour, returning to his senders with the document unsigned. It appears, however, that Bach and Görner eventually patched up their relationship. When Bach died Görner helped Anna Magdalena disburse the estate and assumed guardianship of the four younger children.

Ernesti's Autocratic Ways

A second quarrel occurred in 1736-8 when the new rector of the
Thomasschule, Johann August Ernesti, claimed that it was his right to appoint prefects (those who acted as Bach's assistant music directors and teachers). Ernesti, a man who had no musical taste or talent whatsoever, wrote an avalanche of letters to the town council complaining about Bach's output and performance. Contemporary accounts from this period describe shouting matches in church services where Bach would remove one of Ernesti's appointees and substitute one of his own. The issue came to a head when Bach petitioned the King to order the council to uphold his prerogative to appoint prefects, and to direct the consistory to demand an apology from rector Ernesti. The King responded, though not quickly, and gave his directions, but they were never acted upon.

Young Scheibe's Arrogance

In 1737 Bach was severely criticized by twenty-three year old Johann Adolf Scheibe (Der Critische Musicus, Hamburg) for removing "...every natural element from his pieces through their bombastic and muddled nature, obscuring their beauty through an over-abundance of art." Hamburg rhetoritician Birnbaum came to the rescue in a pamphlet, dedicated to Sebastian himself, entitled "Unbiased Comments on a Dubious Passage in...Der Critische Musicus". It is notable that in this particular controversy Bach appears to have made no effort to defend himself, leaving that to friends in high places.

Additional Reading: Nikolaus Harnoncourt. "Bach and the Musicians of His Age" The Musical Dialogue (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1984) pp. 37-42.

Staying Humble

The picture that is often painted of Bach during his Leipzig years is that of a dour personality, one who was always seeking redress for some slight. To be fair, Bach's duties in Leipzig were extraordinarily heavy, and his employers, the city council, seemed to have no sympathy for Bach's skill or higher calling. They were constantly reprimanding him for not having their pre-approval of his libretti and for delegating to others his responsibility to teach Latin. This relationship was so bad that when Bach died and a search was mounted for his replacement the council noted: "We must not forget that we want a schoolmaster, not a musician."

I write "the picture that is often painted of Bach" because I am not sure that this picture is entirely accurate. While we do have many documents showing the stormy relationship between Bach and his employers, we also have indication that these quarrels were resolved in such a way that the protagonists were able to maintain civil working relationships. Of the Ernesti quarrel, for example, the Grews write that it was as if "...some one set on high in the world intervened privately, saying, 'Let it all drop," and that advice was followed" [p. 128]. Now, in the light of what we know about Bach's Bible, perhaps that someone on high was St. Peter himself.


Hanford & Koster Leipzig

Previous Bach's World Education & Career