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Mühlhausen (1707-1708)

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When Bach was 22 he arrived in Mühlhausen, a free imperial city that had been governed for the last four centuries by an elected council rather than royalty. Mühlhausen appointed its new civil servant to the post of organist at the church of St. Blasius, a magnificent structure dating from the 13th century. In the recent past the Blasiuskirche had employed such eminences as father and son Rudolph and Goerg Ahle, its organists for more than fifty years. When the position at St. Blasius was opened by the death of the younger Ahle, Johann Sebastian's relative, Walther, had declined the invitation to apply for the post, moving instead to Weimar. By the time Sebastian submitted the usual Probe, the position had been vacant for six months, indicating that he was not the city's first choice to succeed Ahle. In spite of the reticence of the authorities to hire one with less than a stellar employment record, the salary settled upon their new organist was equal to that of Arnstadt's and more than that of his predecessor.


In August after his arrival in Mühlhausen Sebastian became beneficiary, by way of his maternal uncle Tobias Lämmerhirt of Erfurt, to an inheritance equal to one-half of his year's salary. Thus reputably established, and endowed, Sebastian proposed marriage to his second cousin, Maria Barbara, of Arnstadt. The two were wed in the village church of Dornheim, near Arnstadt, on October 17 of 1707.

Encounter with Pietism

In retrospect, the auspicious beginning to Bach's tenure at Mühlhausen was clouded by its brevity; he stayed there only nine months. The cause of Bach's dissatisfaction can be traced to a theological controversy then raging in that city, for Mühlhausen was a center of Pietism. While there is evidence that Bach was drawn to the more devotional style of worship advocated by the
Pietists, he could not have rested comfortably with their attitude of indifference toward the liturgical arts. It did not take long for Sebastian to realize that Pietism was quickly moving toward an aesthetic, like that of the Calvinists, in which elegant and technically demanding music was seen as having the potential to attract attention to itself, a detriment to pure worship, and therefore to be avoided. Pietists were increasingly uncomfortable with music more complex than unadorned motets and hymns.

Related Reading: Was Bach a Rationalist, Pietist, Neither, or Both?

Pietist Pastor Frohne

Pastor Johann A. Frohne of the Church of St. Blasius was a Pietist. There is every reason to believe that Bach and Frohne got along well, but the people didn't like Bach's music. Too, Bach's predecessors, the Ahles, had been natives of the city and Mühlhausians were standoffish to the new organist and his wife.

Orthodox Pastor Eilmar

Sebastian found himself increasingly in the company of pastor Georg Christian Eilmar of the neighboring
Marienkirche. For ten years prior to the arrival of the Bachs, Eilmar had stood for the side of orthodox Lutheranism in the ongoing debate with Pietism. Spitta's characterization of Eilmar as "hard, bigoted, and sunk in rigid and lifeless formalism," is itself somewhat rigid, but not without insight into the hyperbole typical of the controversy at Mühlhausen. Eilmar supplied texts for some of Bach's cantatas from this period, while he and his family stood as godparents for the Bach's firstborn daughter and son.

First Cantata

Bach timed his resignation to coincide with the most festive musical occasion of the year in Mühlhausen, an holiday sponsored by the municipal council. The organist at the Blasius church was expected to compose a new cantata for this holiday, and, to insure its success, the council placed the best musicians of the city at Bach's disposal. This occasion is significant because, for the first time in his life, Bach had sufficient musical forces to give him a free hand in composition. The work that resulted was his first cantata,
Gott ist mein König (BWV 71). The city fathers, desirous of memorializing themselves as patrons of the cantata, soon had it published. True to their intentions, Gott ist mein König is, today, the only reason their names are remembered at all. It is, furthermore, the only cantata of Bach's published during his lifetime.

Well-Appointed Church Music

While continuing friendly relations with Mühlhausen, Bach parted company by informing the authorities that an offer had come unexpectedly from the duke of Saxe-Weimar that afforded an immediate augmentation of his salary. In his letter of resignation Bach also stated that he had come to Mühlhausen in order to compose a body of "well-appointed church music," that given his present circumstance he perceived the attainment of that goal to be impossible, and that he had decided to leave in order that he might achieve his goal elsewhere. The city fathers sought to dissuade Sebastian, but, realizing, in their words, "he could not be made to stay," they released him with the request that he supervise the rebuilding of the organ. Bach did follow through with this supervision and returned in 1709 to inaugurate the rebuilt organ, possibly with the chorale prelude
Ein' feste Burg (BWV 720).


Hanford & Koster Mühlhausen

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