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Weimar II (1708-1717)


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By 1708 Bach was back again in a ducal court of Weimar, this time in the employ of the reigning duke, Wilhelm Ernst, the brother of his former employer. While the duke was very religious and a lover of good music, he had a problem. Wilhelm Ernst had no children and was paranoid about his heir and brother, Johann Ernst, whom Bach had worked for in 1703. The reigning duke would not countenance social intercourse between any of his employees and the court of his brother. Duke Wilhelm hated his brother so much, in fact, that when the brother lay dying, the year before Bach returned to Weimar, Wilhelm refused to visit him. But Bach had been a friend of the brother's and when he returned to Weimar he immediately agreed to teach the brother's youngest son. When the prince died at the age of nineteen, Bach continued his friendship with the boy's mother. The relationship between his court organist and the family of his dead brother vexed Duke Wilhelm and eventually caused trouble for Bach.

Responsibilities at Weimar

At first Bach's duties in Weimar were light: court organist and
chamber musician. The new appointee also occupied himself, for the first time, as a teacher: his students including cousins Johann Lorenz and Johann Bernhard, as well as Johann Tobias Krebs. Five years into Bach's appointment, the Duke promoted him to Konzertmeister, nearly doubling his salary as part of a counter offer to retain his services in lieu of overtures from the city of Halle. With the new title came added responsibility to perform new works monthly--the implication being that Bach himself was to compose them.

New Italianate Style

At about this time Bach established a professional relationship with castle librarian Salomo Franck, an exceptionally talented poet, who wrote well-crafted free verse which Bach would set to music in several of his future
cantatas. In the four years remaining in that city Bach would compose some thirty of them including "The Hunt" (BWV 208)--his first cantata to employ recitatives and arias of the new Italianate style. Also at Weimar Bach completed the bulk of his organ works, including the Orgelbüchlein, and many of his harpsichord compositions. He also composed several chamber and orchestral works including the first and last of his six Brandenburg concerti.

Reacquainted with Walther

Also in Weimar lived distant relative
Johann Gottfried Walther, one of the most accomplished organ virtuosos of his generation. It is during the Weimar years that Bach himself established a reputation as organist, his skill as an improviser and sight reader becoming legendary throughout Germany. A story from this period tells of a local musician, probably Walther, who took it upon himself to compose something that Bach could not play at sight. Having left the composition surreptitiously on the parlor harpsichord, this musician invited Bach to his house. After exchanging pleasantries, the prankster excused himself momentarily. Soon the curious Bach was playing the composition, and sure enough, he faltered, whereupon laughter began to emanate from around the house.

Considers Position at Halle

In 1713 Bach applied to succeed Handel's teacher,
Zachau, in Halle, where a huge new organ was being built. For his Probe, Bach submitted a new cantata, probably Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21). The city, naturally desirous of having so famous a musician play its new instrument, offered him the position. Bach tentatively accepted. After his return to Weimar, Bach notified the Duke that he had entered into negotiations with Halle.

When the Halle authorities finally submitted the offer formally, they had added stipulations: in addition to a cut in salary, and heavier responsibilities (performances practically every day of the week), the new organist was to be prevented from moonlighting and required to write a cantata once a month. The final stipulation, that the chorales be accompanied "on the diapason with two or three other stops of soft quality, changing the stops for each verse, but never using the reeds or mixtures," was insulting to an organist of Bach's stature, and he promptly refused the offer. The jilted Halle authorities next indulged themselves in the professional indiscretion of writing Bach's employer to suggest that the reason he had entered into negotiation with them was to extort a higher salary from him. Bach fired off an angry letter informing the city of Halle that the salary it had offered was lower than that being paid by Wilhelm Ernst. Shortly therafter the Duke doubled Bach's salary.

Performs at Cassel and Leipzig

In 1714 Bach improvised for Prince Friedrich in the royal chapel at Cassel. The prince was so pleased that he withdrew a ring from his finger and presented it to the organist. Later that year Bach visited Leipzig, the city where he was destined to spend the last 27 years of his life. The purpose of this visit was to become acquainted with Johann Kuhnau, and Bach took advantage of the occasion to write a new cantata, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, which he performed there. Two years later, when the Halle organ had been completed, and the authorities realized that they had treated Sebastian badly, he was invited, along with Kuhnau and Christian Friedrich Rolle, to test the new instrument--at that time one of the largest in Europe. Other than recommending minor modifications to the bellows, the experts found the organ to be in satisfactory condition.

Marchand Chickens Out

In the last year of his tenure at Weimar, Bach visited the court of Dresden at the same time as the famous French organist
Louis Marchand. He had not been in Dresden long before court luminaries began disputing which of the two--Marchand or Bach--was the better improviser. A contest was quickly arranged for the next day. That evening Marchand sneaked into the chapel and eavesdropped as Bach practiced for the showdown. The next morning the French organist, having complained of an illness which required him to return home in the middle of the night, was nowhere to be found.

Restless Again

In 1717 Bach again became restless. It seems that when Drese died, Bach expected Duke Wilhelm to promote him to the vacated position of
Kapellmeister. When the duke appointed Drese's incompetent son instead, Bach became dissatisfied and asked to be released from what was then considered to be a lifetime appointment to the ducal court. The Duke, it seemed, hated change; he would not promote Bach, but neither would he release him. Wilhelm was especially peeved that Bach wished to visit Cöthen, a city ruled by the in-laws of his hated nephew and heir. Bach renewed his petition repeatedly, to the point that he was finally arrested and put under detention until he should come to his senses. After four weeks the Duke finally came to his senses, releasing Bach not only from jail, but also to remove himself to the employ of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen.

Revisits Weimar Eleven Years Later

Bach did not return to Weimar till eleven year later, when the Duke died, and the nephew, Ernst August, was enthroned. At this time Bach performed an old cantata in the new duke's honor--Was mir behagt, with the word "Christian" changed to "Ernst August" throughout.

Links:

Hanford & Koster Weimar II

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