Most people associate Anna Magdalena Bach with the famous book carrying her name and filled with very well known pieces. But who was she? What was her role in the life of Johann Sebastian Bach?
I met up with Dr. Christine Fischer to find out a bit more.
Dr. Christine Fischer is musicologist and music journalist, specialized on
gender studies, opera, and historically informed performance practice. She has
researched, edited and published the musical works of several women composers
from the 18th to the 20th century.
Pianoways: Hi Christine, thanks for being here today. Let’s start with a general
question: What musical options did women have in Europe during the 18th
Christine: Generally speaking, it was possible for women to work as singers and
instrumentalists at courts since the second half of the 16th century. At this time
the first women composers published their music in print. The same options were
open to European women of the 18th century with an expanding opera and concert business offering more professional possibilities to female singers – like Anna Magdalena Bach who was a professional singer.
We don't know for sure who taught her, but she was born into a family of musicians and probably received her first music lessons at home.
Pianoways: Was being born into a family of musicians the only way for a woman to become a musician?
Christine: Women musicians at the time of Anna Magdalena Bach were either
offspring of musicians and got their musical education at home; or they belonged to an aristocratic dynasty. In this case they could receive music lessons from court
musicians as part of their general education. There were also very able musicians in
Pianoways:Were the aristocrat women allowed to perform?
Christine: Young aristocratic women would perform in court concerts until they
married or they/their husbands took over the throne. Once in office as Electress,
Duchess, Queen or Empress performances were very limited since performing in
front of a larger audience was associated with moral corruption.
Pianoways: Did Anna Magdalena often perform in public?
Christine: There is very little documentation of Anna Magdalena Bach’s professional career. Via entries in books of account of courts we know how much she earned as a singer at the court of Koethen and when she received money for performances elsewhere. She basically ended her singing career when moving with her husband to Leipzig in 1723. By then she already had her first child and four step children to take care of and in Leipzig there were hardly any professional opportunities for her as a singer: The opera house was closed and being a woman, she wasn’t allowed to sing in church services. So she only performed when she and her husband went back to her home town. On these small tours she was paid for her performances. Johann Sebastian Bach mentioned in a letter that she had a good soprano voice and that they sang together with the children at home.
P: What is known about Anna Magdalena’s influence on Bach’s composing?
Christine: That is a very difficult question. We know for sure that she contributed to
many of the manuscripts containing music of her husband. Her hand writing is very similar to his, she may have even adapted hers to make them look alike. The
discussion about whether she was “only” a copier of preexisting music or if she may
have had a part in composing is a continues one. The Australian musicologist Martin Jarvis argues, based on his studies of the manuscripts, that she composed some quite famous pieces of the Bach oeuvre herself. Traditionalist Bach scholars rule this out completely. I do not want to take sides here, since I did not study the
We also do not know if Anna Magdalena Bach had lessons in counterpoint but as
she was probably trained as a singer, figured bass should have been part of her
education. Some of the entries by Johann Sebastian Bach in her Notenbüchlein
suggest that he might have taught her or at least planned to do so.
In Bach’s time, performing and composing music were looked upon as much more closely connected than today. Judging from the social context, it is totally imaginable that the Bach house in Leipzig was a kind of music workshop, with shared responsibilities in copying, teaching the children, and inventing music. Painters at the time also did not do every brush stroke by themselves, they had their apprentices, assistants and family to support the income. Johann Sebastian Bach worked nonstop: he had to teach, lead rehearsals and numerous performances and regularly deliver new compositions. He probably needed all the help he could get from his family.
Pianoways: What can we learn from the two Anna Magdalena Bach books about the Bach family?
Christine: The two books are quite different in character. While the first one mainly
comprises compositions by Bach, probably meant to be played or studied by his wife, the second changes character after the two Partite by Johann Sebastian Bach. The following, more light hearted music by different composers is accessible for piano players with beginner’s skills and probably can be seen as a documentation of what kind of music was around in the Bach household in Leipzig.
Pianoways: What else is known about Anna Magdalena Bach?
Christine: Less than we might have thought: The British author Esther Meynell
published an invented diary of Anna Magdalena Bach in 1925 titled “Little Chronicle
of Anna Magdalena Bach”. The German translation of it was later published without
mentioning the author, so even today some people mistakenly think we have an
original diary of Anna Magdalena Bach.
Although we do not know a whole lot about her, thinking about her role in the Bach household with an open mind is one way of getting acquainted with a different picture of Johann Sebastian Bach: Not the 19th century cliche of Bach as a musical genius who composed works directly inspired by heavenly muses, but rather the hard working, deeply religious and highly talented musician, surrounded by a supporting family and embedded in the music theory and practice of his time.
Pianoways: Thank you Christine!
Here is an essay about Anna Magdalena as Bach’s copyist
Here is a link to the Recording of the whole Anna Magdalena Books
Movie from 1968 based on the fictive diary of Anna Magdalena Bach (trailer)
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