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The large number of [visitors] and their contentment bear witness to the cordial hospitality and the cheerfulness that the young woman brought to the household.
—Roland de Candé, Jean-Sébastien Bach, 1984

J.S. Bach’s wife, Maria Barbara, died suddenly in the summer of 1720, while the composer was visiting Karlsbad with his employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. She was buried on July 7, before her husband could return. Father of four children at the age of 36, Bach soon thought of remarrying. However, it was only a year later that he turned to Anna Magdalena Wilcke (or Wülcken), a young singer 16 years his junior who sometimes sang at the court of Cöthen. He married her in December 1721, a year and a half before he was hired as the new cantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig.

Youngest child of trumpeter Johann Caspar Wilcke and Margaret Elisabeth Liebe, who was also from a musical family, Anna Magdalena was born in Zeitz on September 22, 1701. She started studying music at a young age, and Bach would later write that she “sang with a lovely soprano voice.” Her father started working in 1718 in Weissenfels, a town not far from Cöthen. It would seem that it was at about this time that the young woman would occasionally join Prince Leopold’s court musicians. It is probably during a visit to Weissenfels in August 1721 that Bach officially hired her as singer to the Prince. The future couple must have courted very seriously since both accepted to be godparents to Johann Christian Hahn, the newborn son of mutual friends, in September 1721, two months before their wedding.

The Goncourts, and many specialists after them, maintained that the 18th Century belonged to women. This was no doubt true for the French intellectual élite, at a time when both sexes would meet in the salons of a Madame Goeffrin or Madame du Deffand to discuss at length. Outside these privileged circles, the social position of women at the time was inextricably linked to the customs of what we today call traditional society. Thus, it is very possible that Anna Magdalena Bach had to give up a career in opera to take care of Bach’s children from his first marriage, who’s ages ranged from 6 to 13. In fact, we know very little about her life in the shadow of the great Bach, if only that she gave birth to 13 children, seven in the first seven years of her marriage. For some three decades she was an exemplary wife, managing the household and offering gracious hospitality to her husband’s many cousins, friends and students visiting their home on a regular basis.

Apart from her domestic duties, Anna Magdalena transcribed many of Bach’s compositions (notably the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin), with penmanship remarkably similar to her husband’s. She also sang in the secular cantatas which Bach performed at the Café Zimmermann in the city’s Collegium musicum activities and accompanied her husband in the performances at Cöthen for Prince Leopold. It is also possible that Bach wrote the solo soprano Cantata BWV 51 for her, even though women were not allowed to sing in church in Leipzig. Furthermore, we know, from a letter written by a family friend, that she was an ardent gardener with a particular penchant for carnations. We also know that Bach, as a sign of affection and gratitude, commissioned her portrait by an Italian painter established in Leipzig. Unfortunately, this portrait is lost to us today.

When Bach died in July 1750 without having made a will, Anna Magdalena inherited a third of the family possessions, with the remaining two-thirds shared by the nine surviving children. The municipal authorities in Leipzig gave her the equivalent of half of her husband’s yearly salary, but took great care to deduct an advance they had given Bach 27 years earlier when he started his job! Sometimes resorting to public charity, Anna Magdalena lived the remainder of her life in poverty with Catharina Dorothea, daughter of Maria Barbara Bach, while raising her two youngest children. She died on February 27, 1760 at the age of 58. The Bach sons, who already had enviable careers, do not seem to have been of much help to her. This negligence may have been due to the distance separating them or to problems caused by the Seven Year War. In any case, it seems that the long-lived solidarity of the Bach family had become a thing of the past.

There was much music-making in the Bach household, as can be imagined, and the most charming legacy of this domestic activity remains the Notenbüchlein vor A.M. Bachin, or “Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach,” in which many generations of musicians have since found their first piano or harpsichord lessons. Previous to this, there had been two other “little books” in the family: the first copied in 1720 for Wilhelm Friedemann’s music education, contained the first versions of some of the fugues later found in the Well-Tempered Clavier with the two- and three-part Inventions and Sinfonias. A second book for Anna Magdalena dating from 1722 contained the first five French Suites, two-thirds of which are now lost.

The Notebook which is the object of this recording is particular in that, when Bach gave it to his wife in 1725, it contained only a few pieces. Meant to be a book to be completed over the years, the first inscriptions were the Partitas for harpsichord BWV 827 and BWV 830. In the years that followed, Anna Magdalena added the first Prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier (omiting five bars), the first two French Suites (the second is incomplete), the Aria which served as the basis for the “Goldberg” Variations, as well as a number of vocal pieces, many of which are anonymous. Many of these airs, chorales and lieder evoke calmness, sleep or eternal rest. For her own use, Anna Magdalena also transposed to G major the first recitative and second aria from the Cantata BWV 82, Ich habe genug. The aria, however, is presented without instrumental ritornellos and simply provides the continuo as an accompaniment. In addition to these works are numerous simple pieces, copied by various members of the family, many of them written in the galant style. Often noted down anonymously and no doubt for pedagogical purposes, these minuets and polonaises, also used for dancing lessons, are not by Bach Sr., but by a variety of composers such as Christian Petzold or Johann Adolph Hasse. Some of the pieces have been identified as Carl Philipp Emanuel’s first attempts at composition, with the manuscript showing corrections in J.S. Bach’s handwriting.

In addition to the renowned name with which it is associated, the Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach is an excellent example of household musical practice, or Hausmusik, through which the rising middle class expressed its new-found values of domestic tenderness and happiness. These are the same values that are so well depicted in Chardin’s most beautiful paintings through characters, objects and scenes of daily life.

© François Filiatrault
Translation: Patricia Abbott

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