Bach’s Life in Pictures: Contemporay Illustrations Of Bach’s Life And Surroundings

ByQuyen Anne

Nov 5, 2023

Cover of the magazine “Musikalische Bibliothek” with the Necrology / Obituary on Johann Sebastian Bach inside. Actually, for us, it’s a time travel 300 years back into the past, when German was not nowadays German and gave us a tough time with translating that all into almost proper English. Please keep in mind: all these illustrations in this chapter didn’t come with the original necrology on Johann Sebastian Bach. I added them. 

It goes without saying, that the necrology or obituary on Johann Sebastian Bach mentions the Bach House in Eisenach: it’s where the Bach Family once lived, but Johann Sebastian Bach was not born in this house at the “Frauenplan.” However, he was born just one minute walk away.


Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21st l685, the son of Johann Ambrosius (right), court trumpeter for the Duke of Eisenach and director of the musicians of the town of Eisenach in Thuringia. His famous uncle, Johann Christoph Bach, was organist at the Georgenkirche.For many years, members of the Bach family throughout Thuringia had held positions such as organists, town instrumentalists, or Cantors, and the family name enjoyed a wide reputation for musical talent. The 400-year-old Bach-Haus museum stands on the same location as the original Bach family house, and is furnished with materials from Bach’s time.

Johann Ambrosius Bach, Sebastian Bach's father
The Bach Haus, Eisenach The Bach Haus, Eisenach

Following a period as organist at Arnstadt (during which his extended absence without leave in Lübeck occasioned the Council’s displeasure), and a one-year period at Mühlhausen, the now 23-year-old Bach took up his first major post as Court Organist and member of the Chamber Orchestra with the Ducal Court at Weimar, a town of 5000 inhabitants.His employer, Duke Wilhelm-Ernst of Sachsen-Weimar, was one of the most distinguished and cultured nobles of his time. Bach’s early cantatas would have been performed in the Castle Chapel (below right). During this period he also composed organ chorales and some early organ preludes.

Weimar Court
Duke Wilhelm-Ernst of Sachsen-Weimar Weimar: the Castle Chapel

A domestic dispute between the Duke and his younger cousin in the nearby Rote Schloss prevented Bach from making music there. He decided to move on, obtaining a position at Cöthen (plan and below left) with Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen.There was no sacred music at this Calvinist court, but Bach wrote much harpsichord and chamber music here. The orchestra was of a high caliber, and the young prince abandoned protocol to join with his musicians on equal terms.

Cöthen, Köthen Court plan
The Court at Cöthen Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen

Bach had been very happy at Cöthen. As he wrote to his old school-friend, Erdmann, ‘There I had a gracious Prince as master, who knew music as well as he loved it, and I hoped to remain in his service until the end of my life’. However this was not to be. Again it was a domestic matter within the Court which caused Bach to leave. The Prince married, and the new Princess was not in favor of her husband’s musical activities. She managed, by exerting constant pressure (as Bach wrote in a letter), to ‘Make the musical inclination of the said Prince somewhat luke-warm’.The position of Cantor at Leipzig had been favorably described to Bach, and as the town offered the necessary educational facilities for his sons, he applied and was accepted for the post. He moved with his family and belongings to Leipzig on May 22, 1723, where for the remaining 27 years of his life he was to live and work as Cantor, or Directore Chori Musici Lipsiensis – Director of Choir and Music in Leipzig. Here he composed the majority of his cantatas as well as major chocal works, the Masses, Passions and the Magnificat.

Baroque Leipzig, view from surrounding hills

With a population of 30.000, Leipzig was the second city of Saxony, the center of the German printing and publishing industries, an important European trading center, and site of a progressive and famous university. It was also one of the foremost centers of German cultural life, with magnificent private dwellings, streets well paved and illuminated at night, a recently opened municipal library, a majestic town hall, and a vibrant social life.Outside its massive town walls were elegant tree-lined promenades and extensive formal gardens. The three-times-yearly Trade Fair transformed the city into a show-ground mixing business with pleasure, and members of the Royal Court would visit from Dresden. Many international trade and cultural connections were established, and the city kept abreast of the latest in European musical tastes and compositions. He was already known far and wide as a brilliant organist and technician; he was frequently invited to test new instruments, for which he composed further organ works.

Baroque Leipzig, showing Thomaskirche Square, St Thomas's Church and St Thomas School, Thomasschule

In this coloured engraving of 1735 we see Bach’s “home neighborhood”. The building facing us in the center is the recently rebuilt and re-styled Thomas Schule, with the great Thomas Kirche at right. The well in the square was supplied through a network of pipes with fresh water. The channels in the cobbled road surface were (unfortunately) for refuse water (of all kinds!) but these were removed in 1743.Through the little archway bordering the School on the left, Bach would have walked out onto a tree-lined promenade, there mingling with the fashionable and well-to-do merchants and their ladies. From there, as from the window of his Componierstube, his Composing Study, there were views over ornamental gardens and the Pleisse River to the distant rolling hills beyond.

Bach's Thomasschule building from outside the city wall - St Thomas School Baroque Leipzig, walk outside city wall

During the 1730s Bach provided music, his own or that of other contemporary composers, for the weekly concerts and recitals given in Zimmermann’s Coffee House and Gardens. His harpsichord concertos would have been very popular, performed on Zimmermann’s celebrated instruments. No doubt Bach’s concerto for four harpsichords (yes, Zimmermann had four!) would have caused some amusement, with willing volunteers for the keyboard parts! The Second Book of the 48 Preludes and Fugues was also composed at this time, together with other clavier works of a more educational nature.Moving into the 1740s, Bach began to retire from public life, though he did make the celebrated journey to the court of King Frederick the Great at Potsdam where, during one of the King’s evening concerts (left below), he played the King’s Silbermann fortepianos (right below) and elaborated on the King’s Theme to produce the Musical Offering.

Sans Souci, Potsdam. King Frederick playing the flute Sans Souci, Potsdam, the music room showig a Silbermann fortepiano, or hammerklavier.
During his latter years Bach turned almost wholly to academic works, perhaps in an attempt to summerize his contrapuntal arts. The Musical Offering, the Goldberg Variations, Canonic Variations and the Art of the Fugue were among his last compositions and represent the summit of baroque composition. He died on the 28th of July, 1750, ‘in the evening, after a quarter to nine, in the sixty-fifth year of his life, yielding up his blessed soul to his savior’.


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