Eight women played an important role in the life of composer JS Bach and in his family’s musical tradition. An exhibition in the Berlin Cathedral shows how the role of women evolved in Bach’s time and afterward.
During Johann Sebastian Bach’s lifetime (1685-1750), women in Baroque Europe were often seen as simply being their husbands’ helpers. That also goes for Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena. Yet when he met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, she was an independent, well-paid chamber singer. At age 20, she abandoned her own career to bear him 13 children, organize a busy household filled with students and a constant stream of visitors and otherwise free him from all sorts of petty tasks.
She also copied music for her husband – although when she would have found time for that remains a mystery. She was not allowed to perform in church in Leipzig – that was the privilege of men and boys. But it’s believed that she sung with Bach’s amateur orchestra, the Collegium musicum, made up mainly of students.
After Bach’s death, four of his sons were famous and enjoyed some degree of prosperity, but all four neglected their mother or stepmother: Anna Magdalena Bach died in poverty.
Generations of piano students are familiar with the “Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach,” a collection of easy to difficult pieces for keyboard instruments. To play them, she also must have been proficient on the harpsichord.
The poet’s salon
The daughter of a Leipzig mayor became a poet of imperial recognition. She wrote religious verse and witty, spirited essays – and had musical training as well. In Leipzig, Christiane Mariane von Ziegler founded one of Germany’s first literary-musical salons, a “meeting place for citizens, scholars and artists.”
Bach and his wife were presumably seen there often. Ziegler wrote the texts to nine of Bach’s church cantatas. In those days, a female poet was certainly an anomaly. The proper place for women was a matter of dispute; even Bach is said to have written the melody to a song ridiculing female students. Ziegler’s bitter response: “A woman is not allowed to show her wit. She’s expected to be careful, to keep still in the community. Otherwise she’s often laughed at.”
Ziegler tirelessly rallied against that situation all her life, writing, “If a woman, from youth on, dedicates herself to the same scholarship, why should she not reap the rewards of it, like the male of the species does?”
Europe’s prima donna
George Frideric Handel tailor-made the star role in five of his operas for Europe’s best-paid female singer. Coming from Italy, mezzo-soprano Faustina Bordoni was celebrated across the continent. In 1730, she married the composer Johann Adolf Hasse and followed him to the opera company at the court of King Augustus the Strong in Dresden. One year later, she sang at the triumphant premiere of Hasse’s opera “Cleofide.”
Bach was in the audience – and not for the last time. He’s known to have said to his son Wilhelm Friedemann, who lived in Dresden, “Let’s go hear the lovely Dresden songstress again!”
The Hasses were on cordial terms with the Bachs and visited them, in turn, in Leipzig on a number of occasions, so it’s likely that Faustina also sang with Bach’s Collegium musicum. The composer and his “diva assoluta” were richly rewarded for their efforts: Her salary was twice his and, together, they earned 16 times more than Bach.
Behind every successful man …
Empress Maria Theresia called her “Germany’s most scholarly woman.” She had a well-rounded education in mathematics, geography, drawing, music, philosophy, French and English. She translated major scientific, historical and philosophical works, wrote plays and philosophical treatises – and composed as well.
Yet despite all that, Luise Adelgunde Victorie Gottsched declined official honors. Most of all, she stood by her husband, the Leipzig author and professor Johann Christoph Gottsched – and contributed in no small measure to his success. But she had to stand on the sidelines even to listen to her husband’s lectures; at that time, women were not allowed entrance to the university hall. Frau Gottsched played the harpsichord and the lute, and her composition teacher was a student of Bach, Johann Ludwig Krebs. She may well have played in Bach’s Collegium musicum.
The daughter of “Soldier King” Frederick William I was not allowed to take music lessons at first, but was taught unofficially by her brother, later called Frederick the Great. Anna Amalia played four instruments and composed a variety of works, including chorales, sonatas, fugues and draft oratorios. Johann Sebastian Bach was her role model. She took lessons from a student of Bach, Johann Philipp Kirnberger, and hired him as court musician.
Johann Sebastian presumably met her during his visit to Potsdam in 1747. The Prussian princess promoted the careers of Bach’s two oldest sons. But her greatest service was to take a number of his original scores into her library. Important works like the Brandenburg Concertos and the B Minor Mass might otherwise have been lost.
In the midst of the Bach cult
The daughter of Daniel Itzig, a Berlin banker and a “court Jew” of Frederick the Great, was also Felix Mendelssohn’s great-aunt. In the Itzig family circle, Bach’s music was played regularly at a time when the composer had otherwise nearly been forgotten. Just across from the Berlin Cathedral, Sara Levy later maintained a musical-literary salon frequented by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Bettina Brentano, the Humboldt brothers, Achim von Arnim – and Ludwig van Beethoven even played there. But the salon was mainly considered the center of the “Sebastian and Philipp Emanuel Bach Cult.”
Levy was the favorite student of Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. She became a virtuoso harpsichordist and commissioned pieces from her famous teacher and his brother. In early performances of works by Bach – father and sons – she played the solo part.
No Bach Renaissance without her
Sara Levy’s sister also grew up in that household where Bach’s music was held high. Bach’s student Johann Philipp Kirnberger gave her music lessons.
One of the first to recognize the importance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Bella Salomon sent a copy of the work to her grandson Felix Mendelssohn in 1823.
Six years later, he mounted a performance of the Passion for the first time after the composer’s death – thus ushering in a Bach Renaissance that continues to the present day.
The Amazon of the harpsichord
The way we listen to music nowadays has a lot to do with performers in the past – and in that, this Polish-Jewish pianist did a tremendous service. In 1896, Wanda Landowska discovered a nearly forgotten instrument in a Berlin museum: the harpsichord. In 1913, the “tireless Amazon on the harpsichord” became the first instructor of the instrument in modern times, at the Royal Academy of Music in Berlin. Fleeing from the Nazis to New York in 1940, she was feted in the US. Hearing Bach’s music on the instrument he himself had been familiar with was a revelation to people then. Today, it’s considered completely normal.
With portraits, original objects and acoustical displays, the exhibition “Women and Bach’s Music” is on show in the Berlin Ca