Site ©1996 Timothy A. Smith

Arnstadt (1703-1707)

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Arnstadt, Erfurt, and Eisenach are the towns in which the Bach family had resided for nearly 100 years. When Bach returned to Arnstadt, there remained in that city many relatives, including two cousins named Barbara, and another named Johann Ernst. Sebastian would later later marry one of the Barbaras. Too, his stepmother had returned there in 1695 after the death of his father. And Bach did not lack for influential contacts--many of Arnstadt's prominent citizens were related to his great uncle Heinrich, town organist for fifty years until his death in 1692.

Technical Expertise on the Organ

Bach's appointment at Arnstadt was attributable to his reputation as one who had technical expertise in pipe organ design and construction. As a youngster in
Eisenach, Ohrdruf and Lüneburg, it was Sebastian's good fortune that these towns had undertaken renovations of the organs in their various churches. In view of his instinctive curiosity and keen ear for the acoustical properties of instruments and interior spaces, there can be little doubt that Sebastian was a frequent companion of the guildsmen in charge of these reconstructions, if not an active participant himself.

The German pipe organ of the eighteenth century ranks as the most complex technology the world would see until the industrial age. Although never recorded the manner in which young Bach acquired his knowlege of the inner workings of the instrument, he was evidently an expert by the age of eighteen, after which he was in great demand to test and certify new organs. In 1703 he was called to Arnstadt to perform such a test on the organ of the Church of St. Boniface, or as it was called, "the New".

The three churches in Arnstadt already had an organist when Johann Sebastian arrived to test the organ at St. Boniface. Unfortunately for Andreas Börner, the town's authorities were sufficiently impressed with Bach's playing that they offered him the "New" position, leaving Börner with the other two churches.

Duties & Salary

Bach's duties at Arnstadt were to accompany the services at the Neuekirche and to maintain the new organ It is necessary to note at this juncture that Bach's contract made no requirement that he compose figural music--a point of contention later on. In exchange Sebastian's salary was fixed at 50 Florins per year, plus 30 Thaler for room and board. This was a very fine salary considering that the church was very poor, the organist was very young, and his duties very light. The high pay cannot be explained as a desire on the part of the Consistory to secure the services of brilliant talent as much as, having had a Bach as organist for the last 50 years, the town was evidently eager to hire another.

Zippel Fagottist

In August of 1705 there was recorded an incident when Bach, upset with the poor performance of one of the church musicians, a certain Geyersbach, referred to him as a
Zippel Fagottist. Later one evening, while Sebastian was walking with one of his cousins, Barbara, the same Geyersbach accosted Bach and demanded a retraction. When Bach would not apologize the Zippel Fagottist set upon him with a walking stick, whereupon Bach drew his sword. The altercation must have made a suitable impression on the young cousin, but the Consistory was not pleased. In its reprimand the town council noted, unfairly, that Bach was neglecting the composition of figural music (technically not one of his contractual duties).

Overstays His Leave

In the autumn of 1705 Bach requested a leave of absence to visit Lübeck, home of the brilliant organist
Dietrich Buxtehude. Upon being granted four weeks, Bach walked to Lübeck, covering the 250 miles in about ten days. When it came time to return to Arnstadt Bach lingered in Lübeck for a full three months without consulting his employers. It is possible that Bach left Arnstadt intending full well to overstay his leave so that he might attend Buxtehude's upcoming Abendmusiken, an Advent event of some renown in northern Germany.

an Offer He Could Refuse

The elderly Buxtehude held a position that would have been attractive to younger musicians the likes of Bach. But the practice was that if, upon his death, a cantor left an unmarried daughter the new cantor must take her as wife, a custom responsible for Buxtehude's own marriage. In 1703 Handel and Mattheson had come to Lübeck, ostensibly for the Abendmusiken, but unofficially to check out Buxtehude's unmarried 30-year-old daughter. Bach may have prolonged his stay for a similar reason. Apparently he did not like what he saw, for he returned to Arnstadt and soon thereafter married his cousin Maria Barbara. Upon Buxtehude's death, two years later, his unhappy daughter remained unmarried.

Reprimanded Again

Needless to say, when Sebastian returned to Arnstadt the
Consistory was not pleased. On the twenty-first of February 1706, Superintendent Johann Gottfried Olearius conducted a hearing into the matter during which Bach defended himself by reminding the authorities that he had left his affairs in charge of a deputy--cousin Johann Ernst--and that he had not been payed during his leave. The Consistory upbraided him for his lack of attention to the boys of the choir, and for the manner in which he accompanied the chorales which, they said, confused the congregation. They directed him: "If in the future you want to introduce your tonus peregrinus, you must keep to it, and on no account fly off instantaneously into a tonus contrarius."

The Stranger Maiden

As it was not the custom at this time to allow women to sing in church, the Consistory also chided Bach for having recently allowed a "stranger maiden" to show herself and to make music. This stranger maiden was probably Maria Barbara. It would appear that the Consistory's displeasure over Bach's absence was exceeded only by its relief to have him back; they payed his full month's salary for February, even though he did not return till the middle of that month.

Oldest Extant Manuscript

It will be remembered that Bach's contract at Arnstadt required him to play and maintain the organ and that is all. His compositions from this period were therefore produced at his own initiative and on his own time. As would be expected, most of them are for the keyboard, including:
toccatas for clavier, several reworkings of compositions by earlier Italian composers (Legrenzi, Corelli, Albinoni), and organ works. Included among the compositions for organ is the prelude on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, which survives today as the oldest extant manuscript in Bach's own hand.

A Program Work

The year after Sebastian's arrival in Arnstadt, his brother, Jacob, left Saxony to become oboist in the guard of Sweden's king, Charles XII. Within five years Jacob had accompanied king Charles into battle against Russia's Peter the Great, seen defeat at Poltava, escaped to Turkey, and returned again to Sweden. On the occasion of Jacob's departure Sebastian composed a harpsichord work in the program style of
Kuhnau. The several movements of Capriccio on the Departure of His Most Beloved Brother contain subtitles such as: "A coaxing by his friends to dissuade him from his journey," "A picturing of the various calamities that might overtake him in foreign parts," and "Now come the friends--since they see that it cannot be otherwise--and take leave of him." The Capriccio concludes with one of Bach's earliest known fugues.

Stormy Relationship

The record of Johann Sebastian's tenure at Arnstadt reveals his personality as that of an ambitious, high-strung, and creative youth. On at least three occasions--August 1705 and February and November of 1706--Bach was summoned to explain why he was not training the choir boys properly (it appears that Bach and the boys had a falling out early on). Each time Bach replied that in his view, as organist, this was not his responsibility, and that if the church wanted someone to attend to these duties they should hire a choir director, which they absolutely could not afford to do considering the high salary they were paying their organist. The Consistory was remarkably patient, even generous, with Bach, but it was an uncomfortable relationship, and in 1707, to the relief of the authorities, Bach removed himself.

Links:

Hanford & Koster Arnstadt

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email: Tim.Smith@nau.edu