Let’s Get to Know Johann Sebastian Bach and His Family

In this blog you will get to know Johann Sebastian Bach as the living, breathing musician, father, husband, and sometimes imperfect human being that he was.

You’ll also get to know his family:  Elisabeth and Ambrosius–the parents;  Maria Salome–the sister;  Maria Barbara and Anna Magdalena–the wives;  Catharina Dorothea–the eldest child;  Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Gottfried Bernhard, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann Christian–the surviving sons; and Sara Levy–a patron of the arts.

While doing the research and writing the story for our organ and media event, Bach and Sons, I found, as I know you will, the story of Bach and his family intriguing, engaging, and full of surprises.  Read on…

Who Were Barbara Katharina and Maria Barbara Bach?

(Barbara Katharina Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach’s second cousin and elder sister of Maria Barbara Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach’s future wife)

Maria Barbara, did you hear who is coming to town? It is Johann Sebastian, our dear cousin Ambrosius’ son. He has been away from Eisenach so long I am not sure I would recognize him. When his parents died he was sent to live with his brother Christoph in Ohrdruf for a few years, then I believe he was sent all the way to Luneburg for school. Lately, though I heard that Johann Sebastian had been playing the violin for the Duke’s court in Weimar.

Now, Johann Sebastian has just been appointed the organist at the Neukirche right here in Arnstadt where that incredible new organ was just built! I was told that the concert Johann Sebastian gave when he came to try out the new organ was simply astounding and the committee just had to appoint him organist! I think I also heard, though, that he has to conduct the boy choir at the Neukirche. I wonder if he knows about that? I really do hope Johan Sebastian is up to the task of working with those ornery boys at the school. They sing so badly and can just be so awful!

However, the best news of all is that Sebastian is coming to visit his relatives next week when he gets to Arnstadt. That means us! We will be seeing our dear cousin Johann Sebastian very soon. You know he will be living at the Mayor’s house, don’t you? I can hardly wait to see him again!

Maria Barbara, have you heard? Johann Sebastian was just in a fight. I happened to be walking down the street near the Neukirche when this brawl erupted and that awful bassoonist Gegenbach

The Bassoonist

and our dear JS had come to blows. I think our cousin Johann got the best of that little bassoon player, though, as Johann drew his sword and just cut to tatters Gegenbach’s clothing! I was there! I saw it! And more than that, I am going to testify to the city authorities that the fight was not Johann Sebastian’s fault! Poor Johann Sebastian is just so bothered by those awful no-count untalented boys at that school. It is too bad he can’t just compose his beautiful organ music and be left alone.

The organ music dear Johann is composing now is so interesting. He tells me a wonderful composer named Georg Bohm that he met while he lived in Luneburg influenced him greatly. He just loves to compose variations on our wonderful hymns. Why sometimes just to be different, he puts the melody in the pedal in many of the pieces he is composing right now. He really is a genius, that cousin of mine.

(This story above is one of many vignettes from the multi-media and organ program, Bach and Sons, presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with media artist, David Jordan.)

JS Bach Is Off To Lubeck

(Barbara Katherina, second cousin of Johann Sebastian Bach and elder sister of Maria Barbara, Bach’s future wife, recounts the story of JS Bach walking to Luebeck.)

Dietrich Buxtehude

My dear sister, Maria Barbara, have you heard the news? Our Johann Sebastian has just gotten permission to go to Lubeck to hear the celebrated organist, Dietrich Buxtehude at St. Mary’s. He has been talking about this trip for so long and now the city council has given him four weeks right during Advent to go to Lubeck. Of course, he has asked our cousin, Johann Ernst to substitute for him here at the Neukirche, so the music there will go on as usual. JS tells me he is going to walk the 200 miles to hear the great Buxtehude and his Advent Abendmusik concerts.

Finally, just when I had nearly given up hope and had started thinking the rumor was true that Johann was going to marry Herr Buxtehude’s old daughter, Anna Margareta, so he could get the organist position at Lubeck, he has returned. Did you realize he had been gone sixteen long weeks from his position at the Neukirche? Let me tell you, the authorities knew just how long Johann Sebastian had been gone and they are mad. They have argued and argued with JS but he is not apologizing for his behavior and the length of his absence. And really why should he, our cousin Johann Ernst filled in quite nicely at the Neukirche while he was gone.

(This story above is one of many vignettes from the multi-media and organ program, Bach and Sons, presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with media artist, David Jordan.)

A Woman Singing In The Choir Loft To JS Bach’s Accompaniment

(Barbara Katharina Bach, JS Bach’s second cousin and Maria Barabara Bach’s sister, is horrified at the music Johann Sebastian is playing in church and that he has accompanied Maria Barbara’s singing in the church choir loft.)

Maria Barbara were you in church yesterday? Did you hear what our Johann Sebastian  played? I think it was an organ piece with our favorite chorale “How Brightly Shines the Morningstar” hidden in all those different sounding sections somewhere. Our staid old congregation really did not like it did they? I think our JS learned a lot from Herr Buxtehude and Herr Scheidt while he was in Lubeck don’t you?

Then to make matters worse, did you hear the hymn accompaniment he played on LOBT GOTT, IHR CHRISTEN? Heavens, it was hard to sing that hymn with that wild accompaniment, if I say so myself. Why I heard people complaining all around us. They truly were confused. Some even said they could not hear the melody. I imagine all that new-fangled ornamentation, is not going to sit well with all those serious faced men.

The Bach Organ in Arnstadt, Germany

Maria Barbara, please tell me you were not the woman someone heard singing to Johann Sebastian’s accompaniment in the church choir loft the other day? If it was you, you are in so much trouble! First, you-a woman actually in the choir loft and second, horror of horrors, you were even heard singing in the choir loft! Just think of the mess you have created now for our dear Johann Sebastian, and just when things were starting to settle down a bit. What were you thinking?

Oh, so you have heard he is looking for another job? And, why would our Johann need a different job? So he can finally settle down and what? Marry you, Maria Barbara? Is that what you are thinking, my dear little sister?

(This story above is one of many vignettes from the multi-media and organ program, Bach and Sons, presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with media artist, David Jordan.)

Maria Barbara and Johann Sebastian – Happily Ever After

(Maria Barbara Bach, JS Bach’s second cousin and first wife, encourages Johann Sebastian apply for a new job and ask for her hand in marriage.)

With the many challenges for Johann Sebastian in Arnstadt, I decided to talk with my relative Johann Bellstedt in Muhlhausen. I told him Johann was very unhappy and was looking for a new position as a church organist.

Upon learning this news, Herr Bellstedt, immediately asked Johann to come try out the new organ at St. Blaise’s in Muhlhausen-on Easter Sunday no less! Well, of course everyone was very impressed with Johann’s virtuosity and the board decided on the spot that my JS was the man for the organist position.

It is so exciting. Now, with this new position and its great salary of 85 gulden and a promise of 54 bushels of grain, two cords of wood and six bundles of brushwood, my Johann tells me we can get married and that we will immediately move to Muhlhausen to start our new life together.

The Bach Wedding Church
Dornheim, Germany

We got married on October 17, 1707. It was a lovely affair starting in Arnstadt and continuing in Dornheim four miles away. We had such a grand time walking with all our family and friends to the little village church in Dornheim where a friend of the family married us.

After our celebration, we immediately moved to Muhlhausen where Johann had already begun his work several months earlier. I will now be with Johann to support him, provide a home for him, and to encourage him in all his musical efforts.

Oil and Water = Bach and Muhlhausen

(The year in Muehlhausen as told by Maria Barbara Bach, JS Bach’s first wife.)

Things are definitely looking up in Muhlhausen. Students have started coming to Johann Sebastian asking for lessons. If you are a genius, it is a gift to be taught by Johann Sebastian Bach. If not…well things can be a little tough.

However, now that we are settled in Muhlhausen, we are finding that the congregation at St. Blaise’s is basically Pietist. We now know that Pietists believe in extreme simplicity – simplicity in everything including their music. I am told they are afraid of the excessive use of music and art in worship, with its temptations to worldliness. Some church people even wanted a complete ban on instrumental music in the service. This was not good, because what my Johann plays for them is his wonderful but complex contrapuntal music.

I have begun to wonder if St. Blaise’s in Muhlhausen is such a good place for us or not. What were they thinking when they hired my Johann Sebastian Bach?

(This story above is one of many vignettes from the multi-media and organ program, Bach and Sons, presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with media artist, David Jordan.)

The Bachs Are Off to Weimar

(Maria Barbara, Johann Sebastian Bach’s first wife, shares the news that they are leaving Muhlhausen and moving to Weimar.)

St. Blaise
Muhlhausen, Germany

Glorious news! Johann Sebastian has just returned home and he tells me the interview went superbly and that he was immediately hired as Kapellemeister and chamber musician at the court of his majesty, Duke Wilhelm of Saxe-Weimar. Tomorrow he will resign his position at St. Blaise’s in Muhlhausen and we will move to Weimar.

Ah, Weimar! Life is so different here. It is like another world. Johann has a wonderful salary and besides that, some men showed up with grain and wood and wine at our front door the other day. This is the way we now live here in Weimar.

Weimar, Germany

Johann Sebastian has started his new job and he is so happy. The Duke does not tolerate the religious rancor that had marked our time at Muhlhausen and he told JS he would be free to develop his ideas on “well-regulated church music” at Weimar. It is such a blessing to have Johann Sebastian happy and engaged in his music, playing his violin, but also composing, composing and composing!

We also have a new baby, our first. We named her Catharina Dorothea and she is a healthy beautiful baby. Ah, our lives are so full and happy here in Weimar.

(This story above is one of many vignettes from the organ and multi-media and event, Bach and Sons, presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with media artist, David Jordan.)

Feuding in Weimar?

(The final years in Weimar as told by Maria Barbara, Johann Sebastian Bach’s first wife.)

It is amazing that we have now lived in Weimar for nearly nine years. Our family has grown quickly during these years and we have made so many wonderful friends. There are so many superb musicians in the courts and towns around the Weimar area, and my Johann is one of them. He is frequently asked to travel to neighboring royal courts and nearby towns to share his musical talents and is becoming very well known throughout the German state.

We have been very happy in Weimar. Johann is very successful and Weimar was where we had decided we wanted to stay forever to raise our beautiful family. Then the feuding started! Feuding you ask? Oh dear yes! The feud is between my husband’s employer, Duke Wilhelm Ernst and his nephew and heir, Ernst August. Unfortunately, my husband has found himself in the middle of their feud and the Duke is not happy in the least.

(This story is one of many in the Bach and Sons organ and media event performed by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, organist with David Jordan, media artist.)

The Bach Family Moves to Cothen

(The move to Cothen as told by Maria Barbara, Johann Sebastian Bach’s first wife.)

I must admit that Johann Sebastian has been discussing with Ernst August and his lovely wife, Eleonore Wilhelmina some ideas about moving on to a better position. Eleonore’s brother is the Prince of Anhalt-Cothen and she thinks the Prince might just have a position for Johann.

Well, it has come to pass. Prince Leopold offered my talented Johann Sebastian the position as Kappelmeister at his court in Cothen. My husband has officially asked to leave the employ of the Duke here in Weimar for this much better position with Princess Eleonore’s brother, the Prince of Anhalt-Cothen.

Unfortunately, though, our Duke Wilhelm with whom my Johann has had a good working relationship, is furious at our “rude request” to leave. Why he has even placed my dear husband in detention with the County Judge. This is such a sad way for my husband to end his tenure here at Weimar. Johann Sebastian, though, is using his hours in seclusion composing beautiful music.

After four long weeks, Johann Sebastian was been freed from his “imprisonment.” Unfortunately though, he was given a notice of “unfavorable discharge” from the Duke-this after nearly ten years of composing, playing for and serving the Duke in every musical way.

After that distasteful episode, we have arrived in Cothen where Johann Sebastian has started his new post as the Kapellmeister in Prince Leopold’s court. The prince not only respects and likes JS, but is paying him a huge salary as well. Why, we are told that the salary is the same as the major domo, the highest office-holder at the court. Moving to Cothen was just what Johann needed to feel challenged and appreciated again.

(This story is one of many vignettes from the multi-media and organ program, Bach and Sons, presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist, with David Jordan, media artist.)

A Child’s Perspective On The Death Of Her Mother

(The death of Maria Barbara, first wife of Johann Sebastian Bach as told by their eldest child, Catharina Dorothea.)

My father and the Prince finally returned from their trip! Finally! It was a very sad homecoming for him though, as he came rushing through the door to greet all of us and instead of being greeted with joy at his return, found a sad, forlorn and scared group of children. You see, my mother had died while he was gone. Father is so very very shocked and sad. He did not have a chance to tell my mother goodbye before she died.

Mama was so tired from all the work to run the house by herself that she got sick. It was so sudden that she died before one of my uncles could go to Carlsbad to fetch my Father. Mama was even buried with a few words from the pastor before Father got home. He was certainly shocked to walk into our home and find the boys sad and quiet and me trying my best to take Mama’s place. I don’t know what we will do now but I hope Father does not have to travel again for a while. I am scared of what might happen to us!

(This story above is one of many vignettes from the organ and multi-media and event, Bach and Sons, presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with media artist, David Jordan.)