Leipzig's New Kantor

Following the death in 1722 of Johann Kuhnau, the Kantor of St Thomas’s, Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) was one of six applicants for the vacancy. The appointing council considered the most outstanding candidate for this prestigious post to be the highly respected musician, already well known in Leipzig, Georg Philipp Telemann. He was elected unanimously by the council members, but, to their great disappointment, turned down the position, and so they turned to their second choice, Christoph Graupner, a virtuoso violinist and former pupil of Kuhnau. He was unable to secure his release from his current position as Kapellmeister at Darmstadt, and so had no alternative but to withdraw his application. In desperation the council offered the job to Johann Sebastian Bach, who, at the time, was hardly known in Leipzig. One official observed: “as the best musicians were not available we had no option but to take one of the mediocre ones.”  Whilst Telemann was renowned for his numerous instrumental compositions, as well as a string of cantata and passion settings which were written for the church at the University of Leipzig, where he had been a student, and Graupner was the Yehudi Menuhin of his day, neither possessed the devout affinity with the Lutheran church and its overriding Protestant doctrine, which demanded that sacred text be set to the Glory of God but yet remain accessible to the common man – a feature which is perpetually evident in the sacred German music of Bach – with the possible exception of the Mass in B Minor.

So, Bach arrived in Leipzig in 1723, to take up what was to be the final appointment of his life. At the time, Leipzig was the centre of the printing and book industry in Germany, had a renowned university and, most importantly in this context, was a formidable stronghold of uncompromising orthodox Lutheranism, rejecting anything which caused its inhabitants to stray from the straight and narrow. The pious city fathers had closed the opera house in 1720, a mere twenty years after its opening, because they perceived it to be a source of inappropriate entertainment. In the early eighteenth century therefore Leipzig was a thriving city and a hub for commerce, education and music. The city had six main churches: the New Church (Neuekirche), St Paul’s, St Peter’s, St John’s, St Nicholas’s (the Nikolaikirche), and St Thomas’s (the Thomaskirche). Today, of these, only the last two remain, the others having been reduced to rubble by allied bombing in the early 1940s. Bach’s position as Kantor of the Thomaskirche, coupled with the post of Civic Director of Music for the city, was one of the most notable musical positions in Germany. The financial security of a municipal employer, as opposed to a private patron, and access to the city’s sixty or so professional, salaried musicians, and the boys of the Thomasschule (the boarding school adjacent to the Thomaskirche), for whose musical education and training Bach was responsible, would have been significant attractions. The pupils of the Thomasschule, to whom he gave singing, instrumental and Latin lessons, were aged between 12 and 23. Given that, at this time, boys’ voices were not expected to break until they were 17 or 18, Bach could count on solo trebles and altos with a good amount of maturity and musical experience behind them. 

In the early years Bach was contractually obliged to produce a significant amount of new music for the church, including one new sacred cantata a week for performance at the Sunday morning service at the Thomaskirche. According to his son, C.P.E. Bach, he wrote five cycles of cantatas; one for each Sunday and Saint’s Day throughout five consecutive church years, which, together with some thirty-eight secular cantatas written for the birthday celebrations of various members of the nobility, and civic occasions, would have brought the total to something over 330, although about a third of them have been lost. All of Bach’s major surviving sacred choral works were written during his first ten years in this post. The St John Passion was written for Good Friday in 1724, Bach’s first Easter in Leipzig. The St Matthew Passion was written in 1727, the Magnificat in 1728, the St Mark Passion (which no longer survives) in 1731, the Christmas Oratorio in 1734, and finally, in 1735, both the Easter Oratorio and the Ascension Oratorio. It is frightening to think that, had the city council had their way in 1723, we would almost certainly have been denied these magnificent works, rich as they are in devotional music, drama, a sincerity of belief and transparent and beautiful settings of biblical and poetic texts. These works were composed to order as a direct consequence of Bach’s position in Leipzig, just as many of his earlier works, such as the Brandenburg concerti, numerous solo concerti, and harpsichord and organ music, had been written previously to satisfy the needs of various appointments and patronages. Composers of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries could not afford the luxury of writing for pleasure, as many of their Romantic successors would come to enjoy. They wrote music to order, for specific occasions, according to their circumstances, and in order to please those who held the purse strings.