By Louise Mundinger
Last summer I began to listen to a woman who died 258 years ago and left no words of her own. She copied music to be used in the instruction of her own children, pieces that are played every day in the present time to instruct beginning keyboard students. Her notes were not her own, but the pieces she included had a purpose. Her unsure hand grew more confident as she grew older.
Anna Magdalena Bach was the second wife of Johann Sebastian Bach and 16 years his junior. In 1725 JS Bach gave his wife a green vellum, gilt-edged Notebook with gold trimmings and AMB 1725 embossed on the front. The first entries were two keyboard Partitas by JS Bach: BWV 827 & BWV 830. BWV 827 is in A Minor, a charming reference to Anna Magdalena. The final entries happened in the 1740s. In between the first and the last entries, Sebastian and Anna Magdalena had thirteen children. But most of these children did not survive to adulthood. Here is the list:
Christiana Sophia Henrietta died at age 3
Gottfried Heinrich survived to adulthood but was mentally handicapped
Christian Gottlieb died at age 3
Elisabeth Julianna Friederica survived to adulthood and married her father’s former student Johann Christoph Altnickol
Ernestus Andreas died in infancy
Regina Johanna died at age 4
Christiana Benedicta died in infancy
Christiana Dorothea died before her first birthday
Johann Christoph Friedrich survived to adulthood and became a harpsichordist and organist Johann August Abraham died in infancy
Johann Christian survived to adulthood and became an organist and composer
Johanna Carolina survived to adulthood
Regina Susanna survived to adulthood and, as the last surviving child of the “great Sebastian Bach”, was aided by the music publisher Breitkopf & Härtel to help with her living expenses in 1801.
The four older children from Sebastian’s first marriage to Maria Barbara lived at the Thomasschule as well, so the three-floor Bach family apartment was filled with the comings and goings of students and traveling musicians in addition to family and extended family. Sebastian himself had a room of his own, a composing room where he could shut the door and be with his music and library.
We know little of Anna Magdalena, but the Notebook gives us clues. She entered many of the pieces herself; her handwriting growing more like her husband’s in later years. Some of the entries indicate haste; hardly surprising owing to the size of the household. Another entry, a bass line to the chorale melody Gib dich zufrieden und sei stille was written by a child. Was there a domestic situation which prompted the child to sit and write? Did he do so freely or not? Sei still! must have been heard often in the Bach household.
The Notebook raises more questions than answers, but there are two entries which sit side by side in the middle of the book which give us a look at the Bach marriage. The pieces are on pages 70 & 71, as paginated by CPE Bach after Sebastian’s death. The one on the left was copied by Sebastian and the one on the right by Anna Magdalena. History has kept these two together: a Menuet “fait par Mons. Bȍhm” copied by JSB and a Musette in D Major copied by AMB. Two jovial French dances filled with light and cheer have been sitting next to each other for centuries after being entered by husband and wife.
According to Peter Williams, Bach’s handwriting became like Georg Bȍhm’s when the 15-year- old Bach was in Lȕneburg (Bach, A Musical Biography, 2016. p.245). In like fashion, a look at the facsimile of the Notebook shows that Anna Magdalena’s handwriting became similar to her husband’s as she copied more and more music.
A husband and wife that endured more loss than most can fathom are memorialized in two lively dances with a reference to a musical master from a previous generation. The sweetness of those dances must have comforted Sebastian and Anna Magdalena. The musical heritage, of which Sebastian was justly proud, was probably another source of consolation. The handwriting patterns which Georg Bȍhm handed to JSB, who then handed them to AMB can be followed as a stream of music history.
The story of two dances on pages 70 & 71 from that green vellum notebook with embossed initials is told every day, numerous times, by keyboard students. The legacy of the Bach household which suffered excessive loss while advancing a great musical culture, is present in the continued use of music from the Clavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach. A red satin ribbon which closed the book,is long gone, but left behind is a priceless gift.