Bach, Anna Magdalena (1701–1760)

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Bach, Anna Magdalena (1701–1760)

German musician and artistic collaborator of husband Johann Sebastian Bach. Born Anna Magdalena Wilcken (or Wilcke) on September 22, 1701, in Zeitz, Germany; died in poverty in February 1760; daughter of Johann Caspar Wilcken and Margaretha Elisabeth Liebe; became second wife of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), on December 3, 1721; children: 13, including Johann Christoph Friedrich; Johann Christian (the "London" Bach); and seven who died in infancy.

The great German composer Johann Sebastian Bach was almost as prolific at fathering children—20 in all—as he was at completing concertos and cantatas. A man of cheerful, even temperament, he was fortunate in both of his marriages. His first wife was his cousin Maria Barbara Bach , whom he married on October 17, 1707. Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara Bach had seven children, four of whom would live to maturity. Of these, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann became distinguished composers. Maria Barbara Bach died in July 1720, while her husband was away on a tour in Karlsbad. Although he had four young children at home at the time of his wife's death, Bach did not remarry immediately, as was the custom of the day. He waited 18 months before marrying Anna Magdalena Wilcken on December 3, 1721.

Like Bach, Wilcken was descended from a long line of Thuringian musicians. Her father Johann Caspar Wilcken was the court trumpeter at Zeitz and later at Weissenfels. Her mother Margaretha Elisabeth Liebe was part of a musically gifted family; Margaretha's mother was the daughter of an organist as well as the sister of an organist who was also a noted trumpeter. Anna Magdalena had an excellent soprano voice; at the time she met Bach, she held a position as a "princely singer" at the small but culturally active court of Anhalt-Zerbst. After their marriage, she retained her singing post, drawing a salary equal to half of her husband's. A week after her own wedding, she was called upon to perform at the festive wedding of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Zerbst. Her singing was much admired by churchgoers for its sincerity and beauty, and Johann Sebastian praised the "excellent clarity" of his wife's voice.

Although his several posts would keep Bach extremely busy, the couple enjoyed a happy marriage of almost 30 years. With her voice in mind, he wrote a number of church cantatas, and she often sang these parts. Now the stepmother of four children, Anna Magdalena would give birth to 13 more, while remaining musically active. She often assisted her husband with the laborious chores of copying his scores so that the instrumental parts were available in time for Sunday church services, and her musical talent flourished as her husband taught her to play the clavichord and harpsichord.

During the first years of their marriage, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote several notebooks; only the one written for his son Wilhelm Friedemann and the one written in 1722 for Anna Magdalena have survived. The music of this first Clavierbüchlein ("Little Clavier Book for Anna Magdalena"), although often technically demanding, is permeated with a sense of great joy. Much of the music in this book was written as technical exercises, or to entertain the Bach family. Some of the pieces may have been composed by Anna Magdalena, and many are certainly the result of their happy collaboration. A second, much larger Clavierbüchlein was finished in 1725 and offers glimpses into the private life of the cou-ple. Several poems, probably written by Bach himself, celebrate the pleasures of settled domestic life, including the pleasures of his pipe. Another poem expresses his love for his young wife:

If thou be near, I go rejoicing
To peace and rest beyond the skies,
Nor will I fear what may befall me;
For I will hear thy sweet voice call me,
Thy gentle hand will close my eyes.

As was common for the times, of the 13 children borne to Anna Magdalena, seven died in infancy. Their children's genetic predisposition toward musical talent revealed itself in the careers of Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach and Johann Christian Bach (the "London" Bach). When Johann Sebastian Bach died at age 65 on July 28, 1750, he was survived by nine of his children and his beloved wife. Without a will, most of his possessions (including household furniture and 19 musical instruments) were auctioned off for the modest sum of 1,122 thalers and 22 groschen, which had to be divided among the children. Little was left to support the widow. During those years, Anna Magdalena was forced to sell many of his manuscripts for tiny sums. Some were literally used in the shops of Leipzig as wrapping paper; others ended up as wrappings for fruit trees, smeared with tar to ward off insects. Anna Magdalena Bach died in an almshouse in 1760, having lived her final years in abject poverty.


Chiapusso, Jan. Bach's World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.

David, Hans T., and Arthur Mendel, eds. The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. Rev. ed. NY: W.W. Norton, 1966.

Dowley, Tim. Bach: His Life and Times. Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Midas Books, 1981.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia