J S Bach ‘got fed up with church’

J S Bach ‘got fed up with church’


norman lebrecht

December 30, 2013

A newly discovered letter in Leipzig suggests that the great composer excelled at taking time off work, delegating his duties to juniors.

The letter, by a former boy chorister at the Thomaskirche, Gottfried Benjamin Fleckeisen, claims that he and other students used to fill in for the master in his increasingly frequent absences. Fleckeisen, who was applying for Bach’s job after his death, said he had led and conducted performances in church for ‘two whole years’, apparently 1744-46.

Bach is usually seen as a diligent and hardworking public employee. But town council minutes refer to him as ‘unindustrious’ and some scholars are now suggesting that he suffered burnout from the endless performance of church service and the constant requirement for new oratorios on Biblical themes. Read a summary of the latest scholarship here.

Bach HandschriftBach Lepizig

photos  (c) Lebrecht Music&Arts


  • markspalding says:

    interesting, but “burnout” is more anachronistic than a Moog synthesiser!

  • It seems likely that JSB got fed-up with duties far beneath his capacities and with the narrow-minded church officials who seem to have had no idea about his stature as an artist. Why wasn’t there one of these princes around to take him under his wing and liberate him from work that also someone else could have done, someone with a lesser talent? This is one of those stories which should be a lesson for contemporaries…. The ‘great’ are ‘normal people’ but deserve some protection from the mediocre mentality which rules society.

  • cabbagejuice says:

    Bach was too busy writing music to teach Latin as part of his duties. In fact his massive output would have taken normal folk two or three lifetimes just to set it down on paper. I suspect his family may have been doing quite a bit of copying parts as a kind of cottage industry.

  • Steve Foster says:

    The man lived in a room filled with screaming kids, deadlines up the yin-yang, constant pressure to maintain a decent stature within the church and community, and a sever lack of patience led to struggles with inferior performers…and there’s some surprise he was burnt out? Really?!

    Bach was a diligent and hardworking COMPOSER. As a hard working public employee (a.k.a. servant) it’s no wonder he slacked off. If he ever felt compelled to obey every thought his employers spat out he would have never had the fortitude to turnout what he’s best known for.

  • ehkzu says:

    Note that Herr Fleckeisen had an incentive to downplay Bach’s diligence–he was gunning for the guy’s old job, and claiming that he was the defacto holder of that job for years would certainly advance Fleckeisen’s cause.

    This doesn’t mean that Bach didn’t delegate the routine parts of his job as much as possible; just that since the letter-writer had a clear motive for saying what he said, we would need corroboration from other sources.

    On the other hand, even if Bach’s employers appreciated his genius (hadn’t they really wanted Telemann for the job, and only hired Bach because they couldn’t get Telemann?), the job was the job and had to get done.

    This is why geniuses often aren’t as good at real-world jobs than lesser lights. They think they’re too good for the work. And they ARE too good for the work. But they still need to put food on the table, and the work still needs doing.

    So maybe we should be glad that Bach’s employers put up with his slacking. We are certainly better off for their forebearance.

  • Bach was busy his first 3 or 4 years on the job. He had to come up with an original 20 minute cantata for each Sunday and feast day in the 3-year liturgical cycle of Bible readings. After that he would have probably just revised these as needed or added some for special occasions like funerals etc. He also then had time for his secular music or for something large like the ‘Mass in B minor’ as an offering for the new Elector of Saxony. Bach stayed busy composing throughout his career, but not at the frenetic pace of his first 3 years on the job.

    That he should have disagreements with the town council was just part of life as a church musician. It has not changed to this day – in our church the pastors, the church council and the organists are always working in a sort of creative tension. Bach sought the Cantorship in Leipzig because he wanted his children to have some stability growing up – a chance to attend the university there – and because Bach was a devout Lutheran. That it wasn’t as glamorous as being a court musician was just part of the price he was willing to pay.

  • Cambridge says:

    Laughable! Taking notice of a second rate cantor hundreds of years after. Of course, a work like The Art of Fugue tells us that Bach was burnt out?

  • MWnyc says:

    Was it burnout – or pique?

    I thought it was pretty well established that Bach pulled back somewhat from his duties as Leipzig’s chief church musician after his first few years on the job, devoting himself to the Collegium Musicum at Zimmermann’s coffee house and other endeavors.

    Paul H. Muller is correct, of course, that Bach was insanely productive during his first few years in Leipzig. His plan had been to produce five cycles of cantatas for church use in Leipzig in alternating years – but he more or less gave up on the project after a bit more than two-and-a-half cycles.

    Bach is known to have complained that the Leipzig powers-the-be were “odd and ambivalent about music”. This seems to have been true – the ambivalence in particular. There was evidently an ongoing conflict in Leipzig between the Pietists, who disapproved of elaborate church music, and orthodox Lutherans. (Bach used plenty of texts that expressed Pietist sentiments toward God and Jesus, but he was no Pietist himself; the Pietists basically wanted to eliminate his job, or at least the way he wanted to do it.)

    So the attitude of the Leipzig city government evidently changed, depending on whether Pietists or orthodox Lutherans had more power. With Bach having worked as hard as he did to provide great music for worship, when the government started blowing hot and cold over his work because of ideological dispute, it’s hardly surprising that he would say “Devil take it”, start performing more music by other composers in church (which we know he did), pay more attention to secular music, and maybe let his top assistants pick up some slack. Especially once his vision and health started deteriorating.

  • David H. says:

    Much ado about nothing by an overambitious musicologist seeking the spotlight. It was standard operating procedure in those days, that from the numerous obligations related to educating, performing, composing with, for and around the Thomaner choir school, many were delegated to assistants and choir prefects. This is still standard operating procedure today for the same choir or similar ones that have a full schedule of lithurgic duties like Kreuzchor in Dresden.

    Michael Maul should know better.

  • R. James Tobin says:

    What a contrast with today, when so many are satisfied with the same old stuff, that Bach was expected to come up with new and fresh music all the time.

  • Stephen says:

    Impressive article. Most impressive was the simple litany of the pain and loss that surrounded him including the dimmed eyesight late in life. And what do we have from his pen? A huge raft of some of the most glorious and inventive music ever written. (my editorial opinion)

    Of course he fought with pompous town and church officials. What else can one do who is indentured to their whims? Who, today, would be able to discharge those duties without assistance and without getting just a little tired of the whole gig, knowing it wasn’t appreciated, even as the ink was drying?

    I’m not a musicologist. You’ll find me somewhere in the audience and when I’m not in the audience, I’m often thinking of Bach, and in the warmer parts of the year, humming a fugue or two as I ride my motorcycle.

  • Nuno Ivo Cruz says:

    How un-German of JS! Could he be southern-european after all?