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Discover the Story Behind "Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach"

In the 18th century, registering music in a written format was a prevalent part of every musician’s work. Johann Sebastian Bach was no exception and had crafted two notebooks for his 2nd wife, Anna Magdalena. These notebooks served as both a family journal and a medium of instruction. It contained selections and entries by various family members over a vast period of time. The entries in the notebook are rich in diversity, featuring chorales, arias, solo harpsichords – offering a rare glimpse into the musical legacy of the illustrious Bach family.

Origin 

The Notebook spans over two separate versions - titled “Clavier-Buchlein Vor Anna Magdalena Bachin” (Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach). It must be noted that the famous compilation is generally associated with the 2nd publication, which has a more widespread appeal in the musical community. There’s a stark difference between the two publications - the former comprising exclusive works by Johann Sebastian himself, while the 2nd notebook incorporated the works of several artists.

Notebook for Anna Magdalena cover for 25 Pfeiffer

However, the modern renditions of the notebook don’t contain all the works – some are studies for “basso continuo,” some are vocal while some are incomplete. Basically, modern publishers exercise discretion while choosing which pieces to include.       

Overview

It all started with the widespread common trend among artistic families of creating their own house albums. Also, this practice was not limited to the field of music, but also a common occurrence among artists who created family albums of short stories, paintings, and poetry.

Three such albums were discovered in the Bach household. The first one, “Clavier Notebook” is dedicated to Bach’s first son. It is dated 1720 and was completed prior to the Bach and Anna Magdalena’s nuptials. The second and third notebooks were dated 1722 and 1725 respectively and were gifted to Anna. The 1725 one was an illustrious gift, draped by gorgeous green leather, with a gold cornice completing the frame. The notebook comprised of two clasps and was also wrapped in red satin ribbons. The middle part of the notebook contained an engraved inscription “AMB,” the acronym of the first 3 letters of Anna Magdalena Bach. The year, “1725” was engraved below it. 

Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach's cover

At that time, Bach’s three children - John Gottfried Bernhard, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Wilhelm Friedemann were 10, 11 and 15 years old respectively. The notebooks were specifically used for household usage. The children were supposed to study their father’s work, make first entries into the polyphony and also practice the art of accompaniment. The collection is one true portrait of European music in the early 18th century.

Anna Magdalena

Anna Magdalena Bach & J. S. Bach portait

According to musicologists, Anna Magdalena was somewhat overshadowed by her legendary partner. She is mainly famous for being the partner and the recipient of the Notebook by Johann Sebastian Bach. Anna was a proficient musician in Germany and continued her performances even after completing her nuptials. In 1729, she received an invitation to perform at Prince Leopold’s funeral. She was also a regular host of dinner galas at the Bach manor, where family members and friends used to experiment and perform with their art. During that time, the Bach family was the beating heart of the artistic community in Leipzig. According to J.S. Bach – “she could perform decent soprano.”

Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian had enjoyed a productive and radiant partnership, music contributing as their common catalyst of interest. Unfortunately, when Bach passed away in 1850, their children parted ways owing to disagreements. Anna Magdalena was left to depend on government handouts and charity for survival. She finally passed away in 1860.

Recent studies have suggested that Anna Magdalena might also have crafted some of the compositions under her husband’s name – namely the Aria from the “Goldberg Variations,” (BWV 988) and the 6 cello suites (BWV 1007-1012). However, this claim isn’t universally acclaimed, partly because there’s no real evidence for such facts. On the contrary, Anna composing them can surely be a possibility; being a fine musician herself.    

The Notebook

The first Notebook (1722 version) contains numerous pieces crafted by Johann Sebastian himself, including short organ pieces, air with variations and fragments of French Suites in “C minor” (BWV 813) and “D minor” (BWV 812.)

The 1725 version (Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach) followed a broadside format, had a gilt-edged binding of vellum and was laid out lavishly. It definitely looked like a gift that was created to celebrate an intimate and special occasion. 

The book opens with Bach’s partitas in “E minor” (BWV 830) and “A minor” (BWV 827) - followed by various contributions from different composers and writers. The pieces are not specifically arranged in any particular order and are often interspersed with Johann Sebastian’s own contributions. Most of the shorter pieces, a large portion of the vocal arrangements, and chorales originate from Bach’s children and contemporaries. The compositions follow the pre-classical and post-baroque styles consistently and also reflect a change in musical taste compared to the music of Bach himself.          

Most pieces were clearly crafted to satisfy the musical cravings of Anna Magdalena and her vocal talents. The other items were intended as educational musical instruction for the children. The Notebook closes with the “Principal VI rules” of figured-bass realization.   

The Notebook is also enriched with chorales, arias, dances and other types of musical pieces. The most noted contributors included - Johann Adolf Hasse, Georg Bohm, François Couperin, Christian Petzold, Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach, and other friends of the family. It was a combined family effort; Anna Magdalena herself copied most entries, while Johann Christian Bach, Carl Phillip Emmanuel, and Johann Sebastian also chipping in. The original “Notebook for Anna Magdalena” is preserved at the “Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz” in Berlin, Germany.

A Beginner’s Guide

The Notebook has a prevalent status in the musical community as a fundamental text for beginner and aspiring pianists. Using it as a reference point, both teachers and performers are able to display a unique understanding of Bach’s style and interpret his character of music effectively. The Notebook also allows pedagogues to enrich students to the traditions of the baroque style. It covers a broad array of experience and knowledge which can also represent a challenge for any teacher at a higher level.    

Majority of the pieces are quite accessible technically, which in turn denotes an important didactical value into them. Johann Sebastian was probably aware of the fact that this notebook would provide a simpler and easier initiation to playing keyboard or similar instrument when compared against his compositions such as Sinfonias and Inventions. Also, the fact that the visitors and guests at Bach’s parties were profoundly encouraged to compose or perform new pieces, specifically for the Notebook. The results were promptly copied down.    

Conclusion

An integral part of the modern music curriculum is understanding Bach’s polyphony. The fact that the pedagogic effort required with Johann Sebastian’s artistic work is popularly considered as a demanding hurdle. This isn’t limited to the stylistic stipulations, but rather due to Bach’s lack of any kind of explicit instructions. 

The issues related to Bach’s teaching style will always be up for debate. The fact is, they will gradually increase with time, as more historical facts are gradually accumulated through diverse practices and intensive studies. However, this notebook will remain a testament to the fact that working with beginners is a journey of gradual accumulation of knowledge and experience; and breaching that logic might lead to imbalance.

 

 

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