300 years ago today (April 22) the Leipzig Town Council unanimously selected Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) to become the 17th Thomaskantor and the world of sacred music has never been the same. This appointment sparked a period of unparalleled creative activity that left the world with some of the most meaningful, sublime, and joyful music ever composed. Below is a summary of the events that led up to this date and the events through the end of May when Bach began teaching at the school.
- June 5 – Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) dies. A polymath, Kuhnau served as the 16th Thomaskantor for 21 years.
- August 9 – Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767) auditions for the post leading two of his cantatas for the worship service.
- August 11 – The Leipzig Town Council offers the position to Telemann.
- September 3 and October 15 – Telemann requests dismissal from his positions in Hamburg contrasting his situation with the more favorable offer from the town of Leipzig. The Hamburg senate decides to retain “this famous man and virtuoso” at all costs.
- November 6 – Telemann turns down the Leipzig offer after receiving a raise and other favorable improvements to his positions in Hamburg.
- November 29 – Several other minor candidates audition but are passed over.
- December 21 – Christoph Graupner (1683-1760) and Johann Sebastian Bach apply for the position.
- January 15 – Graupner is unanimously chosen on the condition his audition is successful. As a precaution, Bach is also invited to audition.
- January 17 – Graupner auditions and is offered the position. He subsequently seeks release from his position in Darmstadt.
- February 7 – Bach auditions for the post as Cantor and Music Director in Leipzig. For the audition he leads two cantatas for the Sunday worship service, one before the sermon and one after. The cantatas are Cantata 22 “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe” (“Jesus Gathered the Twelve Unto Himself”) and Cantata 23 “Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn” (“You, True God and Son of David”).
- March 23 – Graupner fails to obtain a release from his position in Darmstadt. In his letter informing the Leipzig Town Council he recommends they consider Bach stating that he is “a musician just as strong on the organ as he was experienced in church matters and choral music, who would provide the assigned function honestly and duly”.
- April 13 – Bach receives an official letter of dismissal from the Prince of Cöthen.
- April 19 – Bach signs a preliminary pledge of employment to the Leipzig Town Council.
- April 22 – Leipzig city officials unanimously select Bach as the 17th Thomaskantor. Being their third choice after Telemann and Graupner, Councilman Abraham Christoph Plaz famously states, “Since we cannot get the best, then we will have to settle for average.”
- May 5 – Bach signs a final pledge to the Leipzig Town Council at the city offices thereby officially accepting the Thomaskantor position.
- May 7-8 – Bach undergoes a rigorous theological examination in Latin. The examination is led by Dr. Johann Schmid, professor of theology at the University of Leipzig, who attests in a document signed May 8 that “Mr. Jo. Sebastian Bach replies to the questions propounded by me in such a wise that I consider that the said person may be admitted to the post of Cantor in the St. Thomas School.”
- May 16 – On Pentecost Sunday Bach officially begins his duties at St. Paul’s Church (the church of the University of Leipzig). Traditionally the Leipzig Cantor assumed duties there four times a year: the first days of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and the Feast of the Reformation. On this Sunday he may have led Cantata 59 “Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten” (“Whoever Loves Me Will Keep My Word”).
- May 22 – Bach and his wife Anna Magdalena along with their five children move from Cöthen to Leipzig in two carriages with four wagons of household goods. They move into the newly renovated apartment in the St. Thomas School.
- May 30 – The first performance of Cantata 75 “Die Elenden sollen essen” (“The Afflicted Shall Eat and Be Satisfied”) for the First Sunday after Trinity. Bach is officially installed as Cantor.
- May 31 – Bach is introduced to the students and faculty of the St. Thomas School and officially begins his duties there.
And the rest is history, although perhaps not all that well-known. We will recount what happens next in future posts. Subscribe to get the updates directly in your Inbox!
Soli Deo Gloria!