Why did Bach go to prison?

A desire to change jobs caused Bach to spend almost four weeks in prison. Here we explain more...

Why did Bach go to prison

Johann Sebastian Bach‘s strong awareness of his own genius wouldn’t have made the German composer an easy employee to satisfy. And, indeed, he seemed constantly dissatisfied with his lot throughout his career. This had a particularly dramatic result in the autumn of 1717, when a bid to move jobs actually landed him in prison.

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When did Bach go to prison?

The Weimar court secretary’s minutes concerning Bach’s time in jail state that ‘On 6 November 1717 Bach, till now Konzertmeister and Hoforganist, was put under arrest in [the] justice room for obstinately demanding his instant dismissal. He was released on 2 December with a grudging permission to retire from the Duke’s [Duke Wilhelm Ernst’s] service.’ Harsh treatment indeed, but what sensible employer would want to lose Bach as their personal composer and organist?

How long was Bach in prison for?

Bach was in prison for just under four weeks, and very little is known about what Bach’s prison actually looked like. In reality, the ‘justice room’ in which he was held probably looked more like a comfortable debtors’ prison than a full-on cell. He certainly won’t have been without means of communication and he may perhaps have used the time to compose some of The Well-Tempered Clavier. The musician EL Gerber, whose father had been a Bach pupil in the 1720s, believed that parts of The Well-Tempered Clavier had been written when Bach was ‘bored, depressed and without an instrument’. The idea that he could construct even the most complex counterpoint simply in his head has become one of the most intriguing sides of Bach both as a person and as a composer.

Why did Bach go to prison?

For all his brilliance, however, the status Bach holds today is a far cry from 1717, when it was Georg Philipp Telemann who was sweeping up all the job offers. The ducal chapel at Gotha had made overtures to Telemann earlier that year, hoping he would accept the post of Kapellmeister, and then Duke Wilhelm Ernst himself also tried secure Telemann’s services for the same position at the Weimar court – a job that Bach himself coveted. As it happened, Telemann turned down both these jobs in favour of his long-term position in Frankfurt. But Bach’s disappointment at the Duke passing him over for promotion in favour of an external appointment must have been intense.

Happily, by August Bach had secured a job as Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen. His current employer, however, evidently wanted to have his cake and eat it – having previously snubbed Bach for the role of Kapellmeister, the Duke was nonetheless damned if he was going to let him go to find a similar job elsewhere. The subsequent confrontation led to Bach’s arrest and imprisonment, setting something of a dramatic precedent in Weimar. When, several years later, Duke Wilhelm Ernst’s successor August Ernst had to deal with a troublesome horn player’s resignation, the unfortunate musician was sentenced to 100 lashes and prison. When caught escaping prison, the poor man was hanged.

What did Bach do when he came out of prison?

Bach’s brief time inside ended more peacefully, of course. On his release, he settled into his new role in Cöthen, where he would write some of his most famous instrumental music including the suites for solo cello, sonatas and partitas for solo violin, the Brandenburg concertos and the English Suites.

What was Bach’s last job?

But just four years later he was starting to look elsewhere again. Dissatisfied with life in Cöthen, Bach’s hunt for a new job eventually took him to Leipzig in 1723 as music director and cantor of St Thomas Church in Leipzig. And there he remained for the rest of his life.

Top image by Getty Images

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