When Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) married his second wife in 1721, he was already an established organist, court and chamber musician, and Kapellmeister. His new bride, the twenty-year-old Anna Magdalena Wilcke, came from a prestigious family of musicians and was herself an accomplished singer. In fact, she was employed at the Cöthen court, where her husband served as court conductor. After their marriage, the couple started right away on a keyboard notebook (Clavier-Büchlein in German) for Anna Magdalena’s practice. Eventually they collected two separate books (begun in 1722 and 1725), which are known today as the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. Anna Magdalena’s musicianship and work ethic proved to be a valuable asset to the family; for, in addition to being Bach’s principal copyist, she also provided opportunities, in part through her Keyboard Notebook, for the whole family to make music together.
To a music student 300 years ago, a keyboard notebook occupied a central place in one’s music library. Such a notebook held works by a number of composers, including one’s own teacher. The pieces demonstrated stylistic variety in the form of dance suites, preludes, fugues, and chorales. Due to the high cost of printed music, the student would transcribe most of the pieces in the notebook by hand. Students would also write their own compositions in their keyboard notebooks, since composition formed a critical part of their music training. For the most part, these books were intended for use in the home, not as professional publications.
J.S. Bach likely had his own keyboard notebook as a child, but it evidently has not survived. At a fairly early age, however, he coveted his brother’s notebook, which Christoph had painstakingly collected when he was a pupil of Pachelbel (a composer known today largely for his Canon in D). Christoph’s book included several pieces by his famous teacher, but after Johann Sebastian had copied it—which he did by hand and in complete secrecy—his brother immediately confiscated it.
Anna Magdalena’s notebooks occupied a perfectly ordinary place in her musical life, but the contents make them extraordinary. The five short harpsichord suites that open the set eventually became Bach’s French Suites, so named for the collection of short, stylized dance forms that originated in France. In addition to other pieces written by Bach, the notebooks include works by Couperin, Stolzel, Petzold, and Hasse. Anna Magdalena’s talent as a singer is evident in the numerous songs and arias, including the “Aria” from the Goldberg Variations, purportedly her favorite composition by her husband. The pieces were hand-written by Johann Sebastian, Anna Magdalena, or one of their sons, but several of whom became successful composers. A number of the pieces have no author attributed to them, but scholars believe that Anna Magdalena or one of the children wrote many of them.
The notebooks undoubtedly occupied a central place in the Bach family’s musical life, and Anna Magdalena was probably quite proud of them. She even created a decorative front cover for her collection. She gathered the music over the course of fifteen years, and, although scholars estimate that the original notebook held as many as 75 pages, sadly only 25 remain today. We can only imagine what is missing from history’s most important keyboard notebook.