What did Anna Magdalena Bach look like?

In a catalogue of portraits, printed in 1790, we find: “Bach, (Anna Magd.) Sopranistin, J.S. zweyte Frau. In Oel gemahlt von Cristofori. 2 Fuß, 1 Zoll hoch, 23 Zoll breit. In goldenen Rahmen“ –Bach, (Anna Magd.) Soprano, J.S. second wife. Painted in oil by Cristofori. 2 feet 1 inch high, 23 inches wide. In a gold frame” (see figure I).

Figure I: Catalogue of the musical estate of the deceased music director Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach,

Hamburg, 1790, page 95

This painting was owned by her stepson Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. After his death in 1788 the heirs had a catalogue printed to offer parts of the estate for sale. In the list of portraits of various persons, of which Carl Philipp Emanuel possessed a large number, a portrait of Anna Magdalena Bach appears. Unfortunately, little is known of its subsequent fate. I estimate the chances of finding it as very low. The portrait must include a clear indication that it depicts Anna Magdalena Bach. As she is very well known as the wife of Johann Sebastian Bach, such a painting would have already been discovered, if it still exists. So, the answer to the question posed in the title is very disillusioning: we don’t know. All images that show Anna Magdalena Bach in publications or the Internet are more or less pretty illustrations, but not authentic.

It is also not helpful to draw any conclusions about her appearance from the fact that she was a court singer. Of course, it is possible that she thought it necessary to make use of her feminine attractiveness during her performances (but this still does not say anything about her appearance). Ideas of this sort are material for romantic novels and remain pure phantasy. Perhaps it was quite different, and she hated this sort of performance and when on stage wanted the music to speak for itself (which does not have to mean that she was not attractive). The fact remains: We do not know!

One theory that says a certain engraving depicts Anna Magdalena Bach has proved very persistent. It is an image (see figure II) from “Singende Muse an der Pleiße” (“Singing Muse on the Pleisse”, the Pleisse is the river that runs through Leipzig).

Figure II: Engraving from Sperontes “Singende Muse an der Pleiße”

This booklet appeared in Leipzig in 1732. It includes various texts with a very simple musical accompaniment. The author is a certain Sperontes, whose real name was Johann Sigismund Scholze. Examining the picture quickly shows that it is of an allegorical nature. There is a satyr peering out from under a table and the god Hermes is playing a keyboard instrument. This alone makes it doubtful that the other characters are portraits, and that Johann Sebastian Bach is at the table in the foreground with Anna Magdalena (see figure III).

Figure III: Detail from figure II

A lady is playing a keyboard instrument, most probably a clavichord. The man listening is wearing a wig that only slightly covers his ears. This is somewhat similar to that worn by Johann Sebastian Bach in the well-known portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. But to draw conclusions about specific people from the shape of a wig and the playing of a keyboard is very audacious. Leipzig had 30 000 inhabitants at that time. There were many people there who enjoyed music. If that were not the case, the “Singende Muse an der Pleiße” would not have had any buyers. The simple songs in this publication are the opposite of the type for which Johann Sebastian Bach was, and still is, famous. His printed compositions were aimed at a proficient audience, and are characterised by a high degree of complexity.

When the “Singende Muse an der Pleiße” was published, Johann Sebastian Bach had already been married to Anna Magdalena for 15 years. Music of a very high standard could always be heard in their household. It was being taught, practiced and rehearsed there. Is it really conceivable that Johann Sebastian Bach was listening to his wife playing while people close by were talking to each other, playing cards and striking billiard balls? I do not believe that the couple would have taken pleasure in carrying an instrument to this public place and going to the trouble of tuning it for that.

This image is intended to show the atmosphere in which the booklet “Singende Muse an der Pleiße” would be appropriate. I find it misleading to create a picture of Anna Magdalena Bach with the aid of this engraving. An empty golden frame without a picture would (unfortunately) be more appropriate.

Translation: Alan Shepherd