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Funeral music for Prince Leopold – a precursor for St Matthew Passion

Klagt, Kinder, klagt es aller Welt (Cry, children, cry to all the world), also called Köthener Trauermusik (Köthen funeral music), BWV 244a was probably composed by J.S. Bach throughout 1727 and 1728 for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt—Köthen. The music is lost, but the libretto survives. As Bach is known to have used musical material which also appeared in his St. Matthew Passion, it has been possible to make reconstructions. One reconstruction attempt was made by Dr. Mark Smith from Adelaide in 2001 and deposited in the Bach Archive Leipzig. We have asked Mark to write this story:

This funeral music was a fitting conclusion to a relationship important to both Bach and Leopold. However, it is also music that has come to us second-hand, imperfect, and poorly understood. Leopold had symptoms of a chronic illness already at the age of 20, and his portrait by J.C. Müller of 1724 shows a man who appears much older than his 29 or 30 years.

In 1725 Bach apparently asked his librettist Picander to write the words for a St. Matthew Passion. By the end of 1726 Bach probably had proceeded with this only part-way, when he made one of his regular visits back to Köthen. At that time he could well have mentioned this new Passion to Leopold. Perhaps the sick prince had already decided to commission Bach to compose some magnificent funeral music in advance. (One can imagine how Leopold could derive comfort from this.) Bach would then undoubtedly have in mind, that this high quality music would never be heard again after the funeral, unless he could reuse it in a regularly performed piece, such as his new Passion. Thus 17 movements from this funeral music are now more or less preserved in this Passion.

In the funeral music, Bach also included two movements based on music he had composed in 1716 for the funeral of Prince Johann Ernst in Weimar. Leopold died on 19 November 1728 (aged almost 34), and his funeral was held in the large principal church in Köthen, St. Jakob, with a burial service in the evening of 23 March 1729, and a memorial service the next morning. Part I of Bach's funeral music was performed during the service on the 23rd, and Parts II, III, and IV on the 24th. 

The first movement of this music was probably very different in character from the music that survives in BWV 198. The first word "Klagt", and the massive discords in the first bar, suggest a much more powerful music.Therefore, instead of the gambas and lutes in BWV 198, a prominent organ-part (perhaps played by Bach himself, the celebrated organist) seems appropriate.                                                                 

Leopold's love of the theatre, and even some light humour, seem to be reflected in movements 15 and 19. In no. 15 the solo bass singer is accompanied by a gamba. During this aria, he probably began next to Leopold's tomb, and then walked to the organ loft at the other end of the nave, as though the spirit of Leopold had risen from his grave. (Leopold had been a fine bass singer and a 'gambist.)  

No. 19 has a small group of singers and instrumentalists (representing departed spirits), who must have walked from the organ loft to Leopold's tomb, where in the last movement (no. 24), they performed as an echo to the main group in the organ-loft. 

This funeral, with its highly expressive music, must have been very moving, especially with Anna Magdalena Bach (who had known Leopold well), as a prominent solo soprano. 19 days later in Leipzig, Bach performed (evidently for the first time) his St. Matthew Passion. 


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