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Sex, Death, and Minuets

Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks

At one time a star in her own right as a singer, Anna Magdalena (1701–60) would go on to become, through her marriage to the older Johann Sebastian Bach, history’s most famous musical wife and mother. The two musical notebooks belonging to her continue to live on, beloved by millions of pianists young and old. Yet the pedagogical utility of this music—long associated with the sound of children practicing and mothers listening—has encouraged a rosy and one-sided view of Anna Magdalena as a model of German feminine domesticity.
            Sex, Death, and Minuets offers the first in-depth study of these notebooks and their owner, reanimating Anna Magdalena as a multifaceted historical subject—at once pious and bawdy, spirited and tragic. In these pages, we follow Magdalena from young and flamboyant performer to bereft and impoverished widow—and visit along the way the coffee house, the raucous wedding feast, and the family home. David Yearsley explores the notebooks’ more idiosyncratic entries—like its charming ditties on illicit love and searching ruminations on mortality—against the backdrop of the social practices and concerns that women shared in eighteenth-century Lutheran Germany, from status in marriage and widowhood, to fulfilling professional and domestic roles, money, fashion, intimacy and sex, and the ever-present sickness and death of children and spouses. What emerges is a humane portrait of a musician who embraced the sensuality of song and the uplift of the keyboard, a sometimes ribald wife and oft-bereaved mother who used her cherished musical notebooks for piety and play, humor and devotion—for living and for dying.

336 pages | 29 halftones, 35 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2019

New Material Histories of Music

History: European History

Music: General Music

Women's Studies


"Yearsley's entertaining but strictly historical focus on the Notebooks of Anna Magdalena Bach trains its razor-sharp lens on the talented wife-consort of the Leipzig master, with both of them emerging from the dour shadows of their stone monuments as delightful 'flesh-and-blood' figures who indulge a love of domestic music rampant with ruminations on earthly mortality as well as with humorous puns and ‘lowbrow’ eroticism. That both Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian Bach saw no contradiction between ‘real-world’ obsessions and their well-documented Christian piety sheds a welcome light on more familiar tropes of Bachian pain and suffering never divorced from spirits and bodies inhabiting the 'here-and-now.' A portrait of Anna Magdalena as accomplished singer and keyboardist in her own right—perhaps even as organist—places her among leading Leipzig literary figures who were also female, thereby spinning out a fascinating tale of women whose cultivation of music-making rivaled that of theatre and poetry."

Laurence Dreyfus, University of Oxford

"A stimulating and tremendously enjoyable reanimation of Anna Magdalena Bach and her music. Yearsley's account—sympathetic, myth-busting, historically nuanced, musically sensitive, erudite yet thoroughly readable—will doubtless stand as the definitive account of the 'Bachin' and her notebooks for years to come."

Bettina Varwig, University of Cambridge

“David Yearsley’s Sex, Death, and Minuets paints a warm, insightful, and compelling portrait of Anna Magdalena Bach while taking the reader on a fascinating excursion into the world of her musical notebooks.”

Matthew Dirst, University of Houston

“With irreverent voice, disarming wit and a very sharp ear, Yearsley unpacks the many secrets hidden in the better known of the two notebooks that belonged to Sebastian Bach’s second wife, a gifted singer about whom we know next to nothing. In this vivid tour through its provocative pages, Yearsley’s dextrous scholarship discovers a vibrant life beneath the surface of the austere Lutheran Leipzig in which the Bachs flourished. A stunning achievement with a surprise on every page.”

Richard Kramer, author of Cherubino’s Leap and Unfinished Music

“In his fact-based portrayal of this gifted and underappreciated musician, wife, and mother, Yearsley provides insightful commentary on the Bach family’s musical life and also an insightful overview of the culture in which the Bachs lived. Yearsley’s touching account of Anna Magdalena’s impoverished, ten-year widowhood exemplifies the sad fate of many widows of the time. This is an important and fascinating book. . . . Highly recommended.”


“Johann Sebastian and Anna Magdalena, an accomplished soprano and skilled harpsichordist, compiled two notebooks of music by himself and others, as well as additional annotations. Musicologists have laboured to rationalise these marvels for generations. . . . This is an informed, punctilious account of the Bachs in their historical context, with fair-minded, even-handed explorations of whether Anna Magdalena might have composed music (none survives) or played the organ (quite possibly).”

Benjamin Ivry | Times Higher Education

“A fresh re-examination of Bach’s music from literary, social, theological and political perspectives. . . . [Sex, Death, and Minuets] winningly harmonises sacred and secular aspects of Bach’s life and work.”

International Piano Magazine

“Singer, musical copyist, second wife of one of music’s most revered composers, Anna Magdalena Bach remains a shadowy figure for biographers. Yearsley takes the musical notebooks that bear her name as the starting point for a scholarly investigation into her life and times.” 

Financial Times

“In this book David Yearsley corrects the ‘rosy and one-sided view of Anna Magdalena as a model of German feminine domesticity’. . . . excellently researched. . . . Many illustrations and music examples enhance this beautifully produced book."

Classical Music Magazine

"[A] richly absorbing book. . ."

Revue de Musicologie

Table of Contents

Note on Translations and Musical Examples
List of Figures
List of Musical Examples
List of Abbreviations
Chapter One Magdalena Mania
Chapter Two Music for Weddings and Beddings
Chapter Three Death Every Day: The 1725 Notebook and the Art of Dying
Chapter Four Fragment and Fantasy: Anna Magdalena Bach at the Organ
Chapter Five Bitter Bean and Loose Ließgen: On Coffee, Cantatas, and Unwed Daughters
Chapter Six A Widow’s Song
Coda The Minuet Sings
Appendix: Table of Contents of Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notebooks

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