After the death of the highly respected organist of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany, in 1722, a select group of composers gathers, all aspiring to this coveted position. The composers compete in an age when patronage determines the direction of a man’s life, a key to survival, fame and fortune the products of such an esteemed position.
Introducing the characters, each act of Bach at Leipzig is prefaced by a composer penning a letter that outlines his desire to be organist, each convinced that he is the right man for the job, that his is the righteous path. The missives are then flown by carrier pigeon to the addressees. The six applicants assemble, each bringing a unique talent to the audition, but, more importantly, his political aspirations. Occupation, religion and politics are inextricable in this century, Leipzig a staunch Lutheran stronghold against the advances of Catholicism.
In order to diminish competition, various characters gather for clandestine meetings, making deals that reveal their personal ambitions. In contrast, when the entire group is together, the conversation is laced with double entendres and a facile manipulation of facts, the composers’ apparent bonhomie a façade for negotiations already set in play.
Religious persuasion is critical since the Reformation, beliefs and politics combined to defend the purity of the faith from those who would dilute God’s word in pursuit of personal expediency. In this particular gathering, competing factions proffer a variety of beliefs on predestination, Lutheran traditionalism challenged by the Calvinists‘ “standards” for achieving heaven, while Pietists “embrace an individual spirituality that frees them from all limits,” pure joy divorced from God and available to everyone.
This ingenious play reveals the farcical manipulations and skullduggery behind the scenes of the auditions as musicians resort to bribery and blackmail, religious concerns set aside, in a bid for the coveted position. Based on real persons and events, the humor is pervasive, the contestants revealing their very human flaws and willingness to negotiate in the pursuit of success.
As the play evolves, both politics and religion converge in a drawing-room farce that reaches beyond the secluded world of this appointment. Secret agendas unveiled in a rollicking exchange of broad humor, Bach at Leipzig is a subtle reminder that “politics is only war by other means,” proving once more that nothing is what it seems. The composers are faced with an age-old conundrum, “People . . . have little interest in music or religion. I don’t know what they will call this age . . . its chief characteristic is a profound lack of enlightenment.”