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A Bach A to Z

A to Z - K
K is for Kapellmeister


The word translates from German as 'chapel master', and refers to the most senior (and highly paid) musician at a court.

In Germany, during the 17th and 18th centuries, Kapelle could mean either the music staff (singers and organist) of a church or a court, however in the court context the usage expanded to take in operatic and orchestral activities if the court's music provision extended that far; a good example of this is the court at Dresden, which began with a Hofkapelle , founded in 1648; over time, an orchestra and opera were added, and the organisation (which still exists today) was renamed the Staatskapelle. By the 19 th century, secularisation had contributed to the term Kapellmeister being devalued and latterly used to denote musicians and music-making of inferior rank.

But in Bach's day the Kapellmeister held sway. He held the post at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen (1717-1723); his duties would have included hiring and firing personnel, rehearsing singers and instrumentalists, preparing music lists and composing. When Bach took up the position of Kantor , or director of music, at Leipzig in 1723, he was sensitive to an apparent loss of prestige in losing the Kapellmeister title; accordingly, he solicited - and was granted - the equivalent of an 'honorary' Kapellmeister title from Prince Leopold and his successor.

On his appointment as Kapellmeister at Cöthen, Bach received a salary of 33 Reichsthaler and 8 groschen per month, roughly £1375; he was the second-highest paid court official, and as a measure of his perceived worth (and, no doubt, negotiating skills), he received twice as much as his predecessor Augustin Stricker . 
 
Graeme Kay

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