From 1708 to 1717, Bach worked at the court of Saxony-Weimar. It was here that he wrote most of his organ works, and became rather famous as an organist. In 1714, he started a regular series of church cantatas, performing them once a month at the ducal chapel and sometimes at the Town Church.
Two dukes co-reigned the duchy, each from their own palace. They were in a constant feud with each other.
Wilhelm Ernst (1662-1728) was the dominant of the two. He was Bach’s official employer and a strong supporter of Bach’s organ compositions. The chapel with the famous organ (65 feet above the ground!) was in his palace (the Wilhelmsburg, pictured above) and it was with him that Bach negotiated the monthly cantata performances in the chapel starting in 1714. The Wilhelmsburg, including the chapel and the music library, was almost entirely destroyed in a fire in 1774. Only the tower and gate house are still standing today:
However, it is believed that Bach preferred to spend time with the other duke, Ernst August (1688-1748), in the Red Palace. Ernst August, only three years younger than Bach, was the nephew of Wilhelm Ernst, a great lover of chamber music, and a good musician himself. Part of the Red Palace (so called for the red window frames in the otherwise grey-colored castle) still exists today, and houses the Duchess Amalia Library:
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), who worked 50 miles away in Eisenach, was a frequent visitor of the Red Palace, and one of Bach’s many cousins, Johann Gottfried Walther (1684-1748), was the music teacher of Ernst August. Note how close in age these men were: Telemann born in 1681, Walther in 1684, Bach in 1685, and Ernst August in 1688.
Since Walther was also the organist of the Town Church, Bach might have had access to that organ in addition to the organ in the chapel in the Wilhelmsburg. It might also have been in this church that the 1713 version of Cantata 21 was performed, for the funeral of Aemilia Maria Harress. On feast days, Bach’s cantatas were most probably also performed in this Stadtkirche (Town Church), because larger instrumental ensembles would not have fitted on the small organ loft of the ducal chapel. The church, also known as Peter und Pauli Kirche (Peter and Paul Church) or Herderkirche still exists:
Bach and his wife Maria Barbara lived in an apartment on the town square, a short walk from the Wilhelmsburg, but directly around the corner from the Red Palace. The apartment building (now a parking lot) was owned by a fellow court musician, and many of Bach’s colleagues lived there. Bach’s first six children were born here, including Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, the latter receiving that particular middle name because of his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann.
In this satellite picture of modern-day Weimar the location of Bach's apartment is indicated as "house" and the Red Palace as "Rote Schloss."
For the monthly church cantatas, Wilhelm Ernst specifically indicated in the 1714 contract that Bach could use any musician from either palace. The two dukes employed two boy sopranos, one male alto, two tenors, and two basses. Bach could also use boy choristers from the local gymnasium, where his own former principal from Ohrdruf was the rector.
Only two days before the first cantata was to be performed in March 1714, Wilhelm Ernst wrote an addendum stating that all cantata rehearsals had to be in the chapel, and could not be at someone’s house or in other lodgings. Why did he write this? Were the musicians practicing in Bach’s apartment, or in the Red Palace? We will never know but we can only imagine ...