From Status to Contract: The Unhappy Case of Johann Sebastian Bach

29 Pages Posted: 29 Apr 2014 Last revised: 9 Jun 2016

See all articles by Jonathan Yovel

Jonathan Yovel

NYU School of Law - Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice; University of Haifa - Faculty of Law; Yale Law School

Date Written: June 17, 2014


In May of 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach was appointed Musical Director and Cantor of the Thomasschule, the city musical academy, in the mercantile city of Leipzig, a laboratory for an emerging self-conscious urban bourgeoisie. Bach departed from a tiny 1700s feudal court, moving to a devout, materialistic, new-money city ecstatic with the sense of its own progress and modernization. Socially and politically, he left behind one Europe and joined another.

Not less significant, although generally ignored by scholarship, was the matter of Bach’s legal status. Up to this point in his career, Bach always served as a status-determined servant within a feudal hierarchy. In Leipzig he signed a contract of employment; no longer a servant, he became an employee. In a sense he embodied Henry Maine’s characterization of modernity as a gradual shift “from status to contract.” And in most respects, his life turned much to the worse.

This essay explores the failings of contract in early modernity through Bach’s case, and especially how contract perpetuated hierarchical social structures he was ostensibly leaving behind. Bach was a modern in his entrepreneurial spirit; to the extent that he finally did manage to take advantage of contract — a later period that coincided with a decline in his liturgical output — that was not due to a supposed “freedom of contract” in any sense of empowerment or even bargaining, but to contract’s relative incomprehensiveness and fracturing of social and professional roles.

Finally, in his legal and quasi-legal claims, Bach relied on “obligation projectors” that had no formal or textual representation, driving the modern paradigm of relational contract deeper into times that precede the industrial revolution.

Keywords: Contracts, Legal history, JS Bach, Early modernity, Relational contracts, Musical biography

JEL Classification: K12

Suggested Citation

Yovel, Jonathan, From Status to Contract: The Unhappy Case of Johann Sebastian Bach (June 17, 2014). 27 Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 501-519 (2014); NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 14-21. Available at SSRN:

Jonathan Yovel (Contact Author)

NYU School of Law - Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice ( email )

New York
United States

University of Haifa - Faculty of Law ( email )

Mount Carmel
Haifa, 31905

Yale Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203.435.5911 (Phone)

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