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Kuhnau, Johann (1660-1722)  

Johann Kuhnau

born: 6 April 1660
died: 5 June 1722
country: Germany

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The name of Johann Kuhnau (1660–1722) often evokes a shadowy figure who lives in the footnotes of Bach biographies, someone who forms part of the background musical culture against which Bach can ever more brightly shine. Indeed it was Kuhnau who inspired Bach in his choice of the title Clavier-Übung for four keyboard publications; it was he who collaborated with Bach in the examination of an organ at Halle in 1716; and he whom Bach succeeded as cantor of the Thomaskirche, Leipzig, in 1723. Furthermore, Kuhnau’s nephew, Johann Andreas, was Bach’s first principal copyist of cantata parts and must have enjoyed a close association with the new cantor.

Nevertheless, not only was Kuhnau a remarkable composer in his own right but he was also talented and active in many ways which Bach did not share. Having trained and practised as a lawyer, he was a prolific theorist, a talented linguist, and even wrote a satirical novel, Der musicalische Quacksalber (1700), on what he considered to be the shallow and superficial trends in contemporary music. In all, he is arguably the last ‘Renaissance man’ in the field of musical composition. Having received his early musical education in one of the greatest centres of German musical culture, Dresden, Kuhnau may well have encountered the aged Heinrich Schütz (who died in 1672) and thus he must be virtually the only significant figure to have experienced the environments of both Schütz and Bach.

Kuhnau provides us with a remarkable view of the late orthodox Lutheran conception of music, an art which is to be taken utterly seriously and which, even in its secular forms, must be written with a view to its religious and metaphysical value. The introductions to his pictorial sonatas for keyboard (Biblische Historien, 1700) and to one of his cantata cycles provide a remarkable account of his views on the function and substance of music: music can elaborate the meanings implied by a text (just as the same passage in different languages can evoke several layers of connotation); furthermore, music is a natural mathematical structure which, by its very nature, enlivens human emotions and intuitions, even in the absence of text. Kuhnau’s first two published sets of keyboard music, the Clavier-Übung (1689, 1692), each present seven partitas on each successive note of the diatonic scale, the first set in the major mode, the second in the minor. They are designed for the edification of experienced musicians and also to provide ‘refreshment for spirits fatigued by other studies’. Here we see the beginning of the tendency towards thoroughness and comprehensiveness which is so familiar in the keyboard works of Bach. The second volume also includes a sonata after the final partita, marking the introduction of the Italianate instrumental genre and its concomitant styles into German keyboard music. The Frische Clavier-Früchte of 1696 presents seven further ‘fresh fruits’ of the sonata genre.

Though Kuhnau spoke out against modern operatic style in his later years as Thomaskantor (his position was, for a time, greatly threatened by the activities of the young upstart Telemann), he evidently had an interest in opera since he assisted, in his capacity as a lawyer, in the founding of the Leipzig opera house. His final – and most celebrated – publication, the Musicalische Vorstellung einiger Biblischer Historien of 1700, shows a remarkable assimilation of dramatic musical styles. Although Kuhnau points to the obvious precedent of Froberger in the writing of programme music, these sonatas are the first keyboard works to present a detailed narrative verbal programme (with the exception of one sonata by Poglietti) and, as such, are virtually unparalleled before the nineteenth century.

Kuhnau had been organist of the Leipzig Thomaskirche since 1684 but he did not take over the post of cantor of the Thomasschule and Director musices for the major Leipzig churches until 1701; thus most of his church music must date from after the keyboard publications. Just as Bach was to experience twenty years later, Kuhnau suffered continual vexation in his new post and soon gained the reputation of an embittered conservative. Much of this may be attributed to the short tenure of Telemann as director of music at the Leipzig new church (1701–5). In this capacity the young law student was allowed to produce music with his new collegium musicum entirely independently of Kuhnau’s official monopoly of the town church music and – with his youthful flair and up-to-date music – he attracted students who would otherwise have filled the empty places in Kuhnau’s choir and orchestra. The Leipzig opera was also a drain on the student resources and Kuhnau seems to have developed a moral antipathy to the opera – somewhat ironic, given his significant role in its founding. He repeatedly petitioned the town council regarding the erosion of his rights and sought to discredit Telemann as an ‘opera musician’. Matters must have sunk to a new low when Kuhnau became critically ill in 1703 and Telemann not only substituted for him but was also approached as a potential successor. This whole episode may have inspired Kuhnau to inveigh against operatic church music in the introduction to a set of cantata libretti, suggesting that the new Italian operatic genres and styles carried the wrong connotations within the context of church music.

Only comparatively recently has Kuhnau’s church music been given even a modicum of the attention it deserves. The impression gained from his later reputation and apparent antipathy towards innovation is entirely overturned. Indeed, his church music is full of just the Italianate forms he condemned in the overly ‘operatic’ church composers of the time.

from notes by John Butt © 1998

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