Geising, April 6, 1660 – Lipsia, June 5, 1722

Johann Kuhnau

A surely less well-known branch of that fertile Saxon stock which produced many great musicians, from Händel to Telemann, from Schumann to Kurt Weill, Johann Kuhnau (1660 – Leipzig 1722) was born in Geising, a short distance from Dresden. There he began his musical studies and, at least in theory, he would have been able to meet Heinrich Schütz, that great liaison between two eras and two worlds (Italy and Germany). Although he was a contemporary – or almost – of the more famous Buxtehude and Pachelbel, he did not enjoy the same posthumous glory they did. In fact, outside the world of scholars and specialists, Kuhnau is mostly remembered for having preceded Bach as Kantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig, for his reputation of being somewhat left of musical bigotry (contrasting his rival Telemann), for the universality of his knowledge, which bore many Renaissance traits and enabled him to be jurist, mathematician, satirist, linguist as well as musician and musical scholar, but above all he is remembered for his Biblical Sonatas, the full title of this work being, Musicalische Vorstellung einiger biblischen Historien in sechs Sonaten auf dem Claviere zu spielen. Published in 1700, it coincided chronologically with the dawn of a new century. Still the body of Kuhnau’s work is much more important than what the accumulation of the debris of history can lead one to believe. Thanks to the recent celebration of his 350th anniversary, his works have become slightly more well-known, at least in recordings. In particular his sacred music, which straddles two, apparently contradictory poles: the severe, Lutheran concept of music, which places much attention on the text, and a mature Baroque concept, which enchants with its melodic lyricism, is worthy of comparison with much better known Bach cantatas. It is in keyboard music where Kuhnau’s fame has survived through the centuries without too many difficulties. The composer produced many works, such as Nueue Clavier-Übung, which inspired Bach in both its title and its intent to teach, and the Frische Clavier-Früchte from 1696. Yet, as noted above, the Biblischen Historien remain his most famous compositions as well as one of the first, astonishing examples of descriptive music. Even though program music was not an absolute novelty for his time (think of a Froberger, a Biber, or even to our little-known Poglietti with his Capriccio sopra la ribellione di Ungheria of 1671), it is not until 1800 that something comparable in amplitude and importance to these sonatas really appeared. And if it is true that, from a technical point of view, they cannot be considered program music in the strictest sense of the term, because their musical structure remains autonomous and the extramusical element that is grafted on there never has a determining impact on the form, the hybrid nature of the work contributes sine dubio to the beauty of this very singular unicum. For the most part, from a formal point of view, the work consists of six musical comments on six biblical narratives, each in turn, further divided into episodes, which often contain vivid and dramatic scenes. Composed to be played on either the sacred keyboard (the organ) or the secular keyboard (the harpsichord), the author himself indicated the latter was better suited to narrate in sound the vitality of the world in biblical episodes. The various episodes are preceded by introductory recitatives, which were originally written in Old Italian but here are translated into modern language, and which are recited by an actor as it would be in a live concert.

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