Born: April 6, 1660; Geising, Germany
Died: June 5, 1722; Leipzig, Germany
A German Baroque composer and keyboard player, Johann Kuhnau was a man of many gifts. A learned intellectual, a writer on music, linguist, philosopher, author of a satiric novel, and successful lawyer, he is remembered today mostly for his keyboard compositions. Kuhnau, however, was an important and influential voice in the German Baroque, particularly in Leipzig, where he was Bach's immediate predecessor as Kantor at the Thomasschule. He cameRead more from a family of musicians and showed an early aptitude for the art. Kuhnau studied music throughout his youth, was a chorister at the Kreuzschule in Dresden, and became a fine organist, but he entered the University of Leipzig as a law student, getting his degree in 1688. In 1689 he married, and over the course of the years had eight children. The years that followed, from 1689 until 1699, were very successful. He was well respected as a musician, particularly as a performer on the organ and as a teacher of music, and his law practice thrived. He wrote his satirical novel, entitled Der Musicalishe Quack-Salber (The Musical Quack), and he studied mathematics, Hebrew, and Greek, French, and Italian.
In 1701 Kuhnau was appointed Kantor at the Thomaskirche and Leipzig University's director of music. He taught music, directed performances, and composed. His competition in those years included the young Telemann, who entered law school in 1701. Telemann founded a collegium musicum, a musical performance association, to rival that of Kuhnau, and even encroached upon some of Kuhnau's duties as Kantor. Kuhnau suffered from severe ill health in his later years, and the city of Leipzig even offered Telemann Kuhnau's position in the event of the latter's death. Johann Friedrich Fasch and Melchior Hoffmann were also active in Leipzig and also numbered among Kuhnau's rivals; in the case of the former, who had been Kuhnau's pupil, the sting must have been especially acute. Nevertheless, Kuhnau was widely admired by his contemporaries and successors, and many German composers of the early eighteeth century either studied with him or otherwise showed his influence.
Kuhnau composed sacred music, secular vocal music, and keyboard music, but all that remains of his output are his keyboard music and his sacred cantatas. The Biblische Historien (Biblical Histories), his last set of keyboard works, are his most famous compositions; these are programmatic works that depict episodes from the Old Testament. They are extremely complex and inventive texturally. Also included in his keyboard works is a set of seven dance suites called the Neue Clavier Übung; both these and the Biblische Historien are notable for their incorporation of instrumental-music devices into keyboard music. Kuhnau's sacred cantatas likely had some influence upon Bach's own Leipzig works in the form. Read less