Johann Adolph Scheibe


Born: May 5, 1708 Died: April 22, 1776
Johann Adolph Scheibe, born in Leipzig in 1708, was a significant critic and theorist of music, as well as composer, of the German Enlightenment. His father, Johann Scheibe, was an organ builder in the city. Though he started keyboard lessons at the age of six, it was determined that Scheibe would pursue a legal career. When, in the course of his university studies, he found his calling in music instead, he embarked on his new career as an essentially self-taught musician and scholar.

It was while studying law at Leipzig University in the mid-1720s that he encountered the influential professor of rhetoric and poetry, Johann Christoph Gottsched, whose aesthetic theories deeply influenced Scheibe. Gottsched's writings, which were primarily targeted toward the reform of German poetry and drama, greatly informed Scheibe's formulation of his philosophy of music.

After Scheibe left the university, he devoted himself to the solitary study of composition and music theory, and practiced the organ in the hopes of finding a position as a performer. When he was frustrated in all three of his attempts to secure employment as an organist in Leipzig, Scheibe moved to Hamburg in 1736, where he gained a foothold as a music critic and composer. In 1737 Scheibe, with Georg Philipp Telemann's encouragement, established the music periodical Critische Musikus. A piece he wrote for the periodical's sixth issue, in which he criticized the style of Johann Sebastian Bach, is the one for which Scheibe is perhaps best known. His comments gave rise to lengthy and heated polemics between the defenders of the mathematical rigor, contrapuntal complexities, dense textures, and intricate ornamentation of the German high Baroque on one side, and on the other, the new generation of scholars who accepted Scheibe's view of rhetoric as the proper foundation of music, and who advocated the values of expressive clarity and natural simplicity.

In 1739, Margrave Friedrich Ernst of Brandenburg-Culmbach named Scheibe his kapellmeister. The next year, upon the invitation of King Christian VI, he became kapellmeister at the Danish court, a position he maintained until the king's death in 1747. The new king retired Scheibe, whereupon he opened a music school for children while continuing to write and compose. He returned to the court as a composer in 1766.

Scheibe believed that musical talent was inborn, and that the musician could express emotions only by subjecting himself to their influence by the force of his imagination. In numerous published treatises and essays, Scheibe explored the nature of taste, melody, expression, and musical invention, and defended a nationalist conception of musical style. His theories, which were advanced for his time, were based on rational principles, purity of expression, the imitation of nature, and the application of the rhetorical arts to the processes of musical creation. Though most of his music is now lost, he composed over 150 church pieces and oratorios, close to 200 concertos, two operas, and numerous sinfonias, chamber pieces, and secular cantatas.

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