Johann Kuhnau (1660 – 1722)

Johann Kuhnau (1660 – 1722) was Bach’s predecessor as Kantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, something of a renaissance man, and at the time considered to be the equal of Handel and Telemann, – certainly superior to J.S.Bach. He published an important body of keyboard music (including the first keyboard sonata published by a German composer); but his cantatas were not published and are mostly lost – just a few have been found amongst Bach’s huge collection of cantatas. Uns ist ein Kind geboren is one such. It was indeed assumed in the 19th century to be by Bach himself – Cantata 142, but Bach scholars have long been questioning this.

He was born Johann Kuhn in 1660. His parents were Czech, but being protestants, they had fled to the mountains on the border of Germany to avoid the scourge of the Counter-Reformation.

At the age of 10 Johann went to Dresden to be educated, since he was an exceptionally clever child; he also had a fine voice. Dresden was the home of the court of the Elector of Saxony, Johann Georg II. In 1667, the Elector was offered the presidency of the Fruitbearing Society, which he accepted. The Fruitbearing Society’s main aim was to establish German as the official court language throughout the Holy Roman Empire (rather than French). The Elector also strove to make Dresden a major cultural centre & to this end brought distinguished artists, writers and musicians into his court. His activities as a patron left considerable debts for his descendants to deal with, but it was an environment greatly conducive to the education of young Johann Kuhn. In Dresden he received an education that included French and Italian, the languages of the court; and he sang, learned the organ and composed music much appreciated by the court Kantor, Vincenzo Albrici.

But in 1680 plague came to Dresden. Johann went home, but was soon back at school, this time in Zittau. He was head chorister in the choir of the Johanniskirche. Shortly after this, both the organist and Kantor of the church died, so at the age of 20 Johann Kuhn was asked to act in their stead for a year as organist, choir director and composer.

Two years later Johann became a Law student at Leipzig University. But he impressed the City Council with his musical talent and he became very active as a performer (presumably as a singer and organist?) and as a composer. Rather fashionably, he had at this time italianised his name to Cuno, but it was not long before that turned back into the German-sounding Kuhnau. At the age of 24 he was appointed organist at the Thomaskirche.

Alongside his musical employment, he studied law. By the time he was 29 he had married, was practising law, and was still organist at the Thomaskirche. During the next 10 years over and above his fame as an organist, he became proficient in Maths, Greek and Hebrew, translated French and Italian books into German, wrote a satiric novel, published his substantial and significant body of keyboard music and composed music for the church. In addition he had 8 children and a thriving legal practise.

When he was 41 he was unanimously appointed Kantor at the Thomaskirche, but that was when things started to go downhill. One Georg Telemann enroled at the university, also to study Law, but he, like Kuhnau before him, became very active musically. He established a collegium musicum which was a rival to Kuhnau’s establishment and attracted Kuhnau’s musicians and some of his pupils. He even approached the mayor for permission to compose music for the Thomaskirche, utterly undermining Kuhnau. To rub in salt yet further, in 1703, when Kuhnau was suffering one of several periods of illness, the council asked Telemann to succeed him, should he die.

Kuhnau, in fact, lived for a further 21 years, and although he became very dissatisfied with conditions at the Thomaskirche, he attracted many students who would become distinguished musicians themselves, such was the esteem he was held in by his fellow musicians. He was the last of the Thomaskantors who had something of the ‘renaissance man’ about him. It is easy to see that, at the time, Bach was seen as a less distinguished man – indeed he was in broader terms – he just happened to be one of the greatest musicians ever.

Kuhnau died in June 1722.

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