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, Augustus, Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels. In 1667, the Duke was offered the presidency of the Fruitbearing Society, which he accepted. With this presidency came the responsibility for fostering the work of artists and scientists. 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.

Click here to find out about the next Kantor at the Thomaskirche.

Britten in America

In early 1939 England war was clearly brewing with rampant fascism across Europe, the UK included. As a homosexual Jewish pacifist with distinct leftist leanings, Britten had every reason to feel vulnerable. Also he was being pilloried by some critics – and he was always
hypersensitive to criticism.
He had also just met Peter Pears, who would become his life-time’s partner, and he had urgent need to disentangle himself from an assortment of ‘romantic attachments’. So in April Britten and Pears left for Canada.


They soon moved on to Woodstock where Aaron Copland was living, spending the summer there; but they settled more permanently at Pears’ friend Elizabeth Mayer’s house.

Mrs. Mayer became something of a mother to Britten, and he dedicated A Ceremony of Carols to her.

Towards the end of his time in USA,
Britten was planning to write a harp concerto. He had therefore been studying the instrument in depth and was now fully primed for composing A Ceremony of Carols. At this time he also composed A Hymn to St.Cecilia.

In March 1942 Britten and Pears set sail from New York, in the Swedish merchant ship Axel Johnson. Passing through emigration the officials confiscated the scores for the Harp Concerto and Hymn to St. Cecilia, thinking they contained subversive messages in code. On the first leg of the voyage, Britten rewrote Hymn to St. Cecilia.

Since America had joined the war after the attack on Pearl Harbour, the eastern seaboard of USA was heavily targeted by German U-boats and many allied vessels were torpedoed during the course of the war. They must have undertaken the crossing with much trepidation.

So the Axel Johnson sailed first to Halifax, Nova Scotia to join its convoy. While waiting in Halifax Britten found an anthology of medieval verse, The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems. During the Atlantic crossing he set 7 of these for boys’ voices and harp. These he expanded to give us ‘A Ceremony of Carols’, completed in 1943.

Jean Baptiste Lully

Jean Baptiste Lully was court composer to Louis XIV (who ascended the throne when he was only 5).

He used his influence on the boy king to secure for himself a monopoly for the composing of operas in France; he blocked the advancement of rivals, such as the much more gifted composers Charpentier and Lalande. Fortunately both flourished well in the immediate perifery of the royal court. Both had strong associations with the Church, and of course Charpentier had the benefit of employment by the Guise court which culturally was rival to that of the royal household.

Back to friends and relations

Charpentier

Marc-Antoine Charpentier was born in or near Paris into a family of lawyers.

His father was a master scribe, which was perhaps an influence on the beautiful clarity and almost decorativeness of the composer’s manuscripts. Marc-Antoine did study law at university, but left after a term.

He seems to have been educated by the Jesuits, with whom he had a life-long association. So apart from his prestigious position as Mademoiselle de Guise’s court composer, he was also Director of Music at the principal Jesuit church in Paris, St. Paul-St. Louis. He was in constant demand to compose music for numerous churches, colleges and abbeys around Paris. Towards the end of his life he was appointed Director of Music at the Sainte Chapelle. Therefore, while he was never a member of the Chapel Royal, he was the foremost composer working in Paris at the time.

Very little of Charpentier’s music was published in his lifetime, but he took care over its storage. He bequeathed his manuscripts to a nephew, Jacques Edouard, who tried to publish them, but there was by then little interest in his music. So Edouard sold them, bound in 28 large volumes. Some found their way into the king’s library. His music was not rediscovered until the 20th century.

Read more

Michael Haydn

Michael Haydn was five years younger than his more famous brother Joseph.

Both brothers were stars of the Vienna Boys’ Choir in their time, and both went on to spend most of their professional lives working for one employer.

Michael had the better start: while Joseph was still trying to scrape a living teaching the piano and doing free-lance work, Michael landed the job of Kapellmeister to the Archbishop of Grosswardein (now Oradea in Romania). Then in 1762 he was offered a position with better prospects, in the court of Archbishop Schrattenbach of Salzburg. He remained in Salzburg for the rest of his life. He soon was promoted to the position of Konzertmeister in which capacity he was called upon to write dramatic music for the Benedictine University Theatre. This included at one point a collaboration with the 11-year-old W.A.Mozart. When Archbishop Schrattenbach died nine years later, his successor, Heironymus Colloredo, did not support the theatre and it closed. From now on, his output would be mainly for the Church.

He thrived under the rule of Archbishop Colloredo, producing much of his best work, and it appeared he might become Kapellmeister. This stirred jealousies and suddenly there were vicious rumours about his weakness for alcohol and so he was given the position of organist at the Dreifaltigkeitskirche instead.

By the 1790s he was highly regarded both as a composer and teacher – his pupils including one Carl Maria von Weber. His music was in demand in Vienna including at least one commission from his brother’s personal friend the Empress Maria Theresia. Indeed he was much drawn towards Vienna, particularly since Napoleon’s troops had over-run Salzburg exiling the Archbishop. But in 1803 the Archduke Ferdinand stepped in, and on the Archbishop’s behalf gave him a rise in salary which kept him securely in Salzburg until his death on August 10th 1806.

Dieterich Buxtehude (c.1637 – 1707)

Although he saw himself as Danish, Buxtehude is known as a German composer – the giant of the mid-baroque’.  He was known primarily – and employed – as an organist. His first job was in Helsingborg (now Sweden) when he was 10 or 11 years old.

Twenty years later he applied successfully for the post of Organist at the Marienkirche in the centre of Lübeck. He immediately married a daughter of his predecessor, Franz Tunder; he was also automatically appointed Werkmeister of the church.

As organist he was responsible for providing music for the main services every Sunday, composing music where necessary. He was greatly revered for his improvisations on the organ. In addition to this and his administrative Werkmeister activities, he became famous for his Abendmusike, ‘Evening-musics’, which had been initiated by Tunder, his predecessor. When Buxtehude took over he assigned them to Sundays in Advent and Trinity.

These Abendmusike would now often take the form of oratorios which were the church equivalent of operas. They were highly dramatic, and clearly were a huge influence on Bach in his settings of the Passion.

In old age he was something of a celebrity. He stayed rooted in Lübeck, but people came from far and wide to hear him play the organ. Handel visited from nearby Hamburg, also Bach from distant Arnheim. Bach’s obituary stated he ‘took Buxtehude as his model in the art of the organ’; it may well have been that seeing Buxtehude as the director of music in the city of Lübeck gave him the idea of pursuing something similar himself – in Leipzig, as it turned out.

Mendelssohn motets op69

Felix Mendelssohn grew up in Berlin with his dearly beloved sister and soul-mate Fanny.

Felix Mendelssohn

They led a charmed life together: highly privileged, both phenomenally clever, moving in the highest circles of Berlin intellectual society. There was much flexing of young intellectual and creative wings, by both of them, to everyone’s astonishment.

The op.69 motets belong to the other end of Mendelssohn’s life, composed in the summer of 1847.

They are remarkably serene, considering the circumstances in which they were written, for they belong to a year of turbulence he had not encountered before.

He was at the height of his career;  Elijah had been premièred in Birmingham the previous August to huge acclaim.

In early 1847 he was back in Leipzig doing his regular job directing the Gewandhaus Orchestra. In mid-April he returned to England. He oversaw six performances of Elijah in London, Birmingham and Manchester, and directed a concert with the Philharmonic Orchestra. He also gave a private concert for Gladstone at the Prussian Embassy, and was received again at Buckingham Palace.

Mendelssohn returned to Frankfurt (his wife’s family home) in mid-May completely exhausted, only to be greeted by the dreadful news that his dear sister Fanny had died while he was absent. He was in a state of mental collapse and could not attend her funeral. Trying to recover from the shock and exhaustion, he went to Switzerland with his brother, staying for several months. Being, for the first time in his life, incapable of composing, he turned to painting watercolours.

It was some weeks before he was able to start composing again. Still in Switzerland, he eventually began with the Motets op.69. If in these, perhaps, he found solace, it was in the String Quartet op70 that his anguish found expression. These were the last works he would complete.

At the end of September he finally managed to find the resolve to visit Fanny’s grave in Berlin.

He was so deeply upset by the experience that he could not conduct his next Gewandhaus concert. The following month he suffered a series of strokes, and becoming progressively more incapacitated, he died on 4th November. He was buried three days later next to the grave of his sister Fanny.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Down Ampney in Gloucestershire, but for his whole life, from the age of about three, he lived in or around London. Although he was very much involved with rural folk music, he saw himself as a city boy.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Vaughan Williamses were eminent lawyers, and his mother was sister of Charles Darwin, marrying into the Wedgwood family. Wealthy and cultured, they sent Ralph to Charterhouse, from whence he continued to Trinity College Cambridge via the Royal College of Music. Composing did not come easily to him, so he returned to the RCM to study with Parry, Wood and Stanford, and then went on to study with Max Bruch in Berlin and Maurice Ravel in Paris. It was while he was studying with Ravel that he began composing the first of the Five Mystical Songs.

His slow-burn development delayed his arrival as the leading British composer of his generation. He was consciously an English composer with strong roots in English folk music. He was at pains never to be elitist, an ideal he shared with his friend Gustav Holst.

Gustav Holst
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Since the two composers shared so much, they had what they referred to as ‘field days’, which they put aside to criticise one another’s work. Vaughan Williams missed these dreadfully when Holst died in 1934.

Telemann 1681-1721

Georg Philip Telemann

was born in Magdeburg. Like his near contemporary Handel, his family actively discouraged him from making music and as a musician he was virtually self-taught.

G. F. Telemann

He was from a professional family, so he was sent to school; and it was at school his remarkable talent was recognised and he was given opportunities and support. From the age of 16 he made many visits to the courts of Hannover and Brunswick, and by this time he had learned to play the recorder, violin and keyboard instruments, plus the flute, oboe, chalumeau (an early form of the clarinet), viola da gamba, double bass and bass trombone. He would later add the cello to his list, but violin would be his 1st instrument.

Although when he was 20 he went to Leipzig to read Law, he quickly became embroiled in the music of the city, among other things getting commissions to write music for the two main churches. Four years later, after he had thoroughly made his mark in Leipzig , he was appointed Kapellmeister to Count Erdmann II of Promnitz in what is now Poland, and then went on to hold substantial posts in Eisenach and Frankfurt. But it was when he was 40 he landed a plum job in Hamburg where he remained (but for one hiccup) for his remaining 47 years.

Read further

Telemann 1721-67

The plum job

His main positions were Kantor of the Johanneum Lateinschule and Musical Director of the five main churches of the city.

Hamburg Johanneum

He had been living in Hamburg for about 14 years when he wrote Allein Gott in die Höh sei Ehre , by which time he was securely embedded as a most prominent and influential figure in Hamburg society.

 

Gaensemarkt Theater

He was also director of the Gänsemarkt opera house, where he mounted performances of his own operas, and those of other composers, particularly Handel’s, to which he added some of his own numbers. He founded a collegium musicum in Hamburg, and also one in Leipzig. It was originally intended that the collegium would give one concert a week during the winter season, but the public demanded two. On top of this he published his own music, wrote poetry and was corresponding agent for the Eisenach court, collecting news from across northern Europe.

Apart from a natural workaholic tendency, some of his workload may have been driven by the need to service the massive gambling debts his 2nd wife incurred.