Contretemps with Kuhnau

Kuhnau was J.S.Bach’s very distinguished predecessor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. He was enjoying a glittering career as composer, lawyer, novelist and general man of letters.  When he was 41 he was unanimously appointed Kantor at the Thomaskirche, but that was when things started to go downhill.

A young  Georg Telemann enrolled at the university, like Kuhnau, to study Law, but he, as did 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.



St.Thomas’s new Kantor

When Kuhnau died in June 1722 the Leipzig authorities needed to find a new Kantor for the Thomaschule. This was a prestigious post and there were six applicants. The obvious front-runner was Georg Philip Telemann,

G. F. Telemann

who was very highly regarded and already had connections with St. Thomas’s. He showed definite signs of accepting the post, but the Hamburg Senate tried to block his acceptance. Telemann argued that if they wanted him to remain in Hamburg they should raise his salary. This they duly did, and he duly stayed.


So Leipzig looked to their
2nd choice, Christoph Graupner, who was Kappelmeister in Darmstadt and one of Kuhnau’s distinguished pupils. Graupner was keen to accept, until Darmstadt offered to increase his salary and improve his status – an offer he could not refuse.

This left them with the 3rd choice.

Councillor Platz observed, ‘As the best man cannot be got, we must make do with the mediocre’ – namely one J.S.Bach!

One of the duties of the position was that they should teach the boys Latin. All of the applicants refused to accept this, but the upshot was that Bach, as successful applicant, had to employ a Latin teacher and pay him out of his own salary.


friends and relations

Living upstairs at the Hôtel de Guise was Marie’s nephew, the Duc de Guise and his wife, née Isabelle d’Orleans, known as Madame de Guise.

Apart from composing music for them, no doubt the family connection eased Charpentier into the position of music teacher to Phillipe d’Orleans (nephew to the king).

It was probably through the family that Charpentier came to work with Molière and his theatre, La Comédie Française.  Lully was the composer Molière employed to produce incidental music for his plays; but they fell out. Charpentier took his place and continued a fruitful association with Molière and La Comédie (after Molière’s death) for 20 years.


Mademoiselle de Guise and the Italians

In her 20s, Marie was exiled with her family to Florence.

 There she became very attached to the Medicis, with whom she remained in continual contact for the rest of her life. Being immersed in Italian high culture, she became very attached to Italy, its art and particularly its music. So it is hardly surprising that she pounced on the young, highly gifted and Italianate Charpentier.

The Italian style

One aspect of the Italian style was the approach to the setting of words.

Since the turn of the 17th century, Italian composers had become obsessed with giving vivid expression to words, as in the madrigals of Gesualdo and in the first operas, particularly of Monteverdi. This brought a new boldness in the use of striking harmonies and chromaticisms.

Charpentier did not meet Monteverdi, (Monteverdi died the year Charpentier was born!); but he met, and was strongly influenced by one of his disciples, Carissimi. When he returned to Paris, Charpentier took with him the scores of works by Carissimi, much music in his ‘prodigious musical memory’, and the Italian style in his bones.


Mademoiselle de Guise

Mademoiselle de Guise was born in Paris, (1615) Princess Marie de Lorraine. She lived in the Hôtel de Guise, and when her father the Duc de Guise died, she became Duchesse de Guise; but she had been known as Mademoiselle de Guise since she was a child.

The Guise family history is one of much wielding of power, brutality and sticky ends. Claiming descent from Charlemagne, the family aspired to the French throne and sought to eradicate the Bourbons. A forebear was mother of Mary Queen of Scots, another was Archbishop of Reims, another started a civil war (the War of the Three Henrys).

Mademoiselle de Guise was the last of the direct line, however, and married morganatically. This meant her several children were not heir to the title. But she had her own somewhat lavish select private court. She otherwise used her immense wealth to found a teachers’ training college, and both in Paris and her provincial lands she founded hospitals for the poor and schools for girls.

After her death in 1688 there was much wrangling over the inheritance, and the palace was sold in 1700 and became the Hôtel de Soubisse – which now houses the National Archive.


The Haydns’ employers

There was a significant difference, though:

Joseph, working for the Esterhazy Court, produced vast quantities of secular music in the form of symphonies, string quartets, sonatas (including over 200 for the Baryton – the Prince’s favourite instrument). He was less frequently called upon to write sacred music.

Michael, on the other hand, in the employ exclusively of Archbishops, wrote a substantial amount of church music. His output of secular music became more limited by the time he reached his mid-30s. In his day, there were those who rated his church music more highly than that of his now more illustrious brother.


Bach in Luebeck

Bach famously walked the 250 miles from Arnstadt. He had been given 4 weeks leave from his post at the Arnstadt court; he stayed in Lübeck for 4 months. The year was 1705, the year of the death of Emperor Leopold I and the accession of Joseph I. Bach was probably present at the Extraordinary Abendmusike Buxtehude put on to mark these events.



Tunder started these as week-day organ recitals, but they became more generalised concerts in the church.

They may first have been afternoon concerts for businessmen who were waiting for the stock-exchange to open. Although Buxtehude moved them to Sundays at 4 pm, they still continued to be financed mainly by the business community. Indeed a donor would receive a printed libretto and be given a good seat. Admission to the church was, in true Hanseatic tradition, free to all citizens of whatever position in society; but it was not unknown for disorderly conduct to break out during the performances.


Buxtehude’s marriage

This seems to have been a condition of his employment. Though this appears odd now, it was common practice for a successor to marry the daughter of his predecessor, in all walks of life. It was common, for instance, for a promising (and lucky?) apprentice to marry his master’s daughter.

A generation later Handel visited with his friend Matthesson (in 1703). Buxtehude was 66 and perhaps wishing to retire, so Mattheson was considered as his possible successor. But when they offered him the job it transpired Buxtehude’s daughter was part of the package. Mattheson suddenly lost interest.