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A very worthy man, Johann Kuhnau, who, in 1701, was appointed to the important post of Cantor at St. Thomas’s school in Leipzig, the chief musical position in the town, realized how little German musicians had done to make music of this kind, and he set to work to write pieces for the harpsichord which he called sonatas. 

Johann Kuhnau
The Biblical Sonatas

They differed from the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, which contained only a single movement, and were more like modern sonatas in that movements of various kinds were grouped together as in suites; but the movements were either quite independent ideas, worked out like those of D. Scarlatti, without reference to dance forms, or else they were written to illustrate a story. 

The most interesting of all are a set of six called ‘Bible Sonatas’; they illustrate stories from the Old Testament, such as David and Goliath, the marriage of Jacob, and the campaigns of Gideon, and Kuhnau was particularly clever in finding musical phrases which would express the underlying ideas connected with the stories. 

For instance, he uses a heavy treading figure beginning deep down in the bass to suggest Goliath, which is rather like Wagner’s theme for the giants in the Rheingold; again, the doubts of Gideon are suggested by phrases which first turn up and then down as though undecided what to do. 

Kuhnau tries to bring the whole story to the ears of his hearers, and sometimes he seems to imagine it performed on the stage, for he introduces passages almost like the recitatives and arias of opera. His musical descriptions are much more definite than those of Couperin, who liked to give character to his pieces by connecting them with fanciful ideas, but who did not always trouble to make the connexions clear to his audiences as Kuhnau did. 

David Slaying Goliath

Listen to Kuhnau’s Biblical Sonata No. 4 “Hezekiah’s Sickness and Restoration” (7:12)

If Kuhnau had had the opportunity, he would certainly have left some remarkable contribution to German opera, but Leipzig offered none. Schütz’s early introduction of opera at Dresden had made no permanent mark, and the only centre in Germany where opera took a firm hold at this time was in Hamburg, which from its position in the extreme north could not much influence the musicians of Saxony.

At Hamburg, in the very end of the seventeenth century (1697), an opera house was opened by a remarkable composer named Reinhard Keiser, who, during the thirty years that followed, poured out one opera after another, producing altogether more than a hundred works of the kind.

Hamburg, the jewel of Germany in the late 17 century

There is good reason to suppose that even J. S. Bach, who never wrote or wanted to write an opera, learnt a good deal from the fluent and varied arias of Keiser, and even copied their style in some of his cantatas; and since Handel came to Hamburg and first held a post in the orchestra of the theatre and produced his first opera there, Keiser’s opera house certainly deserves to be remembered.

In Germany at the end of the seventeenth century, the musical movement was far more widespread than in other countries. In France or England, the whole of the musical culture was concentrated in the capitals, Paris and London. In Italy it was only in half a dozen large towns. 

But in Germany music was spreading amongst the people of a great many small and little-known towns, and these people were not only practising music but creating it, and that fact accounts for the enormous strength of German music in the next generation, since so many earnest men contributed splendid work in different departments.

It only required some supreme genius to arise in order to sum up the different lines of effort in his own life work, and it so happened that two such men were born in the same year, 1685, whose lives and work we must now study in detail.