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12 July 2016

‘Negligence’ or obeying compositional norms?

In preparation for the study day on ‘Musicians, publishers and pirates of the mid-Baroque’, held at the British Library on 29 June 2016, I had the good fortune of looking at some fascinating early printed volumes of music from across Europe. A good number of these were on display at the study day exhibition which I curated. I decided to discuss briefly the preface to one of the printed editions, which reveals fascinating insights into some of the concerns of musicians in seventeenth-century Germany.

Illustration 1

Illustration 1: Title page of Johann Kuhnau, Neuer Clavier Übung Andrer Theil (Leipzig, 1696)

Johann Kuhnau (1660–1722) was the immediate predecessor of Bach as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, a post he held from 1701 until his death. Having studied law at the university there, Kuhnau spoke several languages and must have been extremely well-read. In his publication Der General-Bass in der Composition (Dresden, 1728), Kuhnau’s pupil Johann David Heinichen mentions two manuscript treatises on music theory by his former teacher, both of which are now lost. As a musician, Kuhnau composed primarily for the church, providing music for services and major funerals at the two main churches in Leipzig, though much of his output is also lost (see Johann Kuhnau, The Collected Works for Keyboard, ed. C. David Harris (New York: Broude Trust, 2003), xviii-xx).

Kuhnau was also famed as an organist and published four volumes of keyboard music, three of which were self-published (and probably self-financed) by the composer. The first of these, Neuer Clavier Übung Erster Theil (Leipzig, 1689), consists of seven suites or ‘Partien’ in all of the commonly used major keys (‘Tertia majore eines jedweden Toni’), namely C, D, E, F, G, A and B flat. The preface to the reader (‘Hochgeneigter Leser’) includes an explanation of the ornament signs used by Kuhnau (‘Accentus’, ‘Mordant’ and Schleüffer’).

The second publication, Neuer Clavier Übung Andrer Theil (Leipzig, 1696, first published 1692) was intended as a follow-up volume to the first. In the preface to this second part, Kuhnau explains that his first publication had met with some success, which is why he decided to publish a second volume. This consists of a further seven ‘Partien’ in all of the commonly used minor keys (‘Tertia minore’): C, D, E, F, G, A and B. To this is added a ‘Sonata’ in B flat major.

Illustration 2

Illustration 2: Preface to the reader, first page, of Kuhnau, Neuer Clavier Übung Andrer Theil

The preface to this second part includes a remarkable defence against possible criticism. First, Kuhnau felt the need to justify including a sonata for the keyboard, as this was the first work of its kind published in Germany. (This is also discussed in Johann Kuhnau, Sämtliche Werke für Tasteninstrument, ed. Norbert Müllemann (Munich: Henle, 2014), x-xi. A transcription of the complete preface (in German) is available as free download from Henle.) Kuhnau asks: ‘For why should one not play such pieces [sonatas] on the keyboard, as on other instruments? since no other instrument has ever disputed the precedence of the keyboard in terms of perfection’ (my translation; original German: ‘Denn warumb sollte man auff dem Claviere nicht eben, wie auff andern Instrumenten, dergleichen Sachen tractiren können? da doch kein einziges Instrument dem Claviere die Præcendenz an Vollkommenheit jemahls disputirlich gemachet hat’).

Second, he defends his occasional contravention of strict voice-leading rules, for example by having voices drop out or being added to the texture, though he notes that his fugues are ‘strictly executed’: ‘If one would proceed strictly with the continuation of voices, much constraint would result, and the pleasantness would lose itself in some pieces. Consequently, and after taking my guidance from famous masters, I have in the allemandes, courantes and sarabandes occasionally been negligent in rigour, by dropping one voice and taking up another one elsewhere. The fugues, however, are strictly executed in four voices’ (my translation; original German: ‘so man ja mit der Continuation der Stimmen stricte verfahren wolte, so würde viel gezwungenes mit unterlauffen, und die Annehmligkeit in ma[n]chem Stücke sich verlieren. Gestalt ich gleichfalls, nach Anleitung berühmter Meister, in den Allemanden, Courranten und Sarabanden bisweilen mit Fleiss mich etwas negligent erwiesen, eine Stimme verlaßen, und hingegen anderswo eine neüe mit ergriffen. Doch sind die Fugen mit 4en genau ausgeführet worden’).

Lastly, Kuhnau also notes that ‘half-knowledgeables’ might judge him unreasonably for writing what may seem to be consecutive octaves (resulting from doublings in chords of six or more voices), and takes care to explain that these arise through a crossing of parts: ‘Rather seldom, in some preludes it also seems as though octaves go jointly, but the excuse for this lies in the changing of parts: which is mentioned here so that the half-knowledgeables do not pontificate with an untimely judgement’ (my translation; original German: ‘Es scheinen auch, wiewohl gar selten, in manche[m] Præludio Octaven miteinander fortzugehen, deren Entschuldigung aber in der Verwechselung der Stimmen bestehet: welches zu dem Ende errinnert wird, damit die Halbverständigen sich nicht etwa mit einem unzeitigen Urtheile herauslassen möchten’).


Illustration 3: Pages 12 and 13 of Kuhnau, Neuer Clavier Übung Andrer Theil, demonstrating the use of full chords leading to consecutive octaves in the ‘free’ section of the prelude, followed by the ‘strict’ four-part fugue.

Kuhnau’s pupil Heinichen later rejects the notion of ‘crossing parts’ at the keyboard (see Heinichen, Der General-Bass in der Composition, 132, footnote e),  but instead notes that, ‘with a very full-voiced accompaniment, all these [voice-leading] rules are to be considered naturally impossible and unnecessary, because the number of voices hides all these mistakes to the ear. For this reason, one does not only treat the middle voices freely, but may also double the foreign sharp and raising natural [i.e. the leading note] in these cases’ (my translation; original German: ‘Bey einem sehr vollstimmigen Accompagnement seynd alle diese Regeln von Natur aus so unmöglich, als unnöthig zu observieren, weil die Menge der Stimmen alle dergleichen Fehler denen Ohren verstecket. Dahero man hier nicht allein mit den Mittel-Stimmen [...] frei verfähret, sondern auch das oben [...] angeführte fremde ♯ und erhöhende ♮ in allen daselbst bemerckten Fällen viel eher verdoppelt werden kan’ (156. This is also discussed in Johann Kuhnau, Klavierwerke, ed. Karl Pälser (= Denkmäler deutscher Tonkunst, Vol. 4; Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1958; first published 1901), x-xi).

Kuhnau’s remarkable preface demonstrates the concern the composer must have had about contravening a perceived norm or tradition of ‘strict composition’. Musicians in seventeenth-century Germany, not least one of the intellectual standing of Kuhnau, seem to have thought of relatively ‘free’ compositions, such as suite movements for keyboard, as being grounded in the much stricter approaches of sacred vocal music as exemplified by the music of Palestrina. Kuhnau seems to have expected any deviation from this strict approach to run the risk of meeting with criticism, so he must have felt it necessary to pre-empt any ‘untimely judgement’ by testifying in his own defence.

Stephan Schönlau (University of Manchester)

PhD placement student