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Johannes KuhnauWe know little about Johannes Kuhnau (1660-1722), but he was probably a bright and sociable person, always ready for jokes and satires. He was a respected musician as well as a qualified lawyer with a successful law practice. Well-known is his “Quacksalber” [quack doctor] book where he lampooned a vainglorious doctor and his assistant from southern lands who came to Germany to show off their musical skills – and promptly made fools of themselves.



Kuhnau Quacksalber FrontispieceMost of his music is now lost, and consequently he is now frequently remembered as the Leipzig cantor (Thomaskantor) whom J.S. Bach succeeded after his death. But there is enough left of his once prodigious output that we can deduce that he had a good feel for a catchy tune. And that is what we want to celebrate here.

Kuhnau published two reputable exercise books for the piano called “Neue Clavier-Übung I” (1689) and “Neue Clavier-Übung II” (1692) [“New Clavier Exercises”]. The second book contained a "Sonata from B flat" and according to Immanuel Faisst (German composer 1823-1894), Kuhnau is to be considered the “founder” of the piano sonata, since Kuhnau's "Sonata" was the first piano piece to bear this name, which until then had only been used for ensemble pieces.

The Deutsche Biographie adds, “Of yet far greater importance is the fact that such compositions now appeared in print and thus became much more widespread than handwritten pieces. With his publications Kuhnau opened access to piano music for bourgeois devotees who from then on were at the centre of amateur music-making and displaced the plucked instruments from their leading role. The wide dissemination of his piano works also had the consequence that they exerted a far-reaching influence on piano composers” (my translation).

In these Clavier Exercises I found three tunes that I used as launchpads for my own compositions. They were Neue Clavier-Übung I, “Partie V: Prelude”, Neue Clavier-Übung II, “Partie IV: Aria” and Neue Clavier-Übung I, “Partie V: Marche”. Taken together, they fit together as a modern fast – slower – fast music collection which I will gladly call a “sonata”, in the great memory of Johannes Kuhnau.


Fun with Kuhnau

"A happy confusion in the first movement plunges us into a somber mood in the second movement. But never despair, because the mood contains the germs of a new birth, ready to be fully celebrated in the last movement."

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Top: Kuhnau's portrait, from a hand-colored 1689 edition of his Neue Clavier-Übung, erster Teil (Wikipedia)

Bottom: Quacksalber Frontispiece (Bayrische Landesbibliothek)