Leipzig Cantors before Bach

W.A. Grieve-Smith

[December 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:5.]

Today we think of J.S. Bach as the first Stadtkantor of any real distinction. Not so. As far back as 1616, with the appointment of Johann Herrmann Schein, the Leipzig Cantor was one of the most accomplished composers in Germany.

The Stadtkantor was a municipal magistrate for music appointed by the City Council, usually after an examination which sometimes required submission of a piece specially composed to demonstrate the applicant’s skill. In Leipzig the Stadtkantor had his own group of singers and musicians who visited alternately the Thomaskirche and the Nicolaikirche, the town’s two most important churches.

In addition to the usual Sunday services, which sometimes lasted for four hours, including a two-hour sermon, the Stadtkantor also supplied music for special occasions, such as the installation of a new City Council. Wealthy citizens would also commission special music for funerals and weddings, with the score printed and presented to the lucky couple as a wedding present. The four top Cantors: Schein, Knüpfer, Schelle and Kuhnau are detailed below.

JOHANN HERMANN SCHEIN. La Capella Ducale, Musica Fiata Köln (Roland Wilson). GLISSANDO 779 006-2 (1999)

Dr. Peter Czornyj (ex DG-Archiv) and Dr. Barbara Schwendowius of Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln (and also ex-Archiv) have teamed up to record the seldom-performed choral works of Schein, who became Thomaskantor in 1616. Seventeen singers and twenty-seven instrumentalists take part, including 4 organs, 2 bombardes, 4 trumpets, 3 cornetts and 4 trombones, which helps explain the paucity of performances. This all recorded in the spacious Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin-Dalem. These are similar forces to those used by Wilson in his set of motets by Michael Praetorius (SONY S2K 62 929 – 1996).

Schein was among the very first to combine severe Netherlandish choral polyphony with the new madrigal style, all orchestrated with the latest Venetian polychoral instrumental style of the Gabrielis. This is very similar to what Schütz and Michael Praetorius were doing at the same time.

Wilson & Co. give us a representative sample with two burial motets in the madrigalian style up to a Te Deum in 24 parts, with two choirs and five instrumental choruses! The spacing of the instrumental choirs and singing groups is well defined. There’s nothing draggy or stodgy about these performances. And don’t forget to duck when the trumpets and tympani enter!

A playback note: this recording is a perfect test of the absolute polarity of your system. If the polarity is reversed, you’ll hear a vagueness in the spacing of the choirs and a tizzy quality to the trumpets. Reverse the polarity and it all disappears. [Grieve’s thoughts on absolute polarity are one of those audiophile hot-button topics the Editorial Aerie neither endorses nor dismisses. But we will mention that our Mark Levinson No.39 CD player has a handy little button that inverts absolute polarity. Ed.]

Sacred Music by Sebastian Knüpfer. The King’s Consort (Robert King). HYPERION CDA67160 (1999)

Knüpfer (1633-1676) succeeded Kantor Tobias Michael in l657 and combined the new Italian basso continuo solo style with some of the older Venetian touches of Schütz.

I must commend Ted Perry of Hyperion Records and Robert King for producing first recordings of virtually unknown composers during “these distracting times” for the major record companies. Not only are these premiere recordings, but they are completely professional and unstinting in the number and quality of the performers.

With texts both in German and Latin Knüpfer’s music can well hold its own besides compositions by Schütz, Praetorius, Monteverdi and Grandi. If you have enjoyed these composers’ use of basso continuo and polychoral styles, you’ll luxuriate in skilled solo singing backed by solemn trombones and tympani. Knüpfer is a delightful discovery.

SCHELLE: Sacred Music. The King’s Consort (Robert King). HYPERION CDA67260 (2000)

Johann Schelle (1648-1701) started as a chorister under Heinrich Schütz, who recommended him to the Thomasschule at the age of 16. He then enrolled at the University three years later and studied under Knüpfer while teaching music as well. In 1676 he succeeded Knüpfer as Thomaskantor.

With Schelle we enter the mid-Baroque style familiar from Tünder and Buxtehude which the young J.S. Bach studied so avidly. This delightful CD samples three different styles employed by Schelle:

1) the choral motet in the Venetian style of Schütz, with one or two choirs.

2) the chamber consort style of solo cantatas also used by Schütz and Hamburger organists like Weckmann.

3) the chorale cantata, using the chorale cantus firmus

with multiple choirs, trombones, trumpets and tympani.

Whether it’s Purcell, Schelle or Knüpfer, Robert King seems to have the exact knack for the pacing and phrasing of all this music. Schelle deserves to join his contemporaries, Weckmann, Tünder and Buxtehude as conveyor of serious, but never stodgy pleasure.

Could we possibly persuade Mr King and the Hyperions to record the extant Tünder and Buxtehude choral cantatas? The only Buxtehude collection is by Ton Koopman on Erato (ECD 75374, 1987), and it’s a joyful revelation!

KUHNAU: Sacred Music. The King’s Consort (Robert King). HYPERION CDA 67059 (1998)

If you expect solemn, heavy-handed Lutheran church music from the pen of Kuhnau, you’re indeed in for a delightful surprise. On this disc at least Kuhnau’s music comes across more like Purcell or the early Handel of the Italian Cantatas: very lyrical and light Italianate or French-Italian in the style of M. Lully.

After early musical training in Dresden Kuhnau became Thomaskirche organist in Leipzig in 1684, succeeding to the Director Musices position in 1701. Besides his skill in music Kuhnau was also a practicing lawyer and was instrumental in setting up the Opera in Leipzig

Johann Kuhnau was a cousin of Johann Schelle and his successor in 1701. And following Kuhnau the next Thomaskantor was Herr J.S. Bach himself. And we come here into very familiar ground musically, with recitatives, arias and choruses almost identical to the kind Herr Bach composed.

Look out for a surprising obbligato of trilling French horns in the Chorus: “Uns ist ein Kind geboren” in the Chorale Cantata “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.”

Except for the language (German) the cantata “O heilige Zeit” could fit in perfectly with Mr Purcell’s music for James II’s Chapel Royal. Counter tenors James Bowman and Robin Blaze both share the starring honors here.

There’s much musicological speculation about the rivalry between Kuhnau and the young Telemann, quite a bit historically documented. What I don’t recall reading is the idea that perhaps Herr Bach’s more traditional cantatas were a reaction to Kuhnau’s and Telemann’s more operatic styles, commanded by the Thomaskirche authorities?

This sample of Kuhnau’s music gives us such a delightful ear-opener that I look forward to succeeding discs from the same forces.

GERMAN 17TH CENTURY CHURCH MUSIC. Robin Blaze, countertenor; the Parley of Instruments. HYPERION CDA 67079 (1998)

I must congratulate Robin Blaze for eschewing the hooty, bleating tone still favored by some falsettists in British choral establishments. Joined by Peter Holman’s Renaissance fiddles Blaze gives us exciting samples of solo cantatas by Schütz, Bernhard, Rosenmüller, Buxtehude, Krieger, Geist, Hofmann and a gaggle of Bach’s ancestors and relatives: Johann Michael, Heinrich and Johann Christoph.

Though not localized to the Leipzig area as the Thomaskantor CDs listed above, this disc does share the same locale of Central Germany and the time frame of the 17th Century. And Blaze and The Parley are every bit as lively and musical as Robert King’s ensemble.

The two Buxtehude solo cantatas give us a taste of the Lübeck master’s vocal style. Not only the major choral works of Buxtehude await, but also gems from Samuel Scheidt, Johann Hermann Schein and Heinrich Scheidemann. Even as we ask for more let’s be grateful to Hyperion for bringing us so much to date.