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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Bach's Contemporaries

Updated: May 20, 2020

Looking back in 2020:

When I made this program in 2006 I was starting to develop an obsession which remains with me to this day. This involved being sick and tired of there being some divinely-ordained canon of works which we must keep hearing over and over again, to the exclusion of music that's less familiar. Only in music do we seem to have this fear of the unknown, even when the unknown isn't particularly new.

Theatre companies do their Shakespeare, Ibsen and Tennessee Williams, but they also do new works, as well as historical works by less familiar writers, and audiences don't see the less familiar as being harder or of less value. Likewise ballet audiences, who seem able to accept Swan Lake in its original fairytale guise or as a metaphor of gay oppression.

When I worked at ABC Adelaide, the largest physical collection of classical music in the southern hemisphere (CDs, primarily) existed just a few metres from my desk. Something like 70,000 classical CDs (not to mention all the jazz, rock/pop, soundtracks, spoken word and all the other genres). This revealed huge swathes of the repertoire to me that I'd hitherto not even been aware of. Yes, we had many different readings of standard works, but we also had recordings of countless thousands of works we never hear, and I am more convinced today that the reason for this has nothing to do with the quality of the music we're missing out on. It has everything to do with lazy marketing and lazy listening habits. Music lovers - and performing arts organisations - seem to have forgotten the importance of discovery. As a famous singer once said to me, "People don't know what they like, they just like what they know".

So, in an attempt to at least make my audience aware of more, to "know" more, I frequently went outside the mainstream in Keys To Music. The world of music is not just deep in a few places; it's very wide in many places. I often got deep with the "classics" - the Beethoven symphonies and the rest - but I also loved to go wide, and share a little of the breadth, the other works and composers we don't hear so often. No one is another Mozart or another Beethoven, but there are lots of amazing composers who were their contemporaries.

This program, looking at some of JS Bach's contemporaries, was the first of these programs. There's nothing to be afraid of, except maybe making new friends.


Well might they say, “Behind every great man there’s a woman,” but in the world of music it’s very often true that, “Behind every great composer there are many others who’ve been forgotten.” The sheer quantity of music in the western tradition forces us to focus on the greats, and where there are greats there are also lots of not-so-greats. However I’ve long believed that many really fine composers, sadly, get pushed into the background because of the greatness of a few. Today I want to look behind Johann Sebastian Bach to just a few of the composers who lived in his generation, and in the generations before and after. A few of these names have been almost forgotten today, while some are known only fleetingly. All of them were great in their own way - although no-one before or since JS Bach is in his league.

One of the good things about the recording industry is that many record producers and performers have gone off into the byways of music history to explore some of these lesser-known composers. I’ll survey ten composers in this program, and we start with the composer JS Bach walked 400 km to hear. [listen]

Dieterich [sic.] Buxtehude was probably the major figure in the North German / Danish school of organist-composers in the late 17th century. He was born around 1637 but scholars are not sure where. It seems probable that he was born in Denmark, but even that isn’t certain. His fame was associated with the city of Lübeck, where he was appointed organist of the Marienkirche - one of the most important and prestigious posts in northern Germany - in 1668. He was renowned as an organist, and JS Bach himself claimed that Buxtehude was an important role model for him in this respect. It was in 1705, aged 20, that JS Bach walked from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude in his famed series of church concerts. However Buxtehude was the virtual director of all forms of music except opera in Lübeck, and this may have been an inspiration to Bach. Bach’s later position in Leipzig was of a very similar nature.

Voorhout: Dieterich Buxtehude (1674)

The link above is to part of Buxtehude’s Membra nostri Jesu, a cycle of seven short cantatas which meditate on the death of Jesus. Buxtehude’s output includes a great deal of really high quality vocal music, but his significant and large quantity of music for the organ is perhaps the part of his legacy best known today. This is one of his chorale preludes, based on the hymn Von Gott will ich nicht lassen. [listen]

If Buxtehude’s date of birth is uncertain, then that of the next composer is even more so. Johann Adam Reincken is claimed in many books to have lived to the amazing age of 99. This is based on the claim, made in Johann Mattheson’s 1722 history of music, that Reincken was born in 1623. His death was definitely in 1722, which would have made him 99 when he died. However many scholars doubt this date for all sorts of documentary reasons. There is evidence - also shaky - that Reincken was born 20 years later, in 1643. This would have made him 79 when he died, still a pretty good innings in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Johann Adam Reincken (1674)

Regardless of his age, Reincken was one of the most famous and respected organists of his day. He seems to have had little interest in publication, though, so very little of his music survives. The majority of that which does is for organ or harpsichord. Even this Fugue in G minor, one his best-known works, is thought by some to be of doubtful authenticity. [listen]

Reincken heard the 35 year old JS Bach play in Hamburg in 1720 when Bach was invited to apply for a major post there. Bach improvised on a chorale for more than half an hour, as was expected of organists at the time, and Reincken is reported to have said, “I thought that this art was dead, but I see it still lives in you”.

In 1688 Reincken did publish a collection of partitas (or instrumental suites) called Hortus musicus. These are really beautiful works for 2 violins, viola da gamba and continuo. This is one movement from the collection. [listen]

An important composer in between Buxtehude and JS Bach is Johann Pachelbel, who was born in Nuremburg in 1653. Today Pachelbel is remembered by and large for one atypical work, the Canon in D for three violins and continuo. This tends to obscure the fact that he too was a highly-respected organist, church composer and teacher for all his adult life. He left a vast amount of superb organ music, arias, Latin and German motets, and other sacred vocal works. Among his more spectacular works is this setting of Psalm 150. [listen]

Johann Pachelbel

Pachelbel was one of the younger generation of composers influenced by Buxtehude, and in 1699 Pachelbel dedicated his Hexachordum Apollinis to the older master. It’s clear too that Pachelbel’s organ music was greatly inspired by Buxtehude. This is one of his organ toccatas. [listen]

We now come to the composer who has been a real discovery for me. Johann Kuhnau, who was born in 1660, was one of the most important late-Baroque composers and music theorists. Most interestingly, he was JS Bach’s immediate predecessor in the post of Cantor at St Thomas’ and Director of Music in Leipzig, holding the post from 1701 until his death in 1722. It was Kuhnau who established, for example, the practice of performing a Passion setting on Good Friday, a practice which led to Bach composing his St John and St Matthew Passions when he was in the job. Kuhnau left a large amount of sacred music which is of a very high quality. I had never heard any of Kuhnau’s cantatas before researching this script, and was delighted to find this recording, which I highly recommend. (Sadly I can’t find the whole recording online.)

Johann Kuhnau

Kuhnau also wrote a fantastic setting of the Magnificat, in Latin, as was the practice in Lutheran churches at the time. The date of the setting is unknown. [listen]

One year younger than Kuhnau was another giant in the world of German organ playing, Georg Böhm. He exercised a great influence on the young JS Bach, and was organist at the Johanneskirche in Lüneburg from 1697 until his death in 1733. Böhm left a relatively small amount of music to posterity, including organ and harpsichord works, sacred cantatas and motets. This is one of his organ chorale preludes. It’s on the hymn Vom Himmel hoch. This was a very popular Christmas hymn in the Lutheran tradition (it was used by JS Bach to close the second part of his Christmas Oratorio, for example). In this organ version, Böhm bases the counterpoint of the accompanying parts on the hymn melody, with the melody itself played by a solo stop over the top. [listen]

One of the most charismatic and entrepreneurial figures in North German music in the late 17th and early 18th centuries was Reinhard Keiser, who was born in 1674. Keiser has a tenuous link with Kuhnau in that he studied as a boy at the school at St Thomas’ Leipzig during the time of Kuhnau’s predecessor, and he may have been there when Kuhnau was appointed. However, Keiser’s life took a very different turn to that of all the other composers I’ve already mentioned. He became a composer of opera, and in fact became the most important composer of German opera of the period. Keiser’s reputation rests mainly with his work in Hamburg, and he was director of the opera there when one of the young members of the opera orchestra, the 19 year old Georg Friedrich Händel (later known as George Frideric Handel), wrote his first opera there, called Almira. Keiser’s operas were designed for the box office and were immensely popular, often in a mixture of German and Italian. This album contains some lovely examples of Kaiser’s music. [listen]

Jan Dismas Zelenka was born in Bohemia in 1679 and must rank as one of the most important composers of sacred music of the high Baroque. It’s only in recent years that his music has become more widely available in scholarly editions, with the result that it's not known as well as it should be.

Zelenka’s early life centred on Prague and Vienna, but his professional career was based in Dresden. He was employed initially as a violone player (an earlier form of the double bass) and his frequent correspondence with leading composers of the day led to him amassing one of the most important music libraries of the age. Over his years in Dresden, Zelenka gradually played less and composed more, eventually becoming the court’s official church composer from 1734.

Jan Dismas Zelenka

As the Dresden court was Catholic, Zelenka’s church music includes many large-scale settings of the Mass; some 25 or so are known, including four Requiems. He also wrote many other sacred works, and a small amount of instrumental music. JS Bach held Zelenka in very high esteem, and listening to the sheer brilliance - not to mention contrapuntal skill - of his Missa Dei Patris of 1740, it’s not hard to see why. [listen]

Dresden (1628)

Born in 1683, two years before JS Bach, Johann David Heinichen was Kapellmeister to the court of the Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland from 1717 until his death in 1729. Based in Dresden (at the same court as Zelenka), this position provided for Heinichen the opportunity to compose much secular instrumental music, and in these the influence of the Italian style of the period is very evident. In the six years before taking up the Dresden post, he lived in Italy - mainly in Venice - and the sunny Italian style (better known in the music of Vivaldi) can be heard in the concertos he composed for the Saxon court. This is a small example. [listen]

An important figure in music history was born in 1684, the year between Heinichen and JS Bach. Johann Gottfried Walther was in fact a cousin of JS Bach, and the two gifted musicians were good friends and colleagues. Walther is important in music history because he wrote the first major dictionary of music in German. It was also the first such dictionary in any language which combined musical terms and biographies of musicians past and present. His musical output includes sacred vocal works and organ music, and in his day his keen scholastic mind made him a renowned teacher and theoretician.

Here’s one of his major organ works, a large set of variations on the hymn Jesu meine Freude. [listen]

Johann Gottfried Walther

We finish this survey of just some of JS Bach’s contemporaries by looking at Johann Ludwig Krebs. Born in 1713, Krebs was a pupil of Bach. He was a fine organist and composed not only for the organ but also sacred vocal works, keyboard works and orchestral music. It’s important that this Krebs is not confused with two others. Johann Ludwig was the middle member of three generations of Krebs composers. His father, Johann Tobias Krebs, studied with J G Walther and also with Bach, and his son, Johann Gottfried Krebs, was a prolific composer of church music. Johann Ludwig, however, wrote some amazing music, although a great deal of it still awaits modern editions, so it’s hard to get a real feel for his achievements.

This is part of Krebs’ Klavierübung, a collection of music based on chorale melodies. Each of the melodies is given a prelude, then a chorale variation, before the chorale itself is presented in its simplest form. In this recording the presentation of the original chorale at the end is sung by an ensemble of singers. This is Krebs’ treatment of Jesu meine Freude. [listen]

I hope the admittedly brief selection of music in this program indicates the tip of an incredible iceberg. The sheer quantity and quality of music being produced in the German states at the time Bach lived is staggering, and I didn’t touch the musical achievements of the late Baroque elsewhere in Europe. There’s always more out there to discover. I just love that. Anyone who gets bored with music just isn’t trying!

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November, 2006.

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