Leipzig’s churches have a long and distinguished tradition of music-making. According to most accounts, sacred music in Leipzig reached its zenith in the years after 1723, when Johann Sebastian Bach became cantor at the Thomasschule. Bach set himself a grueling schedule of writing a new cantata almost every week of the liturgical year, in addition to large-scale works such as the Saint John and Saint Matthew Passions. Such an outburst of compositional productivity delighted many churchgoers. A Leipzig chronicler reported that Bach’s first cantata performance in June 1723 received “good applause” from the congregation.

coverLess well known are the musical achievements of Bach’s predecessors as Thomaskantor, although they composed at a similarly intensive rate to their celebrated successor. Sebastian Knüpfer became cantor in 1657 and rapidly gained a reputation for his intricate settings of psalms. At his funeral in 1676 he was praised for setting Biblical passages “with such sweetness and artistry that he delighted the saddest of hearts, and his name was spoken with admiration not just in Leipzig but also further afield.” Knüpfer’s successor, Johann Schelle (Thomaskantor from 1677 to 1701), adopted a style intended to appeal to ordinary listeners, with cantabile melodies and lilting triple-meter passages. One account describes churchgoers flocking like bees to the hive to taste the sweetness of his music. He wrote at least six annual cycles of church music, a rate of productivity that not even Bach could equal. Subsequently Johann Kuhnau served as Thomaskantor from 1701 to 1722, having previously held the post of organist at the Thomaskirche. Kuhnau’s fecundity as a composer was legendary: according to his obituary, he rarely performed the music of others, instead writing several cycles of church compositions for Leipzig.

One reason that the compositions of Bach’s Leipzig predecessors remain little known is that only a small portion of them survive. By the 1720s such pieces were considered old-fashioned, and most manuscripts were destroyed. Indeed, Bach chose not to purchase the manuscripts owned by his predecessor Kuhnau. Hence church music from late-seventeenth-century Leipzig survives not in the city’s libraries but in peripheral locations. One such location is the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which holds the music manuscripts collected by the English apothecary James Sherard (1666–1738). Within Sherard’s collection are eight compositions by Leipzig cantors, five of which survive nowhere else. These eight works are now available in my new anthology for A-R Editions.

Sherard was an apothecary in London from 1690 until his retirement around 1720, supplying medicines to the Royal Navy among other clients. He was also a botanist and an amateur musician; two collections of his trio sonatas were published by Estienne Roger in Amsterdam in 1701 and ca. 1715–16. Sherard’s extensive library included printed editions of Italian instrumental music, and manuscripts of instrumental and vocal music from German-speaking lands. He and his brother William (another botanist) corresponded extensively with scholars and collectors across Europe, trading rare plants, bulbs, and seeds, as well as manuscripts and antiquities. Possibly he obtained the manuscripts of Leipzig church music from a north German bookseller in the early eighteenth century, either via an intermediary or during one of his journeys to the continent in the 1720s.

The eight pieces by Leipzig cantors preserved in Sherard’s collection are, in the opinion of Professor Peter Wollny (Director of the Leipzig Bach-Archiv), “some of the finest music we have from Bach’s predecessors.” The two pieces by Knüpfer are sophisticated and richly scored settings of psalms. De profundis, a setting of the penitential Psalm 130, contains a succession of expressive vocal solos, each followed by an imploring or energetic tutti passage. Lauda Jerusalem is noteworthy for its contrapuntal choral sections, in which Knüpfer shows his ability to combine contrasting themes. Such polyphonic artistry was fittingly described by the eighteenth-century music critic Johann Mattheson, who wrote that Knüpfer’s compositions show “much in common with his name, for they are very rich in skilled [contrapuntal] combinations [Verknüpfungen] and suspensions.”

Three of the pieces by Schelle in the edition are large-scale settings scored for five or six solo singers and strings, reinforced by a brass choir and sometimes an optional choir of ripieno singers. Salve solis orientis is a vivid depiction of the life and grisly death of Saint John the Baptist, with a clarino piccolo solo superimposed upon the brass choir. Schelle’s Magnificat in D major represents Mary’s joy with dancing triple-meter vocal lines. Several aspects of this piece anticipate Bach’s 1723 setting of the canticle; indeed, Bach’s exuberantly melismatic motif on “Magnificat” is an elaborated version of Schelle’s vocal opening.

Another piece that helped establish Leipzig’s traditions of church music is Schelle’s Durch Adams Fall, one of the earliest extant Lutheran compositions to mingle settings of biblical texts and free poetry with chorale melodies. Within this piece Schelle included up-to-date arias to gratify the musical connoisseurs in the congregation, but also chorale tunes that Lutherans would recognize. Such musical variety allowed him to communicate the cantata’s theological message effectively to all members of the congregation; a similarly rich mix of musical elements was used by Bach in his Leipzig cantatas forty years later.

The remaining three pieces in the edition are virtuosic concertos for solo voice and obbligato instruments. In Schelle’s Ah! quam multa sunt peccata, a prayer to Christ for forgiveness, the alto line is a tour de force of melismatic writing. The two works by Kuhnau, Laudate pueri and Muss nicht der Mensch, are significant additions to the repertory for solo tenor. Both Kuhnau pieces also contain some of the earliest examples of keyboard obbligato parts in Lutheran church music.

For performers, this edition offers many possibilities for programming concerts of sacred music from Leipzig, perhaps in conjunction with previous Recent Researches editions of music by Schelle (Six Chorale Cantatas, B060–61) and Kuhnau (Magnificat, B034). Several pieces in this edition could be programmed alongside more familiar works by Bach: Schelle’s Magnificat could be paired with Bach’s setting of the canticle, or Knüpfer’s De profundis could be coupled with Bach’s Cantata 18, Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt (both use a similar scoring of four violas).

An eighteenth-century Englishman such as Sherard may have been somewhat perplexed by these manuscripts of Leipzig church music. Most likely he was unfamiliar with Lutheran sacred traditions, and he may have struggled even to decipher the German calligraphy on the manuscripts. Yet for modern performers and scholars who are more familiar with the riches of German baroque music, this edition brings into focus the ingenuity and quality of the music of Bach’s predecessors. Bach’s Leipzig church music can now be regarded not as an isolated pinnacle, but as growing out of the traditions established by Knüpfer, Schelle, and Kuhnau. Little did Sherard know that through his collecting of music manuscripts, he preserved for posterity a unique snapshot of sacred music in late seventeenth-century Leipzig.


headshotStephen Rose is Reader in Music at Royal Holloway, University of London. A specialist in German music between 1500 and 1750, his publications include The Musician in Literature in the Age of Bach (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and articles in journals such as Early Music, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Music and Letters, and Schütz-Jahrbuch. He has directed two collaborative projects with the British Library: Early Music Online (2011) and A Big Data History of Music (2014–2015). He is Reviews Editor of Early Music and active as an organist and harpsichordist. Currently he is writing a book on musical authorship from Schütz to Bach.