Organ Recital Examines Three Candidates for Kuhnau’s Post in Leipzig

Bach, Kuhnau, Graupner, Telemann: James Johnstone (organ). Brecon Cathedral. 24.10.2015

Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasie and Fugue in G minor.BWV 542
Christoph Graupner: Aria con variazioni in C minor.
Georg Phillipp Telemann: Jesu meine Freude TWV 31/33.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Jesu meine Freude. BWV 1105
Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B minor BWV 544
Johann Kuhnau: Der todtkranke und wieder gesunde Hiskias (Biblische Sonate No. 4)
Johann Kuhnau: Il lamento di Hiskia per la morte annunciatagli e le sue preghiere arde.
Johann Kuhnau: La di lui confidenzia in Iddio.
Johann Kuhnau: L’allegrezza del Re convalescente
Johann Sebastian Bach: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 659.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Fugue in E flat. BWV 552ii


The fact that J.S. Bach was only third choice for the post of organist at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, following the death of Johann Kuhnau in 1722 is surely one of the most remarkable in musical history. The job was initially offered to Telemann, then music director in Hamburg; his employers there increased his salary so as to hold on to him when hearing of the offer from Lepizig. The city councillors of Leipzig then sought, instead, to appoint Christoph Graupner. Graupner was, at the time, Kapellmeister in Darmstadt and had often to work unpaid; but his employer, Landgraf Ernst Ludwig seems to have been roused to a new appreciation of the real enough talents of Graupner on seeing how much he was wanted by Leipzig. He coughed up all the money owing to Graupner and made a substantial increase in his future salary. So the worthies had to settle for their third choice – one Johann Sebastian Bach! One hopes that some of those on the appointment committee came later to recognize how ‘chance’ had served them better than their own judgment.

The familiar story prompted organist James Johnstone to devise a fascinating recital programme (it, or something very similar, would also work well as a CD), including works by Kuhnau and the three composers who, in modern jargon, we might say were ‘short-listed’ as possible replacements for him: Bach, Graupner and Telemann. Rachel Podger in her note of ‘Welcome’ in the Festival programme suggests that this programme gives its audience the chance to “judge for [themselves] if [they] think the elders of Leipzig were right”.

It isn’t, I think, only posthumous reputation and hindsight that makes one feel today that those elders were only “right” by accident, third time lucky, as it were. Basing one’s own judgement purely on what was to be heard in James Johnstone’s recital is, of course, very difficult (if not impossible). Inevitable one’s attempted judgement is bound up with a certain foreknowledge and prejudice, not least because Bach’s organ works are far more familiar to us than those of his rivals.(asnd, no doubt, the Lepizig elders were looking for some other qualities and qualifications beyond ‘simple’ skill as a composer). Still, I can say quite honestly that it was the works by Bach which consistently stood out in this recital.

Although I love and admire much in Telemann’s voluminous output rather more than many seem to do, I have to admit that his writing for solo keyboard has never seemed to me to be amongst his best or most interesting work. Indeed it generally shows him at his most ‘routine’ and merely workmanlike, even if, Telemann being Telemann, everything is highly competent. When one has the chance, as in this recital, to hear Telemann’s Prelude and Fugue (TWV 31/33) on the Lutheran hymn “Jesu meine freude” alongside Bach’s (BWV 1105), the limited range and depth of Telemann’s invention is very evident.

Much of Graupner’s contemporary fame was as an outstanding harpsichordist and, consequently, it is not surprising to find that he writes for the keyboard (whether that be the harpsichord or the organ) with more understanding and imagination than Telemann does. His “Aria con variazioni in C minor” has genuine inventiveness and some attractively inventive touches, but finally lacks (at least on a single hearing) either the intellectual weight or the emotional substance of Bach’s finest writing for the organ. (I am not sure, though, that Johnstone chose to represent Graupner at his very best with this piece).

Of the four composers represented in Johnstone’s  recital, the one whose work came closest to compelling and holding one’s attention was not that of one of his rivals for the post in Leipzig, but rther of his predecessor in that post. Johann Kuhnau was an interesting and polymathic man (an accomplished linguist, a novelist, a theorist of music, a lawyer and mathematician) and an accomplished composer who has yet to be appreciated fully.  Johnstone represented Kuhnau by the fourth of a set of seven ‘Biblical Sonatas’ (as they are now usually described), published in 1700 as Musicalische Vorstellung einiger biblischen Historien: “Der todtkranke und wieder gesunde Hiskias” (The deathly sickness and restoration to health of Hezekiah). As befits the man whose St. Mark Passion, first performed in 1721, initiated the Passion tradition in Lepizig, Kuhnau is a composer who, more than most, anticipates Bach’s sense of musical drama and narrative power and, to a degree, his successor’s understanding of human psychology and how it might be expressed musically. All these qualities are, to some extent at least, audible in the three movements of Kuhnau’s Hiskias. The music is vividly coloured, and tells its story so forcefully and evocatively that one might almost describe it as programme music; it also has a deep and relatively wide sense of human emotions. It lacks, however, those qualities Wilfrid Mellers so brilliantly articulated in his book Bach and the Dance of God (1980), qualities bound up with a fertility of rhythmic invention which speaks both of the rhythms of human life and of a transcendent order.

In essence, any imaginary ‘contest’ as to the relative merits of Bach, Graupner and Telemann was effectively over once James Johnstone had begun his recital with Bach’s Fantasie and Fugue in G minor (BWV 542), usually known as the Great Fantasia and Fugue in G minor. Its ‘greatness’ is not just a matter of scale (where the epithet serves to distinguish it from the ‘Little G minor (BWV 578); it is a major work, of great energy and passionate delight. James Johnston reveled in its double-dotted rhythms, articulating its immense vitality so vividly that it felts more like a great natural phenomenon than a merely human creation. The organ of the Cathedral was originally built William Hill and Son in 1886 and has been restored and rebuilt on several occasions since then. Like many essentially nineteenth-century organs there is always a risk that it will sound too huge for baroque organ music; having recently heard, live, the Johann Wockel organ of 1642 in the Franziskanerkirche in Vienna, I felt particularly sensitive to such a possibility, but Johnstone’s judgement of register and dynamics was excellent and the sound world he drew from the instrument was, in very large part, eminently suitable to the programme. He avoided any hint of the overblown in the passages of upper-voice imitation in this Fantasia and brought out the riches of Bach’s contrapuntal structures in the Fugue. Later, his recital included a lucid reading of the Prelude and Fugue in B minor (BWV 544) and a thoroughly uplifting account of BWV 62 (Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland).

My thoughts during this recital were not really about whether or not the elders of Leipzig “got it right”, but about what they –and perhaps we – nearly missed.

Glyn Pursglove

1 thought on “Organ Recital Examines Three Candidates for Kuhnau’s Post in Leipzig”

  1. Thank you for your kind and erudite comments about the programme. However, there are few oddities. The Fantasia and Fugue in g minor was not played – I began with the Prelude in Eb major BWV552. The ‘dotted rhythms were definitely there, but the key signature definitely major. The Fugue (in Eb) came at the end of the recital. Also the two movement Prelude and Fugue in b minor BWV544 was in fact (as announced at the beginning) the Fantasia in G major (in THREE movements). Finally the setting of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland was not the cantata but the organ prelude BWV659.


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