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Johann Philipp Kirnberger (Composer, Music Theorist, Bach's Pupil)

Born: Apri 1721, (baptised: April 24, 1721) - Saalfeld/Saale, Thuringia, Germany
Died: July 27, 1783 - Berlin, Germany

Johann Philipp Kirnberger was among the leading theorists and commentators on music of the 18th century, but as a composer, he is of lesser importance. Although he wrote keyboard and chamber music, songs, and a small amount of church music, these struck listeners then and now as uninspired. David Mason Green wrote that the music has "an excess of theory" and wryly adds, "It would have won him a foundation grant today."

Johann Philipp Kirnberger had a conventional musical and general education that included organ studies with J.P. Kellner and Heinrich Nicolaus Gerber, but the high point of his training was the two years (1739-1741) he spent studying performance and composition with J.S. Bach.

From 1741 to 1751, Johann Philipp Kirnberger lived in Poland and worked for various noblemen of that country. He returned to Germany, was engaged by the Prussian royal chapel, voluntarily took a higher position in a lower establishment (that of Prince Heinrich of Prussia), and in 1758 obtained the major position of his life, music director for Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia. He kept this job for life and all but one of his published compositions originated from that period. He had a reputation for being tactless and pedantic, but enforced exceptionally high musical standards.

Johann Philipp Kirnberger regarded J.S. Bach as the greatest of all composers, a common view today but not then when the Leipzig master, if he was remembered at all, was regarded as an old-fashioned composer. Kirnberger sought to develop theories of music that would carry on J.S. Bach's musical thinking. His widely published theoretical works so extol J.S. Bach that subsequent generations knew his reputation as a great master of technique and form, at the least, prompting many later composers to study his music and ultimately, to bring it back to its exalted place in the performance repertoire as well. Moreover, Kirnberger applied exhaustive effort to get J.S. Bach's largely unpublished chorale preludes preserved in printed form.

His theoretical thinking was very deep and plumbed the relationship of mathematical ratios to music. This led him to describe certain theoretical harmonic combinations, such as ninth, 11th, and 13th chords that later became important in the Romantic and Impressionist eras.

Source: All Music Guide Website (Author: Joseph Stevenson)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (December 2005)

Bach's Pupils: List of Bach's Pupils | Actual and Potential Non-Thomaner Singers and Players who participated in Bach’s Figural Music in Leipzig | Bach’s Pupils - Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2

Works previously attributed to J.S. Bach

Allemande for keyboard in A minor, BWV 835
Fugue for keyboard in E minor, BWV Anh 94 (Anh III 181)
Praeludium (Grave) for keyboard in E minor, BWV Anh 112

Use of Chorale Melodies in his works


Chorale Melody


Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, Chorale Prelude for Organ

Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ

Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz, Chorale BWV 421 (Breitkopf 299) by J.S. Bach - probably made changes

Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz

Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, Chorale Prelude for Organ

Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan

Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten , Chorale Prelude for Organ

Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten

Links to other Sites

Johann Philipp Kirnberger - Biography (AMG)
Kirnberger, Johann Philipp: Biography (Sojurn)
HOASM: Johann Philipp Kirnberger

Kirnberger, Johann Philipp (WQXR)
Johann Philipp Kirnberger - Wikipedia [German]
Johann Kirnberger (



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Last update: Wednesday, June 14, 2017 15:13