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Sebastian Knüpfer (Composer, Thomaskantor)

Born: September 6, 1644 - Asch, Bavaria [now Aš, Czech Republic]
Died: October 10, 1676 - Leipzig, Germany

Sebastian Knüpfer was a German composer . He was a distinguished Kantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, and director of the cityís music.


Most of the biographical data about Sebastian Knüpfer come from a published obituary. He was first taught music by his father, a Kantor and organist at Asch. He also studied regularly with an unidentified tutor living near Asch, from whom he gained a solid grounding in, and lasting love for, a number of scholastic disciplines. At the age of 13 he entered the Gymnasium Poeticum at Regensburg and remained there for eight years. During this unusually long period he became well versed in the city's musical traditions (such as the works of Andreas Raselius), studied the organ, perhaps with Augustin Gradenthaler, and mastered a number of humanistic subjects, especially the poetic arts and philology. His gifts as a student were supported by scholarships from the city of Regensburg, and he was commended by influential members of the staff of the Gymnasium and the city council, some of the latter providing him with favourable testimonials when he moved to Leipzig in 1654. It is not known why he went there, but in view of his lifelong desire to improve his mind, it was possibly because he planned to enter the university. He did not, however, do so.

During his first few years at Leipzig, Sebastian Knüpfer gave music lessons and sang as a bass in church choirs, displaying enough talent to take solo parts. He applied for the post of Thomaskantor when Tobias Michael died on June 26, 1657, and he was appointed on July 17; the four other candidates to whom he was preferred included Adam Krieger. In Knüpfer the Thomaskirche found a Kantor and the city of Leipzig a director of music who approached the musical and intellectual calibre of Sethus Calvisius and Johann Hermann Schein, Tobias Michaelís two predecessors. During his 19-year tenure Leipzig once again became the leading musical city in central Germany following the sharp decline resulting from the Thirty Years War, the long Swedish occupation of the city and Tobias Michaelís protracted illness. Knüpfer thus initiated a final period of musical excellence in Leipzig that culminated in the careers of his three successors, Johann Schelle, Johann Kuhnau and J.S. Bach. Although never a student at the university, he continued the study of philosophy and philology with members of the faculty and was thought of as a member of the academic community. He was praised for his command of classical sources concerning music, which he mastered from Meibomís editions published in 1652; he studied the treatises of, among others, Guido of Arezzo, Boethius, Berno of Reichenau and Kircher. In addition to his productive career as Kantor he is known to have travelled to Halle to direct his own music for the dedication of new organs, for the Marktkirche on February 15, 1664 and the Ulrichskirche on November 16, 1675; also he directed a programme of music for the centenary of the Halle Gymnasium on August 17, 1665. His circle of musical colleagues included many men important in 17th-century German music, such as Pezel, Johann Rosenmüller and Johann Kaspar Horn, and he may well have known Heinrich Schütz. That he was regarded as one of Leipzigís leading intellectual figures is indicated by the unusual honour of his being accorded an academic funeral at the university even though he had never been officially connected with it.


Sebastian Knüpferís output consisted almost entirely of sacred works to Latin or German texts. Many are lost, and of those that survive few have been published in modern editions. Most are in the traditional style and form of the 17th-century vocal concerto, incorporating many of the characteristics of similar works by Heinrich Schütz - though with no traces of the latter's uniquely personal style. Large choral forms are enhanced by an orchestra of substantial size (most commonly two violins, three violas, bassoon with continuo, clarinos, trombone and timpani), which supports the choral parts as well as interjecting all manner of colourful concerted effects. The choral writing may be massively chordal or intricately polyphonic, and there are a number of much simpler concerted passages for soloists supported only by the continuo. Knüpfer frequently based his German works on the text and melody of a chorale, and he was a master at deriving contrapuntal ideas from motivic fragmentation of the chorale. In many of these works the chorale verses are treated much as they are in slightly later German cantatas Each verse is set separately. An opening choral movement, usually of large proportions and often repeated at the end of the work, is succeeded by movements designed for soloists. These are often ariosos or include fugal writing in which the chorale melody is passed back and forth between the voices in a duet or trio texture - a technique akin to that found in Bachís organ chorale preludes. Other movements display dramatic use of expressive recitative: there is a good example in Wer ist, der so von Edom kِmmt (excerpt in Schering, 1926, p.162).

Sebastian Knüpferís music is primarily serious and profoundly devout, though he did publish a collection of the secular madrigals and canzonettas (1663) that he wrote for the university student with whom he worked in the collegium musicum at Leipzig. His contrapuntal mastery, the powerful drama of his thematic ideas, his brilliant instrumentation and the variety of his vocal scoring all contribute to the impression of him as a worthy predecessor of Bach, many of whose Leipzig church cantatas belong to a tradition first developed by Knüpfer.


Source: Grove Concise Dictionary of Music (© 1994 by Oxford University Press); Grove Music Online (Author: George J. Buelow, © Oxford University Press 2005); HOASM Website
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (September 2005, February 2006)

Sebastian Knüpfer: Short Biography | Motet Erforsche mich, Gott

Thomaskantors: Thomanerchor Leipzig | Gewandhausorchester Leipzig | General Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2

Works arranged / performed by J.S. Bach

Motet Erforsche mich, Gott (Text: Psalms 139: 23) - arranged & performed by J.S. Bach in Leipzig c1746-1747

Use of Chorale Melodies in his works


Chorale Melody


Cantata: Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn, for 5 voices, 2 violins, 3 violas, bassoon, 2 cornetts, 3 trombones, and organo

Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn

Cantata: Was mein Gott will, for 2 Violins, 3 Violas, Bassoon, 2 Cornetti, 3 Tromboni. 2 S, A., 2 T., B. and bc

Was mein Gott will, das gíscheh allzeit

Cantata: Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist, for 4 voices, ripieno 4 voices, 2 violins, 2 violas, violone, bc

Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist

Links to other Sites

HOASM: Sebastian Knüpfer

Sebastian Knüpfer (Wikipedia) [German]

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