Johann David Heinichen

1683 1729

Johann David Heinichen



Johann David Heinichen was a German composer and theorist of the Baroque era. His reputation today is based primarily on his treatiseDer General-Bass in der Composition. Though the majority of his output, which covers nearly all genres of the era, was destroyed during World War II, a delightful selection of his works has survived and can be heard by ensembles today.

Heinichen was born in 1683 in the German town of Krössuln, nr Weissenfels. As a boy, Heinichen showed much musical talent and was already composing and conducting at the local churches. He followed in the initial footsteps of his father, David Heinichen, with his studies at the Thomasschule in Leipzig. Despite a thorough musical education, David Heinichen pursued studies at the university and established himself as a pastor in Krössuln.

At the Thomasschule, where Johann David enrolled in 1695, he received harpsichord and organ lessons from Johann Kuhnau. Heinichen’s immense talent resulted in Kuhnau appointing him as his assistant, a task which involved copying and correcting the manuscripts of his teacher.

After completing his studies at the Thomasschule, Heinichen went on to study law at Leipzig University, graduating in 1706. He promptly began his practice as an advocate in Weissenfels after receiving his degree. It was not long before Heinichen became enamored by the musical activities in the court of Duke Johann Georg, where Johann Philipp Krieger was active as the Kapellmeister. With the encouragement of Krieger, Heinichen began to compose music for the court. During this time, he was also introduced to many of the leading German composers of the day including Krieger’s assistant Gottfried Grünewald and organist Christian Schieferdecker. He also became acquainted, albeit briefly, with opera composer Reinhard Keiser.

Heinichen’s reputation as a composer grew and in 1709 he was summoned by the opera house in Leipzig to compose several operas. While in Leipzig he also directed the collegium musicum. Further opportunities presented themselves during this period, including the positions of court composer in Zeitz and opera composer for the court of Naumburg. Despite his busy schedule as a composer, Heinichen was able to focus on his thoroughbass treatise, which he first published in 1711.

Longing to compose in the elegant Italian operatic style, Heinichen left Leipzig despite his booming career, and moved to Venice to experience the music for himself. He was soon commissioned to compose two operas,Mario and Le passioni per troppo amore, for the Teatro S Angelo. Both works were premiered in 1713 with success. Before the production of his operas, Heinichen went to Rome to provide music lessons for the future patron ofJ.S. Bach, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. While in Italy, Heinichen became acquainted with many important composers and musicians including Gasparini, Pollaroli, Lotti and Vivaldi.

Heinichen remained in Italy for six years before travelling to Dresden to take up employment as Kapellmeister at the court together with Johann Christoph Schmidt, at the request of the Prince-Elector of Saxony. Content with this position at one of the best and most active musical establishments, Heinichen retained this post from 1717 on. He enjoyed working with the virtuoso musicians of the court orchestra, including the violinists Veracini, Volumier and Pisendel, who studied with Heinichen, in addition to the flautists Buffardin, Hebenstreit and Quantz and the lutenist S.L. Weiss.

While employed at the court, Heinichen composed much sacred and secular music such as cantatas, serenades and instrumental works including concertos, sonatas and trio sonatas. Opera was not a significant part of his output anymore, as the court’s Italian opera company dissolved at the order of the king as a result of disagreements between the singers (Senesino and Berselli) and Heinichen. The only opera work from this period is the incomplete and never performedFlavio Crispo. Most likely as a result of the arguments with the composers, Heinichen gave up the work during the final act, which ends abruptly.

Henichen’s total output is estimated to contain more than 250 works, though many were lost due to the violence and destruction during World War II. Interestingly, despite his popularity, none of Heinichen’s music was published during his lifetime and it remains difficult to come by in modern publications. His music shows not only the influence of his German roots and Italian residency, but also a French flair. He believed that music should fuse the idioms of each of these styles. The result of this stylistic mélange is a pre-Classical character, quite different from his German Baroque contemporaries. In his instrumental works and operas, the Italian style prevails. His operas and vocal works are, more specifically, representative of the Venetian style with little in common with the works of Keiser. An interest in unique instrumental combinations and colours is prevalent throughout Heinichen’s works.

Though it is obvious that Heinichen was a brilliant composer and achieved much popularity during his lifetime, he is remembered today primarily for his treatise,Der General-Bass in der Composition. Scholars such as Matteson, Scheibe and Charles Burney have praised the work. Burney went as far as to proclaim Heinichen ‘the Rameau of Germany’.

The treatise provides much information about composition from both theoretical and philosophical standpoints and also a wealth of information about thoroughbass technique. After returning from Italy, Heinichen rewrote and expanded upon his original treatise, including many new ideas of Italian influence regarding performance practice. Many German techniques and principles are presented in the compositional section, theEinleitung. In addition, Heinichen provides the reader with many explanations and demonstrations of the realization of unfigured bass, including the explanation and realization of Alessandro Scarlatti’s cantata, Lascia deh lascia, al fine. He published this treatise in 1728 at his own expense.

Just a year after the publication of his treatise, Heinichen died of tuberculosis on 16 July 1729 in Dresden. He was buried the following day in the cemetery of the Johanniskirche.