Johann Philipp Kirnberger

Johann Philipp Kirnberger


• 1721 1783


Johann Philipp Kirnberger was among the leading theorists and commentators on music of the eighteenth 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."

Kirnberger had a conventional musical and general education that included organ studies with J.P. Kellner and Henirich Nicolaus Gerber, but the high point of his training was the two years he spent studying performance and composition with Johann Sebastian Bach.

From 1741 to 1751, he 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.

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 Bach's musical thinking. His widely published theoretical works so extol 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 Moreover, Kirnberger applied exhaustive effort to get Bach's largely unpublished chorale preludes preserved in printed form.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.