Musical Interpretation of Jacob‘s Death and Burial in Johann Kuhnau‘s Biblical Sonata


  • Aleksandra Pister Vilnius University



Johann Kuhnau, Biblical Sonata, Jacobs’s Death and Burial, plot-based narrative, musical rhetoric and doctrine of the affections


For his final sonata in the series of Musikalische Vorstellung einiger biblischer Historien (Musical Representation of Several Biblical Stories), popularly known as Biblical Sonatas, titled “Jacobs Tod und Begräbniß” (Jacob’s Death and Burial), Johann Kuhnau chose the story that concludes and, in a way, sums up the Book of Genesis (Gen. 49‒50). This episode opens the new chapter in the Old Testament, which describes how Israel has grown and transformed from just one family into the nation of twelve tribes, founded by the sons of Jacob. The new stage in the genesis of the Jewish nation and this particular episode represented in Kuhnau’s sonata are related to the series of Biblical Sonatas in two ways. First, the idea of Jacob’s death and an inevitable end of all bodily existence is represented here metaphorically as the conclusion of a musical work – the entire series of sonatas. Second, the composer employs some recognisable means of musical expression (and so-called “rhetorical figures”), which he had already used in his earlier sonatas, and musical fragments to sum up the method of rhetorical composition applied to the whole series and to create the new narrative at the same time.

The selected episode from the Bible is portrayed in the sixth sonata by drawing attention to distinct affections, which Kuhnau describes in the prefatory essay to the sonata and in the brief notes introducing each of the five movements, while the musical devices he employs illustrate them in great detail. Thus the sixth sonata might be classified as ‘affective sonata’ to apply the term proposed by the author of this article. Just like in other sonatas of the series, this one displays perceptible changes and contrasting musical language – not only between but also within certain movements. In the vocal music of Renaissance and Baroque periods contrasts of texture and musical expression depended on the semantic content of the sung text, whereas in Kuhnau’s keyboard sonatas conspicuous changes in musical expression signalled certain changes in the course of action or affection.

At least two contrasting affections can be distinguished in the first movement of the sonata: a stirring pain (Italian dolor; German bewegte Gemüthe) and a soothing peacefulness (Italian raddolcito (...) dalla benedittione; German Ruhe). The first affection is related to the emotions experienced by Jacob’s family at his deathbed, while the second reflects the inner peace experienced by dying Jacob. The first movement is written in E-flat major and C minor – the keys that, according to Johannes Mattheson, are best suited for grieving and other themes full of sighing. These are emphasized by employing the musical-rhetorical devices, such as pausa (pause), exclamatio (in this case, upward leaps in fourths and fifths, which represent cries) and tirata (rapid succession of notes). This musical style is contrasted with three similar episodes of different meter, rhythm and harmony, which portray Jacob’s peaceful blessings to his sons. It is interesting to note that the writing associated with the two affections – both pain and peace – echoes previous Biblical Sonatas from the series. For example, Kuhnau consistently uses the recitative style (stylus recitativus) to represent laments in the whole series. In the sixth sonata, this style is employed to illustrate Joseph’s weeping when he throws himself upon his father’s face gone pale.

The second movement of the sixth sonata is somewhat different. To convey the contemplation of death Kuhnau used the most complex, rational form and technique of imitative polyphony – that is, the fugue. The affection of grief (German Betrübniß), mentioned in the preface to this sonata, is underlined by the figure of passus duriusculus (an ascending chromatic line spanning a perfect fourth in this particular case) in the main subject of the fugue and consequently in the entire movement. The third movement depicts a specific action – the trip to the burial site, which brings yet another change in compositional technique. Two components play an important conceptual role in this movement: namely, the musical-rhetorical figure called groppo (groups of four quavers, in which the first and the third notes are the same) in the bass, the rounded outline of which visualizes the movement of a funeral procession and chariot wheels mentioned in the sonata’s written preface, whereas the upper voice displays a combination of several figures – multiplicatio (multiplication of the dissonant tone), syncopatio (prolongation of the dissonant tone by using a tie), and descensus (a musical passage that descends in semitones and without any leaps) – through which Kuhnau expresses the affection of grief (German Betrübniß). In the fourth movement, the composer turns back to the recitative style to express the lamentation over the dead body of Jacob (Italian lamento; German bittere Klage) during the funeral. To emphasize the mournful mood the composer five times uses the descending chromatic progression called passus duriusculus. This movement also features tone repetitions and semitone progressions reminiscent of moaning, while the imitative contrapuntal texture is used as a musical device to represent the crowd (many voices) wailing. The written note to the fifth and the last movement of the sixth sonata refers to the use of the affection of consolation (Italian consolazione; German Trost), which is conveyed with the galliard pattern. Kuhnau has often opted for the dances of the time to express positive affections. The triple time (one of the main features that characterizes positive affection), the rhythm suitable for dancing and consonant harmonies clear the mournful air prevalent in the sixth sonata and end the entire series of the Biblical Sonatas on a consolatory note.





Christian Culture and Religious Studies