Johann Gottfried Walther

(18 September 1684 - 23 March 1748)

Johann Gottfried Walther was a German baroque composer, organist, theorist and lexicographer. He was renowned for his in-depth musical knowledge and enthusiasm for research, contributing to monumental publications which have a valuable place in music history. In his lifetime, he was best known for compiling the Musicalisches Lexicon, an enormous dictionary of music and musicians published in Leipzig in 1732. He wrote and transcribed a substantial amount of pieces for organ.

Walther was born in Erfurt, the son of Johann Stephan Walther, a fabric-maker and Dorothea Lämmerhirt who was a relative of the Bach family. Interestingly, Walther’s birth and death closely coincided with the birth and death of Johann Sebastian Bach. Walther began his musical studies at the age of four, eventually taking organ lessons with Johann Bernhard Bach and David Adlung.

In 1697, Walther began studying at the Ratsgymnasium where he was a scholar of humanistic studies. In 1702 he began his first formal post as organist at the Thomaskirche in Erfurt. Parallel to his organist duties, he studied the theory and history of music in a very extensive manner, consulting the treatises of Werckmesiter, Fludd and Kircher. Werckmeister was one of the most pre-eminent names in German musical writings at the time and Walther had the opportunity to meet him in 1703 in Halberstadt. He was very encouraging towards Walther and as a gift, he gave him the treatise Pleiades musicae by Baryphonus, which had been published in Halberstadt in 1615.

Walther went to Nuremberg to study with Pachelbel’s son, Wilhelm Hieronymus until the 29 July 1707 when he was appointed organist at the Stadkirche St. Peter and Paul in Weimar. He maintained this position until his death. At the same time, he was employed as the music teacher of Prince Johann Ernst, nephew of the reigning duke. When the prince returned from studying at the University of Utrecht, Walther began to teach him composition. Walther found the prince to possess great musical talent and he dedicated his manuscript treatise Praecepta der musicalischen Composition (1708) to him. The prince’s early death in 1715 was the source of great loss to Walther. The Praecepta was thought to have been written as an instruction manual for the prince, consisting of an important store of theoretic concepts drawn largely from treatises of the 17th century.

The Musicalisches Lexicon was the first major music dictionary in the German language and the first in any language to include both musical terms and biographies of composers from the past and present. Today, it still serves as a valuable source for historians, exposing fascinating insights into musical concepts, conditions, performance practices and the main composers and writings about music.

In 1708, Walther began a great long-term friendship with his cousin Johann Sebastian Bach when Bach joined him working at the Weimar court Kapelle. Bach became the godfather of Walther’s eldest son in 1712.

The Musicalisches Lexicon was the first major music dictionary in the German language.

Walther composed a large amount of sacred vocal music, chorale preludes and other organ pieces. Walther wrote in his autobiography that he composed “92 vocal and 119 keyboard works based on chorales”. He also arranged works by other composers for keyboard. His Kyrie, Christe, Kyrie eleison über Wo Gott zum Haus nicht giebt sein Gunst is the only vocal work of his that survives.

The organ pieces are very varied and display German variation techniques that had previously been developed by composers such as Pachelbel, Buxtehude and of course, Bach. Most of these organ works have been published. They are comparable to Bach’s organ chorales and the close personal friendship between the two cousins undoubtedly had an influence on his treatment of the organ. On the other hand, a more personal style can also be perceived throughout the organ corpus. Walther’s organ variations are of consistently superb quality writing.

The later years of Walther’s life were marked by numerous disappointments. After Bach left his job in Weimar to take up a position in Cöthen, Walther was overlooked as his successor, for reasons that are unclear. In 1745, his health deteriorated and his son was employed to take over as substitute organist but a further blow to Walther’s confidence happened when his son was not chosen as his permanent successor as organist. Due to financial hardship, he had to sell much of his rich historical library. He is nonetheless remembered as contributing substantially to the development of German music.

Walther’s organ variations are of consistently superb quality writing.

Johann Sebastian Bach

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