Musical interpretation of Hezekiah’s illness in Johann Kuhnau’s Biblical sonata

  • Aleksandra Pister
Keywords: plot-based narrative, musical rhetoric, doctrine of the affections, musical-rhetorical figure, music for keyboard


The article discusses Johann Kuhnau’s fourth keyboard sonata, Der todtkranke und wieder gesunde Hiskias (The Mortally Ill and Then Restored Hezekiah), from his last volume of six keyboard sonatas published in Leipzig in 1700, known popularly as “Biblical Sonatas.” Titled as Musicalische Vorstellung einiger biblischer Historien (Musical Representation of Several Biblical Stories), the set presents a remarkably thorough and detailed musical depiction of selected scenes from the Old Testament. This is also a rare collection of keyboard music to provide a detailed narrative commentary, consisting of verbal synopses of selected stories in German, which preface each sonata, and commentaries in Italian written into notation, which underline portrayed situations, events and affections. To examine the plot-based narrative underlying the storyline of this particular sonata, some authentic discourses have been taken into consideration for analytical purposes. These included the composer’s foreword to the collection of his “Biblical Sonatas,” synopsis of the story depicted in the fourth sonata, and a comprehensive theory of musical rhetoric and the doctrine of the affections found in various 17th and 18th century sources. In this article, the author specifies distinct musical-rhetorical figures that resemble (by analogy) or refer to certain extra-musical objects or phenomena and serve as vehicles for creating different moods and establishing the atmosphere. Depending on which narrative element – action or affections – is brought into focus in each of the six sonatas, the author distinguishes between two types of sonatas, namely ‘action sonatas’ and ‘affective sonatas.’ Affections and shifts in mood experienced by Hezekiah make an important narrative element in the storyline of the fourth sonata. Hence this particular sonata falls under the category of ‘affective sonatas.’ The analysis of this sonata revealed that the narrative is constructed therein in several layers. Firstly, there is a verbal layer: to depict the story in detail and with much consistency, the composer thought it necessary to accompany notation with the synopsis of the story and verbal commentaries. Moreover, quotations from the Protestant chorale Ach Herr mich armen Sünder (Ah Lord, poor sinner that I am) imply verbal connotations of their verses. Secondly, it contains a musical-affective layer: musical devices (such as musical-rhetorical figures, key, rhythm, metre, and the like) are employed there to convey the indicated affections, such as wailing (lamento) or, in other words, sorrow, confidence (confidenza) and joy (allegrezza). The author observes that many compositional choices made by Kuhnau adhere to the standard methods of expressing affects as they were defined in the Baroque treatises. Thirdly, there is an associative layer: certain fragments and elements resemble (by analogy) and refer to extra-musical objects and/or phenomena, such as Belshazzar’s face turning pale and his limbs trembling in terror, the sesquialtera ratio (3:2), which symbolizes the numerical proportion of steps on Ahaz’s sundial and the years of Hezekiah’s life. The alternating musical textures, normally associated with sadness (adagio) and merriment (allegro), can be also mentioned as a characteristic narrative feature in this sonata. Although Kuhnau claimed to have depicted Biblical stories according to his own imagination, the analysis revealed that his writing in this sonata does not veer away from the typical musical vocabulary of the Baroque era, which nowadays requires a more sensitive ear and keener insight into compositional conventions of the period.