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German music historian, conductor, and composer.

Career Summary

Spitta studied theology and classical philology at the University of Göttingen 1860‒64. After a period as a school teacher his principal interest became research into the life and work of J. S. Bach. He published the first volume of his two-volume biography Johann Sebastian Bach in 1873. In 1875 he was appointed professor of music history at the University of Berlin, and in the same year administrative director of the Berlin Hochschule für Musik. He published the second volume of the Bach biography in 1880. He edited music of Buxtehude, Schütz, and Frederick of Prussia, and he wrote on many other subjects, his research interests ranging from the middle ages to the 19th century. He accumulated a large circle of students in whom he instilled the principles of scholarly musicology. He retained both of his Berlin positions until his death at the age of 52. With Chrysander and Adler, he is now seen as one of the founders of the discipline of German musicology.

Spitta and Schenker

In the commentary to his edition of J. S. Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (1910), p. 19 (Eng. transl., p. 24), Schenker took Spitta to task for characterizing the Fantasy as "all uncontrolled 'storm and stress'" and so failing to see the simple tonal motion underlying it. Fourteen years later he had a similar criticism: in "J. Seb. Bach: Matthäuspassion Rezitativ: "Erbarm es Gott" (Tonwille 7 (IV/1) (January‒March 1924), 34‒38, ref. 37 (Eng. transl., pp. 67‒68), he chided Spitta for relying on notational appearance rather than tonal effect. In his study of Bach's Partita No. 3 for solo violin in Meisterwerk 1 (1925), 85‒88 (Eng. transl., pp. 47‒48), he was highly critical of Spitta on several accounts ("he does not come even close to the purely musical content of the piece"). In keeping with this, in a letter of January 18, 1915 (WSLB 236), he grouped Spitta with the "hermeneuticists" that he so despised.


  • Grove Music Online (Christoph Wolff) [2016]
  • MGG (1965) (Heinrich Spitta)


  • Ian Bent and Marko Deisinger

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