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He was born at Meeder in Coburg. He was the son of a cobbler, and received early musical training, especially in keyboard playing, from Johann Heinrich Schulthesius, who was the local Kantor. In other aspects of his music education he was self-taught, especially in regards to theory. As a teenager he served as a singer in Lüneburg, and studied law for two years at the University of Göttingen; he remained associated with the University for more than fifty years, where he held varied positions, including instructor of music theory, organist, keyboard teacher, and eventually director of all music at the university. In 1787 he received an honorary doctorate of philosophy from the institution.
Forkel is often regarded as the founder of Historical Musicology, for it is with him that the study of music history and theory became an academic discipline with rigorous standards of scholarship.
He was an enthusiastic admirer of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music he did much to popularize. He also wrote the first biography of Bach (in 1802), one which is of particular value today, as he was still able to correspond directly with Bach's sons Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and thereby obtained much valuable information that would otherwise have been lost.
His library, which was accumulated with care and discrimination at a time when rare books were cheap, forms a valuable portion of the Berlin State Library and also of the library of the Königliche Institut für Kirchenmusik.
He died at Göttingen.
Forkel's writings include:
- Über die Theorie der Musik (Göttingen, 1777)
- Musikalisch kritische Bibliothek (Gotha, 1778)
- Allgemeine Geschichte der Musik (Leipzig, 1788, 1801)
- Allgemeine Litteratur der Musik: oder, Anleitung zur Kenntniss musikalischer Bücher, welche von den ältesten bis auf die neusten Zeiten bey den Griechen, Römern und den meisten neuern europäischen Nationen sind geschrieben worden; systematisch geordnet, und nach Veranlassung mit Anmerkungen und Urtheilen begleitet (Leipzig 1792), known in English as Dictionary of Musical Literature
- Ueber Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke. Für patriotische Verehrer echter musikalischer Kunst (Leipzig, 1802)
To his musical compositions, which are numerous, little interest is to be attached today. However it is worth noting that he wrote variations on "God Save the King" for the clavichord, and that Georg Joseph Vogler wrote a sharp criticism on them, which appeared at Frankfurt in 1793 together with a set of variations as he conceived they ought to be written.
- Forkel/Terry 1920/2011, p. xii
- Allgemeine Geschichte der Musik (Leipzig, 1788, 1801) Archived 28 March 2009 at the Wayback Machine at Universities of Strasbourg Digital Library
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Forkel, Johann Nikolaus". Encyclopædia Britannica. 10 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 666.
- Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life, Art, and Work at Project Gutenberg, translation by Charles Sanford Terry of Ueber Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke by Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1802). New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe. 1920 (e-version: 2011).
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- German Wikisource has original text related to this article: Johann Nikolaus Forkel
- Free scores by Johann Nikolaus Forkel at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)
- Literature by and about Johann Nikolaus Forkel in the German National Library catalogue
- Works by Johann Nikolaus Forkel at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Johann Nikolaus Forkel at Internet Archive
- Works by Johann Nikolaus Forkel at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)