Johann Adolph Scheibe was born and grew up in Leipzig as the son of an organ-builder. In 1725 he began studying law at the city university, but had to break off his studies when the family’s financial situation became catastrophic. Instead the young Scheibe decided to make his name as a professional musician, playing harpsichord and organ. In all essentials Scheibe seems to have been self-taught both as a musician and composer, but in 1730-35 he was able to make his living in Leipzig as a music teacher and composer. After trying unsuccessfully for the post of organist at the city’s Thomaskirche (1729), where J.S. Bach was cantor, and for musical posts in various other cities, in 1736 he settled in Hamburg, where he was quickly able to find influential friends, including Mattheson and Telemann. Encouraged by them, in 1737-40 he published the periodical Der critische Musikus, which aroused attention because of its expert treatment of current questions of musical aesthetics, and because Scheibe criticized J.S. Bach’s music for being inflated and contrapuntally overcomplicated. In 1739 Scheibe succeeded in becoming the Kapelmeister of Margrave Friedrich Ernst of Brandenburg-Kulmbach, the governor of Holstein.
This was to be the turning-point in his life. The Margrave was the brother-in-law of the Danish King Christian VI, and as early as 1740 Scheibe was called to Copenhagen and made Royal conductor at the Pietist court. Scheibe quickly became a leading figure in the musical life of the capital. He headed the Royal Orchestra, composed both vocal and instrumental music and was one of the driving forces behind Denmark’s first musical society Det musikalske Societet, which gave public concerts in the period 1744-49. During the reign of Christian VI, theatre and opera were forbidden, but under his successor Frederik V (1746-66) Pietism disappeared from the court. Theatre and opera again became favourite court entertainments, and Scheibe – who was an adamant opponent of Italian opera – was dismissed in 1748. He was succeeded by the Italian Paolo Scalabrini, who had arrived the previous year with Mingotti’s opera troupe.
Scheibe now moved permanently to Sønderborg, where he started a music school. But he did not lose contact with the musical life of Copenhagen. He continued to compose for special events at the court, for example Royal red-letter days. The funeral cantata on the death of King Frederik V is one of his major works, and he composed regularly for the semi-public society Det musikalske Selskab, where many of Copenhagen’s leading musical amateurs and professionals now gathered. From time to time Scheibe himself came to Copenhagen to conduct performances of his own works. In 1762 he again settled down in the Danish capital, where he remained until his death in 1776.
During the 36 years when Scheibe worked in Denmark, he was not only active as a musician and composer; he also published literary works. He translated the important Dano-Norwegian Enlightenment writer J.L. Holberg into German, wrote a valuable Holberg biography, and published among other works a revised edition of Critischer Musikus (1745), Abhandlung vom Ursprung und Alter der Musik (1754) and Über die musikalische Komposition (1773).
In his autobiography (printed by Mattheson in 1740) Scheibe says that he had by then already composed more than 150 flute concertos, more than 30 violin concertos and more than 60-70 symphonies, as well as trios, solos and a large quantity of vocal music. Only a small part of his work has been preserved: of instrumental music only eight concertos, seven symphonies, seven partitas for harpsichord and eleven sonatas for solo harpsichord (5), organ (3) and flute and obbligato harpsichord (3). The three flute sonatas are among the very few works by Scheibe that were printed in the composer’s lifetime – by Johann Ulrich Haffner in Nuremberg. The print is no longer known, and the music is played on the CD from manuscript copies in the Royal Library in Copenhagen.
With his music and his aesthetics Scheibe is a representative of the Enlightenment in music. Influenced by French Classicism (via the Leipzig author Johann Christoph Gottsched) and by the philosopher Christian Wolff, he became the champion of a new musical style. For instrumental music he set up the ideal of the imitation of nature – that is, of inner human nature, the emotions. Like his good friend Mattheson he thought that music should function as a moral educator by arousing a love of the good and hatred of evil. In order to achieve this, music had to allow harmony to become the servant of expressive melody. Nature forms melodies, not harmonies, says Scheibe. The true nature of music consists of a “rational imitation of nature” in the form of sensitive, sensual and simple music. Among his musical models Scheibe mentions Telemann, Handel, Hasse, Graun, Vivaldi and Tartini in 1745.