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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

On the Fringe: Dieterich Buxtehude

Musicians at the start of their careers often travel great distances to study with acclaimed teachers or experience the work of inspiring performers first hand. It's part of the learning process, to be inspired by artists one admires and to glean ideas for one's own craft and development.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. While jet travel makes it easier to go to the other side of the world these days, in the past young musicians often undertook arduous and dangerous journeys for the sake of their artistic development.

The organist and composer Dieterich [sic] Buxtehude was based in the German city of Lübeck for nearly 40 years and was regarded as one of the supreme artists of his age. People travelled from all over Europe to hear his performances and in 1705, two years before Buxtehude died, a 20 year old organist and composer then working in Arnstadt walked the 400 km to Lübeck to experience Buxtehude's art for himself. This young musician, Johann Sebastian Bach, risked his job and his personal safety and comfort to learn from the older master. And he learned a great deal, not only about composition but also about practical aspects of music making.

This post looks at the life and work of Dieterich Buxtehude. If he was able to offer much to Bach, maybe he can offer much to us as well.

For a composer as famous as Buxtehude was in his day, it is perhaps surprising that the date and place - even the country - of his birth are not known for certain today. He came from that part of northern Germany which over the years has sometimes been part of Denmark or Sweden. Even though his forebears were probably from the German states, Buxtehude's father Johannes, who was also an organist, migrated to the Danish province of Scania and held a church post in Helsingborg in 1641. Shortly thereafter, Johannes Buxtehude took up a post in Elsinore and remained there until his retirement in 1671.

Dieterich Buxtehude is thought to have been born around 1637 but where is not known for sure. An obituary claimed that he always regarded himself as Danish and that he was around 70 years old when he died in 1707. His first name is spelt in varying ways, both Danish and German, even today. The unusual spelling of "Dieterich" is one used by the composer himself.

Buxtehude followed in his father's footsteps, rather literally. He took up a post at his father's former church in Helsingborg around the age of 20, and two or three years later, in 1660, moved back to Elsinore (where his father was still working) to become organist at another church, the Marienkirche.

In 1667 one of the most important north German church posts, at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, became vacant with the death of Franz Tunder. Buxtehude as appointed to the post in 1668 and remained there for nearly 40 years until his death in 1707.

Lübeck (1641)

Simultaneous with Buxtehude's appointment as organist in Lübeck was his appointment as the church's Werkmeister. This gave him an additional salary and required him to act as the church's secretary, treasurer and business manager. Shortly after his appointment, he also formally became a citizen of the city, and ten days after this he married Anna Margarethe Tunder, the daughter of his predecessor. Marrying the daughter of one's predecessor was not an unusual practice at the time; whether it was a condition of his employment, though, is not known. Marrying Buxtehude's own daughter was definitely to be a condition for anyone who wanted to succeed him.

Thus can the basic details of Buxtehude's life be summarised. According to Grove (the main source for this article) his official duties in Lübeck required him to play for the main morning service and the afternoon service on Sundays and feast days, and for Vespers on the afternoon before. Music during communion involved instrumentalists as well as the choir, and even though he was not officially required to compose vocal music, he did write sacred works for performance at communion and Vespers, as well as for weddings and funerals.

Of the nearly 300 works of Buxtehude's which survive, three broad genres of music are represented: keyboard music, instrumental music, and vocal music, and we'll look at these three categories in that order.

Buxtehude's keyboard music is mostly for his own instrument, the organ, although the surviving sources rarely specify the actual instrument intended. As was usual at the time, keyboard music could usually be played on whatever instrument was available, and while the music with pedals might be reasonably assumed to be for the organ, it shouldn't be forgotten that there was such an instrument as the pedal harpsichord.

Still, the keyboard music with pedals (called pedaliter pieces) is almost certainly intended for use on the organ in church services. The pieces for manuals (called manualiter) divide into works which seem designed as teaching pieces for the organ and suites and variations which seem designed for the harpsichord.

This is one of the large scale pedaliter pieces, typical of Buxtehude's major organ works. [listen]

These pieces are made up of smaller sections which contrast free, toccata-style passages which sound like improvisations with stricter sections such as fugues. Buxtehude had in Lübeck a very large instrument at his disposal, with 52 stops spread over three manuals and pedals. 15 of these stops were in the pedal, more than on any of the manuals, and Buxtehude's liberation of the pedal from a mere support to an independent musical line on par with the manuals is one of his major contributions to organ technique. It was clearly one of the things which attracted the young Bach.

One of Buxtehude's best-known organ works demonstrates all these features well. The Prelude and Chaconne in C starts with a flourish on the pedals which develops into a showy toccata for the manuals. Fugal writing and improvisatory passages alternate until a chaconne bass, recurring in the pedals, underpins a powerful short set of variations. [listen]

Buxtehude's smaller keyboard works for organ are thought by many scholars to have been teaching pieces. These are manualiter, that is, for manuals without pedals, and they are usually multi-voiced contrapuntal works with varying titles such as "canzonetta" or "fugue". [listen]

Of course, working in a Lutheran church, Buxtehude had the eternal connection with the Lutheran chorale melodies (hymn tunes) that we know so well from Bach in the following generation. Buxtehude wrote many choral preludes which set and embellish hymn tunes the congregation would have immediately recognised, such as this one most of us would know from Bach's St Matthew Passion. [listen]

Much of Buxtehude's manualiter keyboard music can be, and often is, played on the harpsichord, but there is secular music which seems to be especially designed for the harpsichord rather than the organ. The best example of this is a set of 32 variations on a dance melody called La capricciosa. This is a tour-de-force of compositional skill, in which multi-layered music develops dances such as the gigue, sarabande and minuet, and a virtuoso player is required to bring the work off. It also requires a sense of humour as the piece - described by one writer as a catalogue of variation technique - even includes a parody of a bad harpsichordist. [listen]

There are works by Buxtehude mentioned in documents by others which are not known today and assumed lost. Johann Mattheson (an opera composer who was a friend and contemporary of Handel), for example, mentions a set of seven harpsichord suites by Buxtehude which describe the planets, but these have not been found. Likewise much of Buxtehude's other instrumental music must be assumed lost, although two sets of seven sonatas published in the 1690s do survive and they are fascinating works.

These fourteen sonatas (seven published as Opus 1, another seven as Opus 2) are scored for violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord continuo, and they are in completely unpredictable movement structures. They would have been suitable for use both in church and also in secular concerts. There's an element of fantasy about these pieces, with the violin and gamba on completely equal footing, and some of the textures are truly breathtaking in their demands and their effects.

This is the sixth sonata of Opus 1, a sonata in D minor which contains sections marked "con discretione". These freer sections contrast with passages of breathtaking speed (with specified forte and piano dynamics) which suggest modern minimalism more than a composer of the generation before Bach... [listen]

Interioir of the Lübeck Marienkirche, taken before the church was substantially destroyed by bombing in 1942

The largest proportion of Buxtehude's surviving works, though, is that comprising his vocal music. For a composer who was not actually required to compose vocal music at all as part of his duties this is fascinating in it itself, but it leads me to now mention the activity for which Buxtehude was perhaps most famous in his lifetime. This was the concert series he ran in Lübeck, totally outside his church duties, called the Abendmusiken (evening music). Buxtehude's predecessor, Tunder, had held these concerts in the church on weekdays, but Buxtehude moved them to five specific Sundays during the year. While secular instrumental music (such as the sonatas) could be performed in a church concert, secular vocal music could not, which explains the fact that nearly all Buxtehude's surviving vocal music is sacred, and much of it was written for these concerts.

The concerts attracted a wide following and there is little doubt that Bach attended the extra Abendmusik concerts Buxtehude presented in 1705. It is also interesting that Buxtehude expanded the repertoire of the concerts to include sacred dramatic works - oratorios - in 1678, the very year the opera house opened in nearby Hamburg. Sadly, only the texts for the dramatic works composed for the Abendmusiken have survived; the music is lost.

There are more than 100 sacred vocal works by Buxtehude known to us today and they cover an enormous range of styles and structures. The majority of the texts are from the Bible in German or Latin, but there are also a couple of works in Swedish.

Marienkirche, Lübeck

Buxtehude's sacred works range from the intimate to the lavishly grand. There are sacred concertos, arias, chorale settings, dialogues and multi-sectioned works we would call cantatas (even though Buxtehude didn't use that term; in his day a cantata was more usually a secular work). Then there are special works which stand apart, the famous Membra Jesu Nostri, an extraordinary funeral cantata, and a glorious setting of Benedicam Dominum for six vocal and instrumental choirs.

On the more intimate side of the equation is this sacred concerto for two voices, two violins and continuo called Salve, Jesu, patris gnate unigenite. It ends with a passage of simply exquisite beauty. [listen]

Buxtehude's arias show him to be a master of the strophic song. This is a simple yet elegant setting of a sacred poem in German, Was mich auf dieser Welt betrübt. [listen]

Sacred concertos and arias - as well as chorales - combine in Buxtehude's larger sacred works to form a sacred vocal equivalent to the sonatas: a sequence of movements in varied styles and moods. We would call these works cantatas but more likely Buxtehude would have seen them as an extended form of the vocal concerto. This is a cantata setting the hymn text Nun danket alle Gott (commonly known in English as "Now thank we all our God"). [listen]

In 1671 Buxtehude wrote a cantata in two sections for the funeral of superintendent Menno Hanneken in Lübeck. This work was expanded with five extra movements in 1674 for performance at the composer's father's funeral. Johannes Buxtehude, after his retirement, had come to live in Lübeck and his death clearly moved his famous son very deeply. The original work for Hanneken's funeral is remarkable, but the additional music for his father is warm and heartfelt. It ends with a Klaglied or lamentation setting a text probably written by Buxtehude himself. [listen]

Buxtehude's only cantata work in Latin is the seven-cantata cycle called Membra Jesu nostri. It is a highly personal devotional work with each of the seven cantatas being a devotion on a different part of Christ's wounded body on the cross. This is the meditation on Christ's side, Ad latus. [listen]

Voorhout: A Musical Party (1674). The figure on the left playing the viol is believed to be Buxtehude.

It seems certain that the 300 or so works by Buxtehude which we have today are a small fraction of his output. We have no letters, no anecdotes, almost nothing about the man himself. (The only confirmed portrait shows him as part of a group, and playing a viol rather than a keyboard.) What music we do have is therefore all the more important in helping us realise that he was far more than just a precursor of JS Bach, someone whose style was allegedly primitive when compared to the glories of Bach some decades later. Like his contemporary Johann Pachelbel, Dieterich Buxtehude has suffered from the towering greatness of JS Bach at the start of the 18th century, but fortunately we are now starting to realise that Buxtehude was a towering genius all his own. I hope this selective survey has made you keen to explore him further on your own.

We'll end with Buxtehude's spectacular six-choir polychoral setting of Benedicam Dominum. Enjoy. [listen]

Aerial view of the old town centre of Lübeck

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2010.

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