Dietrich Buxtehude

1637 1707

Dietrich Buxtehude



Buxtehude was a 17th century composer and organist from Germany or Denmark. He was the most important composer of organ music before J.S. Bach and also composed sacred vocal music along with instrumental music.

Dieterich Buxtehude’s date and country of birth are unknown, though according to a notice inNova literaria Maris Balthici after his death, he referred to Denmark as his native country. His father, who immigrated to the Danish province of Scania from Oldesloe, was the organist at the St. Maria Kyrka in Helsingborg and later at the St Olai Kirke in Elsinore, Denmark.

It is likely Buxtehude attended school in Elsinore at the Latin School and learned music from his father. Around 1657, he became the organist at the St. Maria Kyrka in Helsingborg but returned to Elsinore in 1660 as organist of the Marienkirche, with a German speaking congregation. Franz Tunder, the organist at the prestigious Marienkirche at Lübeck, died in 1667, and the position was given to Buxtehude in 1668. He married Anna Margarethe Tunder, daughter of Franz, though it is unknown whether this was a condition of the employment. Together they had seven children, all daughters.

Buxtehude was required to play for the Sunday services, feast days and for the Vespers. He also provided music during Communion, often in combination with instrumentalists and vocalists. Outside of his official duties he directed the concert series,Abendmussiken, and introduced sacred dramatic works, which were considered equal to operas.

Buxtehude’s influence can be seen in his students, which include Nicolaus Bruhns. Pachelbel dedicated theHexachordum Apollinis to Bruhns in 1699, and Buxtehude’s influence can be seen in this instance as well. He was also visited by impressive composers such as Mattheson, Bach and Handel. Bach considered Buxtehude a model ‘in the art of the organ’ and was also inspired by his position directing all genres of music for the city.

Buxtehude died in 1707 and was buried in the Marienkirche next to his father and four of his daughters. He was succeeded at the church by his assistant J.S. Schieferdecker.

Buxtehude’s output includes vocal music and keyboard and ensemble music. Interestingly enough, he was never required to write vocal music, yet more of his vocal works survive than of the other genres. His vocal music presents a large variety of styles and genres. They exist in four languages and range from a single voice with one instrument and continuo to six choirs. His style seems to be directly related to the patron and audience for which he was composing. For the Lübeck business community, for instance, he wrote theSchwinget euch hemmelan(BUXWV96) in a popular style. For the connoisseur Düben, he composed the more refinedMembra Jesu (BUXWV75) in Latin. The majority of his texts are sacred and in German, though many exist in Latin.

Buxtehude’s vocal works show a juxtaposition of genres, especially of the concerto and aria. This is distinct from his predecessors, who preferred to keep the genres separate. Most of these works are commonly referred to as cantatas now.

The vocal concertos usually follow the precedent set by the motet, of using the text to create short phrases, each with a musical motif closely related to the words. Most of the German text for the concertos came from the Lutheran Bible while the Latin text came from the Vulgate. He also used three non-biblical Latin texts in BUXWV 11, 83 and 94, which resemble the style of the Italian secular cantata.

Buxtehude wrote many arias, all of which feature strophic texts, mostly in German. He used poetry primarily from the poets Johann Rist, Ernst Christoph Homburg, Johann Scheffler, Heinrich Müller and Ahasverus Fritszch. All of his arias are aided by instruments, ranging from a solo instrument to a large ensemble. His arias often also use ensembles of singers, instead of a solo voice.

Buxtehude’s chorale settings exist in four different styles: the chorale concerto, chorale sinfonia, concertato chorale harmonization and aria style. The chorale concertos, for example BUXWV32, feature an equal partnership between instrumentalists and vocalists while the instruments are dominant in the chorale sinfonia, with a single voice (e.g. opening of BUXWV 41). The concertato chorale harmonizations are four-part chorales, as found in hymnals, which feature interjections by instruments. The involvement of the instruments varies, from minimal to extensive involvement (BUXWV 103 and BUXWV 10 and 52). His typical aria style is found in BUXWV 60, a transformation ofJesu meine Freude into a concertato aria for bass and instruments in one verse and as continuo arias for soprano in two versus.

Only three of Buxtehude’s oratorios for the Abendmusik survive, Die Hochzeit de Lamms (1678), Castrum doloris (1705) and Templum honoris (1705). These works all feature a combination of choruses, recitatives, strophic arias and chorale settings; they also feature extensive use of instruments.

Buxtehude is particularly known for his keyboard works, which consist of praeludia, canzonas, ostinato works, chorale settings, suites and secular variation sets. Though none of the works name a particular keyboard instrument, many require the use of pedals, and are therefore most likely to be for organ. Some of the works could have been played on any keyboard instrument. His canzonas, which appear to have been composed for educational purposes, seem to have been written for the clavichord.

The organ Buxtehude played in Lübeck had an impressive array of stops, including 15 in the pedal, which explains the extensive use of the pedal in his organ music. The organ also featured distinct solo reeds and many upper partials, as was standard in the north German organs. With the use of this organ, Buxtehude made use of many echo effects and contrasting sections. The majority of his keyboard works are his Praeludia, which are influenced by the canzonas of Frescobaldi and Froberger, most likely through Mattias Weckmann.

His keyboard output also includes the strictly contrapuntal canzonas, which were composed for teaching purposes and his three ostinato pieces (BUXWV 159-61). The ostinato works are among his most well-known and influencedBrahms <> and Bach.

As of yet, there has been no definite chronological order established for his works. Interest in his works has sparked many scholarly studies since the 1960s. Performance of his music has also increased in the last decade. He is considered one of the most important composers of the 17th century and an influential precursor to Bach.

Images Courtesy of public domain