Buxtehude and his Circle
10 August 2016
Johan van VeenIn the 17th century the Baltic area was the main cultural centre of the northern part of Europe.
That was largely due to the prosperity which was the effect of the economic strength of the Hanseatic League. It was created to protect the guilds’ economic interests and diplomatic privileges in their affiliated cities and countries, as well as along the trade routes the merchants visited. Although its demise started in the 16th century in particular the German members continued to exert a strong economic and cultural influence in the area. That was also due to the fact that the Scandinavian countries had embraced the Lutheran Reformation. This explains why German composers played such an important role in Danish music life which experienced a kind of Golden Era in the first half of the 17th century.The present disc takes the Danish-born Dieterich Buxtehude as its starting point.
From 1668 until his death he was organist of St Mary’s in Lübeck which was more or less the unofficial ‘capital’ of the Hanseatic League. The organist was the key figure in music life, especially since Buxtehude’s predecessor and father-in-law, Franz Tunder, had established the so-called Abendmusiken
which soon gained a reputation far across the region. Buxtehude further developed this institution; the performances took place in the five weeks before Christmas and were financed by the rich inhabitants of Lübeck. Buxtehude also called in local musicians and ordered to build extra balconies in the church to give place to extra musicians. Unfortunately the sacred dramas he composed for such occasions are lost. Only the oratorio known as Das jüngste Gericht -
which has been preserved anonymously but is attributed to Buxtehude - can give us some idea of what these compositions could have sounded like.Buxtehude was a towering figure and the leading composer in northern Germany of his time.
Johann Sebastian Bach travelled to Lübeck to hear him play the organ and may have participated in performances during the Abendmusiken
. The way Buxtehude treats the text in his cantata Jesu, meine Freude
shows strong similarities with Bach’s setting of the same chorale in his motet BWV 227. This work opens with an instrumental sonata and that is also the case with the cantata Gott, hilf mir
. In the latter the first vocal section is a solo for bass which is introduced by the strings playing tremolo figures which in German music was a standard device to express strong emotions. The text gives every reason to use it here: “Lord, save me, for the waters have come in unto my soul. I am sinking in deep mire, where no ground is”. The strings illustrate the waves. He is answered by God (the vox Dei
) with the text: “Fear not! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, that the rivers shall not down you.” This is scored for two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass I. The solo is indicated as bass II; this suggests a dialogue which is lost here as only one bass participates.Buxtehude’s music shows the influence of the declamatory style
which is one of the features of the Italian stile moderno
which emerged in the early decades of the 17th century. One of the composers who influenced Buxtehude was Kaspar Förster, one of the least-known figures in the present programme. He was from Danzig and had been in Rome in the mid-1630s where he studied with Giacomo Carissimi. From 1652 to 1655 he worked at the court in Copenhagen and here Buxtehude may have become acquainted with him. Confitebor tibi Domine
is a typical example of the declamatory style he had heard in Italy.Franz Tunder is mainly known for his organ works
but also composed a number of sacred concertos on a German or a Latin text. According to Johann Mattheson, the 18th-century theorist and composer, Tunder had been in Italy and studied with Frescobaldi. That cannot be substantiated but the Italian influence is unmistakable, also in Dominus illuminatio mea
, a setting of the first three verses from Psalm 27. Verse 3 says: “If armies encamped should stand against me, my heart will not fear. If the battle should arise against me, in this shall I be confident”. Here Tunder makes use of the stile concitato
which we know from Monteverdi.Nicolaus Bruhns learnt to play the organ as well as string instruments.
In the latter department his teacher was his uncle Peter in Lübeck; here he also became the favourite pupil of Buxtehude. Bruhns developed into a virtuoso on the violin and on the organ. The German composer and theorist Johann Mattheson reported that Bruhns sometimes played both instruments at the same time: while playing the violin he realized the basso continuo part on the pedal of the organ. For some years he worked as a composer and violinist at the court in Copenhagen. In 1689 he was appointed organist of the Stadtkirche in Husum. Twelve cantatas from his pen are known. Two of them have a text in Latin. De profundis clamavi
is a setting of Psalm 130 (129), one of the penitential psalms. Bruhns’ cantatas are in the Italian style. The words “to the voice of my supplication” are set to a descending chromatic figure. This cantata may have been written for Georg Ferber, a renowned bass and Kantor
in Husum until two years before Bruhns was appointed organist.As we have seen all composers are in one way or another directly linked to Buxtehude.
The exception is Christian Geist: in his case there is only an indirect link as in 1689 he took over the position of organist at Holmens Church in Copenhagen from one of Buxtehude’s teachers, Johann Lorenz the Younger. Before that he had been active as a member of the court chapel in Stockholm under Gustav Düben and as organist of the German church in Gothenburg. Dixit Dominus Domino meo
is a setting of Psalm 110 (109) which includes some very dramatic verses. These are not lost on Geist who fully explores the possibility to set them in a theatrical manner. Die mit Tränen säen
is an expressive setting of verses from Psalm 126 (125).This programme gives a good impression of the level of music making in the Baltic region.
A large part of the music written and performed in this region has been found in the so-called Düben-collection
which is preserved in the library of the University of Uppsala. Gustav Düben was of German birth but worked for most of his life in Sweden. The fact that he collected so much German music is an indication that this kind of repertoire was performed in Sweden, in the German church in Stockholm but also at the court. This attests to the influence of German music in the Baltic region. At the same time this makes it not easy to decide how this kind of music should be performed as we know little about performance practice. That goes, for instance, for the number of singers involved. In this recording the tutti sections are performed with one singer per part. As this seems to have been the standard at the time that is the most logical option. Moreover, this is ensemble music in which soli and tutti are strongly integrated. This practice requires a perfect blending of the voices as well as the ability of every individual singer to take care of the solo parts. Theatre of Voices meets these requirements with flying colours. This is a most enjoyable disc in which every single piece receives a fully convincing interpretation. The singers are all Danish but their German pronunciation is flawless. Jakob Bloch Jespersen, who also wrote the informative liner-notes, is impressive in Bruhns’ De profundis clamavi
. Only here and there he has a little problem with the lowest notes. The booklet doen’t inform us which pitch has been used. It seems reasonable to assume that the high Chorton
(a=c465’) which was common in northern and central Germany in the 17th century was the general standard in the Baltic region as well. If the pitch is lower that could explain the sometimes very low notes in the bass part. Another issue is the use of dynamics: I could imagine stronger dynamic shading in the strings.However,
considering the overall high level of these performances this is a minor issue. All the pieces have been recorded before but that shouldn’t stop anybody from adding this disc to his or her collection.