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Complete Chamber Music Vol. 3

Dietrich Buxtehude

Complete Chamber Music Vol. 3

John Holloway, Ursula Weiss, Jaap ter Linden, Mogens Rasmussen, Lars Ulrik Mortensen

Dietrich Buxtehude (c. 1637-1707) was active for nearly forty years as an organist at the St. Mary's Church in Lübeck and was one of the main figures in church music of the time. Buxtehude's vocal music for the church, his organ music, and other instrumental works was praised by composers such as Heinrich Schütz and J.S. Bach, who studied at Buxtehude in Lübeck as a young man himself. The third volume of John Holloway, Jaap ter Linden, and Lars Ulrik Mortensen's groundbreaking series with chamber music by Buxtehude.

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© Jan Persson
Total runtime: 
53 min.
Dietrich Buxtehude – Organist and Composer

by Niels Martin Jensen

In 1668, when Buxtehude was about thirty years of age (neither the date nor the place of his birth is known), he was appointed to the coveted post of organist at St Mary's Church in the free Hanseatic city of Lübeck on the Baltic coast of Germany. Up to that time the whole of his upbringing, education, and musical career had taken place within the boundaries of the kingdom of Denmark. His father had left the little town of Oldesloe in the duchy of Holstein to serve as organist in Hälsingborg, and from there he moved at the beginning of the 1640s to Helsingør; it was in those two cities on opposite sides of the Øresund that the younger Buxtehude took his first steps as a professional organist, ultimately being appointed in 1660 by the German congregation of St Mary's in Helsingør. However, the musical horizon of his youth was not restricted to the immediate locality in which he lived: only forty kilometers south of Helsingør lay the Danish capital of Copenhagen, with its nourishing musical environment both ecclesiastical and secular. and Buxtehude must have been familiar with developments there. In the 1660s the Danish royal chapel was under the direction of Kaspar Forster the Younger, and the organists of the six churches in the city attracted pupils from all over Europe. For example, Johann Lorentz the Younger, who probably taught Buxtehude, gave public recitals to large audiences in the church of St Nicholas.

Buxtehude's new position in Lübeck far exceeded St Mary's, Helsingør, in both prestige and remuneration. And in Lübeck he found a musical culture not far behind that of Copenhagen; even courtly music 4 was within his reach, for not far away lay the palace of the Duke of Gottorp. St Mary's, Lübeck, was the most important church in the city by virtue of its status as the official place of worship of the Senate (the city council), and in the next forty years, until his death in 1707, Buxtehude was to practice a range of musical activities there that went far beyond his obligations as organist and book-keeper ('Werkmeister').

While the Kantor of the church bore the main responsibility for the musical establishment, and in particular for directing the choir, the organist had to play at services and on important feasts and holidays. But in Lübeck, there was also a vigorous tradition of secular music, and the municipal musicians (the so-called Ratsmusik) forged a close link between ecclesiastical and municipal music.

The Ratsmusik in Buxtehude's time comprised seven highly qualified musicians retained, like the organist himself, directly by the Senate. Their duties included playing in church when instruments were required there, as well as appearing at public and private functions at the command of the Senate and citizenry. The string players had particularly proud traditions going back to the beginning of the century; the violin and gamba virtuosi of Lübeck and Hamburg were famed throughout Europe.

Not far from Lübeck lay Hamburg, a major musical centre with an opera house and a concert society (collegium musicum) as well as its long-standing church music traditions. Here lived a number of prominent composers, organists, choir directors, and others belonging to Buxtehude's circle of acquaintance, among them contemporary celebrities like Johann Adam Reincken, Johann Theile, Christoph Bernhard, and Matthias Weckmann.

A great deal of the music of Buxtehude that has come down to us - his cantatas, his big freely composed organ works, and his music for instrumental ensemble - was in fact not written as part of his duties as organist. Much of his church music was probably the result of close and fruitful cooperation with the cantors of St Mary's, with whom he seems to have shared the task of producing vocal music for the liturgy. Many works were also the result of initiatives not in any way connected with his church appointment. This applies in particular to the famous Abendmusiken that had been established by his predecessor Franz Tunder; Buxtehude expanded these to five annual church concerts with performances of big oratorio-like works, word of which spread over the whole of Northern Europe.

Buxtehude's Instrumental Chamber Music

When he was quite old Buxtehude published two collections of instrumental chamber music. Apart from a few occasional works, these are the only examples of his art that were printed during his lifetime. Opus I, containing seven sonatas for violin and viola da gamba with harpsichord continua, is undated but probably appeared in 1694. Opus 2, with seven more sonatas for the same combination, followed two years later.

Though instrumental composition was not one of Buxtehude's obligations as an organist, it was by no means uncommon at that time for organists - as a manifestation of artistic self-esteem and professional pride - to exceed the limits of their ecclesiastical function and publish music as the artists, without any particular occasion of performance in mind.

Thus, a few years earlier Buxtehude's senior friend and colleague in Hamburg, Johann Adam Reincken, had published a collection of sonatas for two violins, viola da gamba, and continua under the title Hortus musicus. And instrumental chamber music could be used both in and out of the church. It is likely that sonatas were played in St Mary's on major feast days and during the distribution of Holy Communion. In the secular musical environment of Lübeck, there would, of course, have been both professional and amateur musicians who were interested in playing sonatas written by the organist to the Senate.

Buxtehude was nearly 60 when he published his sonatas, but he had been practicing the genre for many years. One of the few compositions that can be attributed with reasonable certainty to his Helsingør period is a fragmentarily preserved sonata, and in 1684 it was announced that he would soon be publishing a collection of sonatas for two and three violins, viola da gamba, and continua "suitable for performance both as Tafelmusik and in church." This collection probably never came out, but eight unpublished sonatas survive, some of which may very well have been intended for it.

Buxtehude dedicated Opus 1 to his employers, the mayors and senators of Lübeck, and Opus 2 to his special patron, Johann Ritter. The dedication of the first volume refers to it as the 'first part' of his sonatas, and there are other indications that he regarded the two volumes as a unit: they are written for the same instrumental combination, each contains seven works, and they are organized according to key in such a way that between them they encompass all the major and minor keys of a seven-tone diatonic scale beginning on F, omitting only F minor and B flat minor:

Key Sequence:
Opus 1 F major, G major, A minor, B nat major, C major, D minor, E minor
Opus 2 B flat major, 0 major, G minor, C minor, A major, E major, F major

The rediscovery of Buxtehude's music began more than a century ago with his organ works. He was rightly seen as an important source of inspiration for the young J.S. Bach - not only in the period of a few months that the latter spent studying with him in Lübeck. Later came the discovery of more than a hundred cantatas by Buxtehude in the famous collection of Gustaf Duben the Elder, the seventeenth-century Swedish organist and court composer who was one of Buxtehude's great admirers. Buxtehude's instrumental chamber music has, however, remained strangely neglected until recently.

Apart from unpublished sonatas, the Düben Collection (now in Uppsala University Library) contains the only intact copies of his two books of sonatas. The personal contact between Buxtehude in Lübeck and the Düben family in Sweden is just one among many lines of communication that existed between musical centres in the Baltic of this period, from Stockholm in the North to the Southern coastal cities, from Reval by way of Riga, Konigsberg, and Danzig to Stralsund, Lübeck, and Hamburg.

In the choice of instruments for his sonatas, Buxtehude avoided the use of the violone or cello as a low-range melodic instrument, which was the predominant usage in the Italian baroque sonata, preferring to Follow German tradition by using the gentler sounding viola da gamba, a bass instrument that with its range of three octaves can also play in the tenor and alto registers. From the technical point of view of his sonatas must have been intended for some of the virtuoso executants of Ltibeck and Hamburg.

Decades later the composer and theorist Johann Mattheson gives us an insight into this performance context (in his music lexicon from 1740):

In 1666 the world-famous Johann Rist came to Hamburg to enjoy the benefits of the city's musical culture. An excellent concert was arranged for him at the home of Christoph Bernhard; one of the works performed was a sonata for two violins and viola da gamba by Kaspar Forster the Younger, in which each player was assigned eight measures where he could improvise freely in accordance with the stylus phantasticus.

This 'fantastic style' - which is also mentioned by other writers on music such as Athanasius Kircher (1650) and Sebastien de Brossard (1703) was what Brossard called "a special instrumental style or manner where the composer is not subject to any formal restrictions, as the generic terms 'Fantasia', 'Ricercare', 'Toccata', and 'Sonata' imply." Music in this style, resembling written-down improvisation, is characteristic of the sonatas of Buxtehude. The juxtaposition of such music with strictly regulated learned counterpoint gives his instrumental compositions (and this applies also to his big organ pieces) a very personal stamp of unpredictability, virtuosity, and power of expression.

Behind the application of these two principles of composition - the free and the regulated or strict lies a specific musical philosophy, according to which compositional freedom joins hands with technical discipline (in the form of sections written as fugues or canons) to form a musical microcosm that was thought of as a reflection of the macrocosm, where even apparently coincidental and arbitrary phenomena were subject to the control of the Almighty. The number seven in Buxtehude's sonata collections is not just the number of the keys in the scale; it could also symbolize time (the seven days of the week) and the seven planets then known to astronomers. Buxtehude is supposed to have described the qualities of the planets in seven lost keyboard suites, and indeed they confronted him every day on the great planet clock in St Mary's, Lübeck.

Buxtehude's sonatas do not just occupy a far more central position in his output than was Formerly assumed; they also show that over and above his role as a church musician he was a wide-ranging and versatile composer preoccupied with the compositional and philosophical problems of his time. His musical output and his ideas about music as an art form and science make him one of the most important figures in German and Nordic music between Heinrich Schütz and Bach. In his sonatas, he reveals a fertile imagination capable of expressing lyrically delicate, sorrowful, and dramatic emotions – an imagination given free rein in music that is always melodious, harmonically gratifying, and full of vitality. He creates a sonic universe that for a variety of expression and constant alternation between the fantastic and contrapuntal styles has no equal in the instrumental music of the seventeenth century.

Buxtehude's instrumental chamber music alone would have secured him a place among the most original composers in European art music. These sonatas were originally intended to be heard, played, and studied; they were music for the experts and enthusiasts of the day. When we listen to this music three centuries later, it is still able in its timeless way to surprise, disturb, and move us.

Six Sonatas without opus numbers

Among Buxtehude's unpublished compositions in the Düben Collection in Uppsala, Sweden, are six complete sonatas in manuscript and a sonata fragment. Apart from a couple of sonatas in manuscripts in other libraries, the authenticity of which is doubtful (BuxWY 268 and Anhang 5), this exhausts the list of unprinted chamber ensemble compositions that can be attributed to Buxtehude. None of the manuscripts tell us when the music was written, and none of them are autographs; most of them are copies in the hands of Gustav and Andreas Düben, father and son. But taken together with the published collections, Opus 1 and 2, they nevertheless contribute greatly to our understanding of what the writing of sonatas meant to Buxtehude throughout his life.

The unpublished sonatas are for a more varied ensemble than those in Opus 1 and 2. Two are for violin and viola da gamba, one is for viola da gamba and violone, and three are for two violins and viola da gamba. All six are with basso continuo.

Sonata in G major, BuxWV 271
The G major sonata for two violins and gamba is symmetrically constructed and can almost be regarded as one long concerto movement. It is in fact characteristic of Buxtehude's unpublished sonatas that they contain more solo passages than the printed collections. Three tutti sections, all marked Allegro, enclose parallel solo passages for vI. I and vI. 2. The first tutti section is a short, concentrated fugal construction where the three strings present three expositions of the theme without episodes and with varied ground bass accompaniment in the continuo. Toward the end, Buxtehude makes room, as is his custom, for freer treatment of the material. Soloistically motivated contrasts are a feature of the two uniformly structured passages for solo violin: these are the second section of the sonata (Adagio - Allegro - Adagio - /2//6 - Adagio a 3) for vI. I and the fourth section (Adagio - Allegro) for vI. 2. The contrasts are between major and minor tonality; between improvisatory, rhythmically free passages and tightly controlled figurations; and between slow and fast tempi.

The tutti section in the middle of the work (Allegro) is a set of variations over an ostinato strophe of two times four measures: a gracious melody that dissolves into figurations when repeated is played first by vI. I and then by vI. 2. At the last two statements of the ostinato strophe (now without repetition of the second half) the gamba joins the two high strings and eventually takes over their figurations so that the section ends as a dialogue between three equal voices. The concluding tutti evolves as a three-part fugal and concerted treatment of a theme derived from the opening and concluding note repetitions of the solo passages. After the theme has been assigned thrice to each of the three strings, the section proceeds as a concertato game played with fragments of the theme and the recurrent cadential motif. Here, too, Buxtehude succeeds with never-failing inventiveness and musical enthusiasm in bringing a piece to its culmination in an effective final cadenza.

Sonata in A minor, BuxWV 272
This if any of Buxtehude's sonatas deserves to be called an ostinato sonata: it is scored for violin and viola da gamba and each of its two sections (4/4 - Allegro and Adagio - 312 - Allegro) is constructed over a repeated bass motif of four measures. In the first section the ground bass is played 26 times, but the listener has long since stopped counting when the music concludes with a pompous return to the violin melody from the introduction. Buxtehude has here combined the ostinato principle with a series of variations on a lyrical aria theme that the violin presents during eight measures covering the first two statements of the ostinato. With constant shifts between concerted and contrapuntal sections in changing rhythms, the composer succeeds in creating a colorful and varied whole. All our fears of monotony in a ground bass movement are put to rest.

The second section begins with ten adagio measures that establish a motivic connection to the preceding section and modulate from F major to a half-close in A minor. This forms a prelude to a chaconne-like ground bass in triple time repeated 14 times in the continuo, above which the violin and gamba play concerted solo passages alternating with segments in which they exchange parts. All of this is done with the plentiful musical invention, and when the ground bass sounds for the last time the music changes character, with a brief allegro passage in equal time bringing the sonata to an end in a breathless diminuendo.

Sonata in F major, BuxWV 269
This is the most soloistically conceived of all Buxtehude's sonatas and must have been a great vehicle for display by the virtuoso string players among the municipal musicians of Lübeck. Two concise outer movements (4/4 and Allegro a 3) enframe a separate section for each of the three strings. The first two of these sections, for vI. 2 and gamba respectively (both 3/4 - Allegro), are lyrical in quality while the last is a heavily ornamented section in hectic tempo for vI. 1 (4/4).

The opening movement of the sonata is a fugal section, beginning with two tightly constructed expositions in which the thematic entries are distributed equally between all three strings; subsequently, the movement opens up into a free treatment of thematic fragments leading to an arresting cadenza with reprise effect. The two solo passages for vI. 2 and gamba are uniformly structured. Both instruments present a lyrically expressive melody - a song-like aria in triple time - followed by an ornamented variation in a quick time (a double). These two sections are characterized by sombre, minor-key tone coloring; when vI. 1 enters with a solo cadenza in common time and the key of B flat major (subsequently joined by the organ with an energetic, forward-moving bass line), the effect is that of an unexpected emergence into bright light. All three solo sections are unified by a typical upward "cadence drive" at the end. The final tutti movement is a dance-like ritornello structured like a concerto grosso, bringing together the tutti instrumentation of the first movement and the solo effects of the middle sections.

Sonata in D major, BuxWV 267
This sonata is preserved in a transcript by Andreas Düben dated September 27, 1692. The copy was perhaps written while Düben was studying in Lübeck; it is at all events a witness to the close relations between Buxtehude and the Düben family in Stockholm. Andreas Düben became chapel master to the Swedish court in 1698, and it was he who gave the family's large collection of music to the university library in Uppsala in 1733.

The sonata is the only one that Buxtehude wrote for two low strings, tenor viola da gamba and violone (here interpreted as meaning a bass gamba). It is the most simply constructed and uniform of the composer's sonatas, based as it is on only three musical ideas: the cadential motif of the introductory Adagio which recurs in the Adagio introduction to the first gamba solo; a fugal theme common to the second and final sections, Allegro and Poco presto; and lastly the bipartite dance movement that is presented in the first gamba solo (3/4) and is followed by solo and tutti variations (Allegro - Allegro - Presto).

Sonata in B flat major, BuxWV 273
This B nat sonata is the only one by Buxtehude that exists in both a manuscript and a printed version. In Opus 1 Buxtehude published it in a form (BuxWY 255, recorded on Marco Polo/dacapo 8.224003) that is probably a later revision of the manuscript version. There are small but significant motivic alterations in the first section and some new concluding measures to the second section. A more far-reaching change is that Buxtehude has substituted a new Lento for the slow Adagio introduction to the second section, and in Opus 1 he has also omitted the four dance movements of the concluding suite in the original. All in all the printed version testifies to a greater concentration on compositional detail and a desire to break away from the conventional sequence or sonata-and suite that was so well known at the time.

This original redaction offers us the only example of an ensemble suite by Buxtehude. Its four stylized dances (Allemand - Courant - Saraband - Gigue) follow the traditional pattern also found in the composer's harpsichord suites, and the dances themselves display the usual bipartite structure. An allemande in equal time is followed by a courante in triple time based on the same thematic material, after which comes a slow sarabande also in triple time; the first measures of the sarabande contain motivic reminiscences of the two preceding movements. The conclusion is in the form of a fast gigue in 12/8 time with artful canonic treatment of the voices at the beginning of the second half. Here we see Buxtehude breathing new life into traditional forms, and if only for that reason the early version of this sonata deserves to keep its place in the repertoire, though by 1694 its composer had different ideas.

Sonata in C major, BuxWV 266
If Buxtehude had realized his intention of publishing yet another collection of sonatas, as had been announced in 1684, this work would surely have been assigned a prominent place in it. It sums up all the principal elements in the sonata art of the Lübeck master: the seriousness and daringly expressive harmony of his majestic slow movements, the unifying motivic relationships between sections of the same work, fugal technique that is strict and free at one and the same time, the melodious grace of the dance movements, soloistic display in the stylus phantasticus, and convincing answers to the challenge of the ostinato technique.

The introduction to the sonata, Adagio, proceeds in a dignified and resounding dialogue between the two violins, announcing that this is to be stately 10 music for a small group of instruments. The opening measures are echoed in all the adagio passages of the work and in the fugue subject of the succeeding sections (Allegro - Adagio), where strict exposition gradually gives way to free manipulation of the thematic material. A surprise effect is Buxtehude's contrast between the culmination of the last section in a dynamically effective cadence and its resolution in the harmonically tense adagio measures that follow. The third section (414 - Allegro) is left to vI. 1 whose virtuoso and freely formed solo in the 'fantastic style' gives way to its own rhythmic and melodic opposite, an allegro passage in strict gigue rhythm.

After this tour de force by vI. 1 follows one of the most composite sections in any of Buxtehude's sonatas. It starts with six adagio measures that preface a short fugal section (Allegro); an Adagio bridge passage in sarabande rhythm then carries us from C major to A minor, and to a Presto section that presents a three-measure ostinato motif in the continua with artful counterpoint in the answering voices of the strings. The last two repetitions of the ostinato open on to yet another Adagio, this time to round off what has been a highly varied section with a weighty cadenza including a 'short reprise'. Ten independent Lento measures bring the sonata to an end in the same dignified manner as it began. Buxtehude may not have written music about the nature of the heavenly bodies, as Johann Mattheson later claimed, but this sonata certainly deserves the name of his 'Jupiter Sonata'.

Niels Martin Jensen, 1995

Release date: 
August 1995
Cat. No.: 
Jewel Case
Track count: 


Recorded at the Radio House. Studio 2. on September 25-28. 1994

Recording producer: Claus Due
Sound engineer: Peter Bo Nielsen
Editing engineers: Aksel Trige and Peter Bo Nielsen

® dacapo. Copenhagen
© dacapo, Copenhagen

English translation: Michael Chesnutt

Cover picture: Johannes Voorhout: "Hausliche Musikszene" (Group af Musicians) (1674). The person listening to the music, with a sheet of music on his knee, is supposed to be Buxtehude.

Recording sponsored by Gangstedfonden and Magister Jürgen Balzers Fond