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Harpsichord Music, Vol. 1

Dietrich Buxtehude

Harpsichord Music, Vol. 1

Lars Ulrik Mortensen

Dietrich Buxtehude lived his entire life close to the shores of the Baltic Sea. He was most likely born in 1637 in the Danish town of Helsingborg, now part of Sweden. His father Johannes (Hans), also an organist, had immigrated to Denmark at an unknown time from Oldesloe in Holstein. In the year 1641 Johannes Buxtehude was employed as the organist at St. Mary’s Church, Helsingborg, and soon after that he moved across the Øresund to become organist of St. Olai Church in Helsingør. Here, Lars Ulrik Mortensen gives the keyboard music of Dietrich Buxtehude new life.

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Total runtime: 
52 min.
Dietrich Buxtehude

Dietrich Buxtehude lived his entire life close to the shores of the Baltic Sea. He was most likely born in 1637 in the Danish town of Helsingborg, now part of Sweden. His father Johannes (Hans), also an organist, had immigrated to Denmark at an unknown time from Oldesloe in Holstein. In the year 1641 Johannes Buxtehude was employed as the organist at St. Mary’s Church, Helsingborg, and soon after that he moved across the Øresund to become organist of St. Olai Church in Helsingør. The exact date of Dietrich’s birth is unknown, but at the time of his death on 9 May, 1707, he was said to be about seventy years old. Baptismal records do not extend back to 1637 in Helsingborg, Helsingør or Oldesloe. As a child in Helsingør, Dietrich Buxtehude must have been aware of both his German heritage and his Danish surroundings, and he appears to have grown up bilingual. In Helsingør and during his early years in Lübeck, Buxtehude normally spelled his name “Diderich,” but later he regularly signed it “Dieterich” or “Dietericus.”

The knowledge of Latin that Buxtehude displayed in later life indicates that he must have attended a Latin school as a boy. Although he undoubtedly began his organ studies with his father, further information concerning his teachers is totally lacking. Other possible teachers in Denmark include Claus Dengel, organist at St. Mary’s, Helsingør, from 1650 to 1660, and Johann Lorentz, Jr., the famous organist at St. Nicholas’ Church, Copenhagen, from 1634 until his death in 1689. Lorentz was a pupil and son-in-law of Jacob Praetorius in Hamburg, and the Buxtehude family made his acquaintance in 1650 upon the death of his father, Johann Lorentz, Sr., an organ builder. Buxtehude might later have studied with Heinrich Scheidemann in Hamburg or Franz Tunder in Lübeck.

In late 1657 or early 1658, Buxtehude took up the same position as organist of St. Mary’s Church, Helsingborg, that his father had occupied before coming to Helsingør. He worked there until October, 1660, when he became organist of St. Mary’s, Helsingør, called the German church because it served foreigners of the community and the military garrison of Kronborg. In Helsingør, Buxtehude was expected to play at the beginning of the service while the pastor was robing himself; he and the cantor were to provide instrumental and vocal music for the church on feast days and at other times at the pastor’s request.

The position of organist and Werkmeister at St. Mary’s, Lübeck, became vacant upon the death of Franz Tunder on 5 November 1667, and Dietrich Buxtehude was formally appointed the following April. This was a much more prestigious and well paid position than the one he had held in Helsingør; Buxtehude was the most highly paid musician in Lübeck, and he earned nearly as much as the pastor of St. Mary’s.

Buxtehude swore the oath of citizenship on 23 July 1668, enabling him to marry and set up his household. He married Anna Margarethe Tunder, a daughter of his predecessor, on 3 August, 1668. Seven daughters were born into the family of Dietrich and Anna Margarethe Buxtehude and baptized at St. Mary’s. Three died in infancy, a fourth survived to early adulthood, and three remained in the household at the time of Buxtehude’s death: Anna Margreta, baptized 10 June 1675, Anna Sophia, baptized 30 August 1678, and Dorothea Catrin, baptized 25 March 1683. Godparents to the Buxtehude children came from the higher strata of Lübeck society, the families of the wealthy wholesalers who lived in St. Mary’s parish and governed both the church and the city. Buxtehude himself belonged to the fourth social class, however, together with lesser wholesalers, retailers and brewers. In inviting his social superiors to serve as godparents – and in some cases naming his children after them – Buxtehude was also cultivating their patronage for his musical enterprises.

As organist of St. Mary’s, Buxtehude’s chief responsibility lay in playing the organ for the main morning and afternoon services on Sundays and feast days. He also held the position of Werkmeister of St. Mary’s, the administrator and treasurer of the church, a position of considerable responsibility and prestige. The account books that he kept in this capacity document the life of the church and its music in considerable detail. The cantor of St. Mary’s, also a teacher at the Catharineum, held the responsibility for providing the liturgical music, using his school choir of men and boys. They performed together with most of the Lübeck municipal musicians from a large choir loft in the front of the church, over the rood screen. Two municipal musicians, a violinist and a lutenist, regularly performed with Buxtehude from the large organ.

Buxtehude inherited a tradition established by Franz Tunder of performing concerts from the large organ of St. Mary’s at the request of the business community. Tunder had gradually added vocalists and instrumentalists to his organ performances, which are said to have taken place on Thursdays prior to the opening of the stock exchange. Within a year of his arrival in Lübeck, Buxtehude had greatly expanded the possibilities for the perfomance of concerted music from the large organ by having two new balconies installed at the west end of the church, each paid for by a single donor. These new balconies, together with the four that were already there, could accommodate about forty singers and instrumentalists. Buxtehude called his concerts Abendmusiken and changed the time of their presentation to Sundays after vespers. In time these concerts took place regularly on the last two Sundays after Trinity and the second, third and fourth Sundays of Advent each year. By 1678 he had introduced the practice of presenting oratorios of his own composition in serial fashion on these Sundays. He also directed performances of concerted music from the large organ during the regular church services, although this activity, like the presentation of the Abendmusiken, lay outside his official duties to the church.

By 1703 Buxtehude had served for thirtyfive years as organist of St. Mary’s; he was about sixtysix years old and he was no doubt concerned about the future of his three unmarried daughters, so he began to look for a successor who would marry Anna Margreta, the eldest, aged twentyeight. The first prospective candidates of whom we know were Johann Mattheson and Georg Friederich Händel, both of whom were employed at the Hamburg opera at the time. They travelled to Lübeck together 17 August 1703 and listened to Buxtehude “with dignified attention,” but since neither of them was at all interested in the marriage condition, they returned to Hamburg the following day. Johann Sebastian Bach made his famous trip to visit Buxtehude in the fall of 1705, coinciding with the Abendmusik season, and he remained in Lübeck for nearly three months. Bach, too, may have been interested in obtaining the succession to Buxtehude’s position, but there is no evidence that this was the case. The account of the trip in Bach’s obituary states unambiguously that its purpose was to hear Buxtehude play the organ, and in his report to the Arnstadt consistory upon his return the following February, Bach stated that he had made the trip “in order to comprehend one thing and another about his art.” Buxtehude died on 9 May 1707 and was succeeded by Johann Christian Schieferdecker, who married Anna Margreta 5 September 1707.

Few documents survive to illuminate the details of Buxtehude’s life, but those that do reveal a multifaceted personality to match the broad stylistic range of the music that he composed. In addition to his varied activities as a musician – composer, keyboard player, conductor – he worked with both numbers and words as an accountant and a poet. He composed dedicatory poems for publications by his friends Johann Theile and Andreas Werckmeister, and he appears to have written the texts for several of his vocal works. He was both a dutiful employee of the church and a bold entrepreneur in his management of the Abendmusiken. His choice of texts for vocal music demonstrates deep Christian piety, while his portrait with Johann Adam Reinken in “Häusliche Musikszene,” painted in 1674 by Johann Voorhout, shows a man of the world. These two aspects of Buxtehude’s personality are neatly juxtaposed in the canon that he wrote for the Lübeck theological student Meno Hanneken; headed by Buxtehude’s motto, “Non hominibus sed Deo” (not to men but to God), its text celebrates worldly pleasure: “Divertisons nous aujourd’hui, bouvons … la santé‚ de mon ami” (Let us enjoy ourselves today and drink to the health of my friend).

The writers of his own and the succeeding generation made only scant mention of Buxtehude; nonetheless, he was honored, both in his own century and in the one that followed, in a manner that was ultimately of far greater significance than any number of verbal accolades might have been: by the copying of his music, more of which survives, and in a greater number of genres, than from any of his North German contemporaries. His vocal music is found chiefly in copies made by or for his friend Gustav Düben, chapel master to the King of Sweden. Many copies of his free organ works stem from the circle of J.S. Bach, while the surviving manuscripts of his chorale-based organ works were copied mainly by Johann Gottfried Walther. Buxtehude’s only major publications during his lifetime were two collections of sonatas for violin, viola da gamba, and harpsichord (dacapo 8.224003 and 8.224004).

The Keyboard Music of Dietrich Buxtehude

Keyboard music of the seventeenth century was not usually designated for particular instruments, and most of it could be played on organ, harpsichord, or clavichord. The manuscripts that transmit Buxtehude’s keyboard music, however, generally restrict themselves to one of three types of music that can indeed be associated with particular instruments: free works such as praeludia and toccatas, many of them designated “ pedaliter,” and thus for organ; settings of German chorales, most of them also requiring the pedal; and a distinctly secular repertoire consisting of dance suites and variations, presumably for harpsichord. But these boundaries are by no means rigid, and these recordings exploit such fluidity by drawing from all three genres for their programs.

Nearly all of Buxtehude’s suites and variations on secular tunes are preserved in a single Danish manuscript, now at the Royal Library in Copenhagen, which contains the history of the Ryge family reading in one direction and a collection of keyboard music, mainly by Buxtehude, in the other. The musical portion was probably copied early in the eighteenth century. The fact that two of the suites attributed to Buxtehude in this manuscript were actually composed by Nicolas-Antoine Lebègue underlines the stylistic similarity of the German keyboard suite to French models, particularly in the use of stile brisé, which the French clavecinistes had adapted from lute music. The standardization of the movements to Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue, however, can be credited to German composers.

The selection of suites offered here, in C major (BuxWV 226), D minor (BuxWV 233) E minor (BuxWV 235), F major (BuxWV 238), G minor (BuxWV 242), and A major (BuxWV 243), presents the intimate, domestic aspect of Buxtehude’s keyboard art. In each case, the allemande is the weightiest element, “the proposition in a musical suite, from which the corrente, sarabande and gique [sic] flow as parts,” in the words of Buxtehude’s grandstudent Martin Heinrich Fuhrmann. Indeed, the openings of Buxtehude’s correntes often follow the melodic contour of the allemande, and in the case of the F major suite (BuxWV 238) the corrente approaches an actual variation of it. The Ryge manuscript usually spells this movement “Courent” in a curious mixture of French and Italian; in fact Buxtehude usually follows the Italian corrente, with its lightly running eighth-note motion, rather than the more subtle French courante. Fuhrmann characterizes the Sarabande as an “instrumental aria, usually eight measures, going slowly in triple,” and this is the shortest and simplest movement of a Buxtehude suite. Two of these suites (BuxWV 226 and 233) present a second sarabande that is not a double, or variation, of the first. The second sarabande of BuxWV 233 has a distinctly vocal quality, as opposed to the more instrumental stile brisé of the first. The gigues in Buxtehude’s suites have a more contrapuntal texture than the other movements, but they are not strictly fugal, usually dissolving into homophony after a few entrances. It is through the gigue, however, that the dance makes itself most strongly felt in the other genres of Buxtehude’s keyboard music.

Each of the three variation sets is grounded in dance rhythms. “Courent Zimble,” (BuxWV 245) as its name implies, is a courante, shorter and simpler than those in the suites. Each of its eight variations is highly unified in its figuration. The set of three variations named simply “Aria” (BuxWV 249) is based on the sarabande, reminding us of Fuhrmann’s definition of the sarabande as an instrumental aria. Its second and third variations contain written-out varied repetitions of each of the sections of the binary form, demonstrating how Buxtehude might actually have performed those repetitions that he normally indicated only with repeat marks. His most famous variation set, also labelled “Aria,” but subtitled “La Capricciosa” (BuxWV 250), follows the Bergamasca, a dance that originated in Italy during the 16th century and was widespread throughout Europe in the 17th century. Its first half also appears as the Thuringian song “Kraut und Rüben” that J.S. Bach used in the quodlibet concluding the Goldberg variations (BWV 988), but it is unlikely that Buxtehude knew it in this form. Bach may have known “La Capricciosa,” on the other hand, since, like his Goldberg Variations, it is a virtuoso showpiece consisting of 32 variations on an aria in G major. In “La Capricciosa” Buxtehude layers dance upon dance, changing the simple duple meter of the Bergamasca to that of a gigue (partite 9 and 19), a sarabande (partita 25), and a minuet (partite 29 and 30).

Buxtehude’s chorale settings for keyboard are preserved mainly in manuscripts compiled by Johann Gottfried Walther, organist in Weimar and cousin of J.S. Bach. Although most of them require two manuals and pedal, a few do not, and there is no reason why they should be confined to the church organ. One in particular seems appropriate for performance on the harpsichord: the Partita “Auf meinen lieben Gott” (BuxWV 179). Here Buxtehude combines three genres – the dance suite, the variation set, and the chorale setting – to produce an unusual hybrid form, consisting of Allemande (unnamed), Double, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (BuxWV 223) belongs to the genre of the chorale fantasy, in which each phrase of a chorale melody is developed rather extensively in a different manner. Here too the gigue makes a prominent appearance, concluding the work in a fugal treatment of the entire melody. Buxtehude’s manualiter setting of “Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren” (BuxWV 215) follows the chorale in its lilting, triple meter.

Buxtehude’s free keyboard works – those independent of a preexisting melody or dance pattern – are mainly transmitted in manuscripts that include both pedaliter and manualiter works. Among these, his most original and justly famous works are praeludia and toccatas in the stylus phantasticus, which intermingles highly unpredictable free sections in virtuosic and idiomatic keyboard styles with more structured fugal sections. Since organists naturally prefer the pedaliter works, those for manuals alone are much less frequently performed, thus offering rich opportunities to adventurous harpsichordists. Even in these free works one can find elements of dance and variation: In the G-major Praeludium (BuxWV 162) the second fugue is a variation, in gigue rhythm, of the first. In place of a second fugue, the G-major Toccata (BuxWV 165) contains a brief passage of ostinato variations that are faintly reminiscent of Pachelbel’s famous canon. Buxtehude may have conceived his canzonas as teaching pieces; they are all manualiter works, and students most often practiced on the clavichord or harpsichord. They are variously titled canzon, canzonet, or fuga and consist either of a single fugue (BuxWV 174 and 225) or of three related fugues (BuxWV 166, 168, 170 and 176) in the manner of the variation canzona inherited from Frescobaldi and Froberger. Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg, in his Abhandlung von der Fuge (1753), used the third fugue of BuxWV 168 as an illustration of a counter fugue, in which the answer moves in contrary motion to the subject. The gigue makes an appearance yet again in these works, as the second fugue of BuxWV 166 and 170 and as the sole fugue of BuxWV 174, one of Buxtehude’s most engaging and popular fugues.

Kerala Snyder, 1998


Release date: 
March 1999
Cat. No.: 
Jewel Case
Track count: 


Recorded at Skt. Matthæus Kirken, Copenhagen, on 22-28 September, 1998

Recording producer: Michael Petersen
Sound engineer: Michael Petersen

c 1999 dacapo, Copenhagen

p 1999 dacapo, Copenhagen

Cover picture: »Stilleben« by Osias Beert (c. 1610)

Dacapo Records acknowledges, with gratitude, the financial support of Gangstedfonden