Praeludium in g BuxWV 148 ~ Chorale Variations “Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott” BuxWV 207 ~ Canzonetta in G BuxWV 171 ~ Fuga in C BuxWV 174 ~ Praeludium in g BuxWV 149
Dietrich Buxtehude is probably the most famous and influential of all the German composers who antedate Johann Sebastian Bach. Most young organists first learn about the importance of Buxtehude precisely because of his influence upon Bach. Later we find that the music of Buxtehude is worth knowing, playing, and enjoying for its own merits.
There has been considerable debate regarding Buxtehude’s precise place of birth but there is now general agreement that he was born in Helsingborg, Skåne, then part of Denmark and now part of Sweden. Buxtehude’s father was an organist and the young man followed in that tradition with appointments, first in Helsingborg from 1657 to 1658 and then in Helsingør, at St. Mary’s Church, from 1660 to 1668. The organ at this church still stands in its original precision and the casework (see illustration) is what Buxtehude would recognise if he were alive today. The pipework itself is more recent, however, being the work of the great Danish organ builder Frobenius in 1960. From 1668 until his death Buxtehude was organist at the prestigious Marienkirche in Lübeck. Sadly this church, its organs, and much of its artwork were destroyed or damaged by Allied bombing in 1942. Happily they have since been rebuilt. Moreover, one of the church’s great traditions, which goes back beyond Buxtehude’s time but which he enhanced and developed, is maintained to this day – the tradition of Sunday evening concerts known as Abendmusik.
It was partly this tradition, as well as the chance to listen to and learn from Buxtehude, which prompted Bach, at the age of twenty, to walk the 400 kilometres from Arnstadt to Lübeck in the early autumn of 1705. He had left a cousin in charge of the music at the church in Arnstadt and the authorities there had given him a four week leave of absence. Bach, however, extended his time away to four months, failed to have any communication with his employers, and, as a result, was required to face the consistory on his return. In the end, though, they were lenient with him.
Buxtehude’s fame today is chiefly as a composer of organ music but his skill as a composer of choral music has become more and more widely known over the past few decades. Interestingly, Buxtehude, unlike Bach for example, was never employed as a Cantor, i.e. as one in charge of vocal music; rather, he was employed purely as an organist. What this indicates is that his choral music, again unlike that of Bach, was not written out of the necessity of having to produce a cantata for next Sunday’s liturgy but as a personal musical expression of faith and piety. It is imaginative faith and piety which inspire Buxtehude’s organ chorale settings and the use of a wide range of styles and textures. The chorale variations in today’s programme are based on a melody more usually associated with the Lord’s Prayer (Vater unser im Himmelreich). A translation of the text of “Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott” is as follows:
Take from us, you faithful God, the heavy punishment and great distress, which for our countless sins we deserve to have all too often. Protect us from war and costly times, from plague, fire and great misfortune.
Great music is almost always characterised by economy of means and these variations are no exception to that rule. The first variation presents the chorale, almost unadorned, in the highest of only three voices, the lower two providing a running, imitative commentary. The second, a two voice texture or bicinium, might almost be a French style of basse de Trompette indicating, surely, the influence of Flemish practice on North German composers. The third variation anticipates some of the highly ornamented settings by Bach, presenting the chorale melody in a highly melismatic manner over an imitative accompaniment. A bold two voice texture completes the set.
The Canzonetta and Fuga are examples of music which would have been as much at home on the harpsichord in a salon as on the organ in a church. The two larger scale works with which the programme begins and ends – both in the key of g minor – are often referred to as “prelude and fugue” which is not strictly correct. This is because, typical of the genre as presented by Buxtehude, each contains more than one fugal passage and each of those is really just an episode within a larger work. There is great contrast of style and texture from section to section and doubtless Buxtehude would have enjoyed the contrasts of tone available on the organ in Lübeck as he moved from manual to manual, each controlling its separate section of the instrument. He would also have enjoyed the climaxes of the music as an opportunity to couple all those sections together in a grand tutti. BuxWV 148 ends with a chaconne-like movement in which an ostinato figure moves from the lowest voice in the pedals, through the various upper voices and back again. BuxWV 149, on the other hand, begins with the use of an ostinato but in this case it remains in the lowest voice to provide the framework above which the toccata-like upper voices unfold.