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Buxte-Who?

July 20, 2011

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Collective Voice, Vol. 1 in May 2007, in anticipation of VOX 3 Collective’s first concert: “Buxtehude Abendmusik” at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.  The concert commemorated the 300th anniversary of composer Dietrich Buxtehude’s death.

May 9, 2007 marks the 300th anniversary of Buxtehude’s death, an early Baroque composer who greatly influenced J.S. Bach, Telemann and Handel.  Details surrounding the birth of Dietrich Buxtehude are few.  Some contend that he was born in Helsingborg, Denmark, while others assert he came from Oldesloe, Holstein, now in Germany.  Variations on his name range from the Dutch Diderich to Dieterich, but many now accept the standard Dietrich. 

In 1703, composers Handel and Mattheson both traveled to meet Buxtehude. Buxtehude was old and ready to retire by the time he met them. He offered his position in Lübeck to Handel and Mattheson but stipulated that the organist who ascended to it must marry his eldest daughter, Anna Margareta. Both Handel and Mattheson turned the offer down and left the day after their arrival.   There is only one portrait of the composer, painted in 1674 by the Danishman Johannes Voorhout.  He appears, score in hand, in the company of several other musicians, including Hamburg organist Johann Reincken at the harpischord, in a painting entitled “Allegory on Friendship.”  It causes one to wonder, between the lack of portraiture (for a public personage of such stature) and the repeatedly rejected marriage offers for his daughter, if Buxtehude was not unfortunate of face. 

Oil painting by Johannes Voorhout, "Allegory on Friendship" (1674), one of the only known depictions of composer Dietrich Buxtehude

His organ works are considered a cornerstone of the repertoire and, in particular, his 19 organ praeludia.  He and Nicholas Bruhns wrote in what is called the stylus phantasticus, beginning their preludes with an improvisatory section giving way to a single motif then treated in imitative counterpoint.   The influence of Buxtehude can be seen in many of J.S. Bach’s works for organ and also for voice.  In 1705, Bach traveled 220 miles on foot from Arnstadt, staying nearly three months to hear Buxtehude’s Abendmusik series, meet the pre-eminent Lübeck organist, hear him play, and as Bach explained “to comprehend one thing and another about his art.” 

Many of Buxtehude’s larger-scale vocal works have been lost, including the oratorios which are said to have served as models for the passions of J.S. Bach.  However, over 100 cantatas remain, varying in style from simple chorale-type settings to livelier pieces with an improvisatory feel to formal structures alternating recitative and aria. Of the extant works 100 are contained in the Uppsala University Library in Sweden; most of these were hand-copied during the years 1674 to 1687 by Gustav Düben, director of music at the Swedish Court in Stockholm and a friend of Buxtehude.  Many of Buxtehude’s pieces brim with great energy and imagination, treading a fine line between learned contrapuntal traditions and freer, more fanciful styles.  The works performed on our commemorative program represent a variety of these styles, from the short-form aria of BuxWV 38 to the choral cantata BuxWV 21 to the multi-movement BuxWV 12.

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