Danket dem Herren BuxWV181 [2'55]
Canzona in E minor BuxWV169 [2'44]
Canzona in G major BuxWV170 [3'46]
The latest volume of Christopher Herrick’s acclaimed series of Buxtehude’s complete organ works comes from Paris and the admired organ of St-Louis-en-l’Île – formally opened in 2005, and based on the work of Zacharias Hildebrant (1688-1757). As with previous discs, it includes a selection of the composer’s praeludia, ostinato works, canzonettas and canzonas, interspersed with chorale preludes, chorale fantasias and variations.
Highlights include the magnificent Praeludium in D minor, BuxWV140, which is among the finest and most striking examples of the genre, and a particularly beautiful and contrasting set of chorale preludes.
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Dieterich Buxtehude died in Lübeck, where he was Organist of the Marienkirche, on 9 May 1707. Neither the year nor the place of his birth can be stated with complete confidence, though the former is generally thought to have been 1637, and candidates for the latter can be reduced to a short-list comprising Helsingborg in Sweden, Helsingør in Denmark, and Oldesloe in Holstein. It seems certain, however, that he grew up in Denmark, and although he spent nearly forty of his seventy-odd years in the German city of Lübeck, and although ‘Buxtehude’ is a German place-name, no one begrudges the Danes their claim on him. Whatever the precise facts about his origins, it was in 1668 that he succeeded Franz Tunder (c1614–1667) as Organist of the Marienkirche, and by at least the turn of the century he was among the most influential figures in North German organ music. In 1705, having undertaken the long journey from Arnstadt to Lübeck especially to hear Buxtehude, J S Bach incurred his employers’ displeasure by unofficially extending his leave, so captivated was he by the older man’s playing. That Handel also visited Lübeck, in 1703, further underlines Buxtehude’s stature.
Everything heard on this disc is necessarily over 300 years old, but one can be confident that Bach and Handel encountered at the Marienkirche very little organ music from any earlier period. Much of what they heard was almost certainly improvised, and although improvisation continues to play a part in organ culture, printed music occupies an overwhelmingly dominant position (and much of it consists of careful editions of music written in the distant past, such as the works of Buxtehude and J S Bach). Buxtehude’s culture was quite different from that of today, and printed music played only a small part in it. Indeed, none of Buxtehude’s organ works was printed in his lifetime, and it was not until 1875, when Spitta’s edition began to appear, that they first became available otherwise than in the form of copies made by pupils and admirers. In Buxtehude’s day, printing could not cope with the increasing complexity of keyboard music, and transmission tended to be by hand-made copies. But Buxtehude’s culture was in any event one in which an important role was played by spontaneity. Carefully rehearsed performances of immaculately printed, long-pondered compositions played little or no part in it. Professional organists were required to be highly proficient in the art of improvisation, and it may be that some of the works recorded here, particularly the praeludia, were intended more as models for students of improvisation than as material for public performance; and so exhilarating is some of this music that one wonders how much more so Buxtehude’s ‘live’ improvisations must have been, for notation, no matter how sophisticated, cannot by its very nature capture every note and nuance of an inspired improvisatory flight: it may be that some of the works presented here do no more than hint at the grandeur by which Bach was so gripped.
Buxtehude’s organ music falls into two basic categories: free works, and works based on pre-existing melodies. To the first category belong the praeludia, toccatas, ostinato works, and canzonas. To the second belong the works based on chorale or plainsong melodies.
In the Praeludium in D minor, BuxWV140, which is among the finest and most striking examples of the genre, Buxtehude alternates exuberant, fanciful passages and short, strictly written fugues. As one listens to its opening bars it is easy to imagine an organist at the end of a service putting aside his prescribed texts and allowing hands and feet to roam freely over manuals and pedals in the ways suggested by the passagework and harmonies which arise naturally from the use of the key of D minor. The free introduction leads to a four-voice fugue on a subject with octave leaps, rests and repeated notes and which combines with a chromatically falling counter-subject. This first fugue is nicely dovetailed into a further improvisatory passage, and after a grand cadence in C major there is a short second fugue, and then a third and final one whose triple-time subject is based upon the intervals of the first fugue subject. The concluding bars illustrate this style at its most phantasticus.
The Chorale Variations on ‘Danket dem Herren’, BuxWV181 comprise three sections or ‘verses’. In the first, the unembellished melody is given to the highest of the three voices; in the second it is the middle voice (unusually for Buxtehude) and played on an eight-foot pedal stop; and in the third it is the lowest voice.
The Canzonetta in G major, BuxWV172 is a nimble three-voice fugue based upon a subject consisting entirely of semiquavers and which seems prophetic of J S Bach’s organ fugue in D major.
The Praeludium in G minor, BuxWV163 is unusual in being for manuals only. It begins in the customary free manner, and the first of its fugues is jig-like in character. The lengthy second one, which follows a further free passage, is based on a subject beginning with a rising fifth and repeated notes, and here Buxtehude anticipates the athletic, Italianate writing of J S Bach’s maturity. The third and final fugue, which follows a very lively free passage, is another of Buxtehude’s jigs.
By contrast, the Canzona in E minor, BuxWV169 is a sober, four-voice fugue. At bar 19 begins a passage in which the voices enter in quick succession (‘stretto’) and on the upbeat to bar 28 a second subject is announced and followed a bar later by the first: this final section is therefore a kind of double fugue.
The Chorale Prelude on ‘Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort’, BuxWV185 is among the simplest and most enchanting of Buxtehude’s works in this genre: the melody, embellished and given to the right hand, is accompanied by the left hand and pedals, and its second and subsequent lines are introduced by fugal expositions whose material anticipates them.
The Chorale Fantasia on ‘Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren’, BuxWV212 is an altogether more modern affair than its gentle predecessor. Instead of the usual embellishment and counterpoint, there is lively, rhythmical material passing from manual to manual against the background of a slow, steady harmonic pulse.
In the Praeludium in F major, BuxWV145, Buxtehude foreshadows the two-movement ‘prelude and fugue’ form associated with J S Bach, for instead of the usual alternation of free and strict passages, there are just two sections, one free, the other strict. Although it has much of the character of Buxtehude’s other improvisatory passages, the first section is more consistent in terms of texture. The second is based entirely upon one subject, which is among Buxtehude’s longest and most unusual. It begins with three statements of a kind of written-out ornament: these and the rests between them give rise to one of the composer’s sunniest efforts and in particular to dialogues between manuals and pedals which again call to mind J S Bach’s D major organ fugue.
The Chorale Prelude on ‘Herr Jesu Christ, ich weiss gar wohl’, BuxWV193 is remarkable for the way in which Buxtehude treats the melody: as usual, he gives it to the uppermost voice, but initially he leaves it unembellished. Over the course of the work, however, it becomes increasingly ornamented, and as it does so the lower voices gradually lose their initial liveliness and revert to their customary role of providing restrained support.
The Chorale Fantasia on the ‘Magnificat primi toni’, BuxWV203, the only plainsong-based work in this selection, is the longer of the two Buxtehude works with this title. It comprises a flamboyant introduction—expressive, surely, of the exultation of the Virgin Mary—followed by eight sections, each based on a portion of the plainsong melody. It therefore has the sectional form of a praeludium, but it differs in that, with the exception of the seven-bar Lento beginning at bar 69 (3'25''), each is more or less strict in character.
The Chorale Prelude on ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’, BuxWV189 is the first of the two Christmas chorale preludes in this programme, and the first of a trio of preludes based upon melodies that J S Bach was to set in the Orgelbüchlein. In the final bars, Buxtehude’s treatment of the melody is exuberant indeed, and the pedals participate in the joy of Christmas with some of the most animated passagework given to them in the chorale preludes.
The Chorale Prelude on ‘Es ist das Heil uns kommen her’, BuxWV186 begins in a sedate manner, but the ornamentation of the melody becomes exceedingly florid. J S Bach is anticipated, though, by the long-held note in the final bars, where the dignified winding-down is perhaps expressive of the idea of salvation in Christ.
The Chorale Prelude on ‘Puer natus in Bethlehem’, BuxWV217, another Christmas work, is among the simplest of Buxtehude’s chorale settings. The melody is only slightly embellished, and its lines are separated by the shortest of interludes, but there is subtlety in the way in which the pedals and the melody are at two points briefly in canon.
The Praeludium in C major, BuxWV136 begins with a short free section remarkable for the richness of its harmony. There follows a double fugue based on two very short subjects, the first having repeated notes, the second executing a stepwise descent. A leisurely free section over long-held pedal notes introduces the second fugue (Allegro) and after a very short free interlude a ‘jig’ fugue brings the work to a spirited conclusion.
In the Chorale Prelude on ‘Komm heiliger Geist, Herre Gott’, BuxWV200 a subtly ornamented version of the Whitsuntide melody appears in the highest voice, and for the most part the lower ones provide an elegant accompaniment; but at bar 28 they briefly take the stage with a fugal exposition which introduces the next entry, and joy at the descent of the Holy Spirit is signified by the florid coda.
The Canzona in G major, BuxWV170 is a three-voice, three-section fugue based initially on an all-semiquaver subject. The second fugue is another of Buxtehude’s jigs, and the third is based on a subject beginning with a descending four-note figure followed by an octave leap.
The Chorale Prelude on ‘Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn’, BuxWV191 adheres to the basic formula of ornamented melody (right hand) and accompaniment (left hand and pedals), but the Advent melody is embellished to such an extent that we seem at times to be listening to a free extemporization.
With the magnificent Praeludium in F sharp minor, BuxWV146 Christopher Herrick brings this third volume to a close. Fiery semiquavers precede the low F sharp over which the subsequent bars unfold, and a passage of stately, homophonic writing then introduces a fugue marked Grave and based on a subject whose descending diminished seventh anticipates both Handel and J S Bach. At bar 50 a second fugue begins (Vivace): the three-semiquaver group at the beginning of its subject is the germ from which grows all the improvisatory material that follows; and the scintillating final page is a worthy conclusion indeed. Here and throughout the work Young’s Temperament excitingly underlines the unusual key.
Relf Clark © 2011
Other albums in this series
Buxtehude: The Complete Organ Works, Vol. 5 – Mariager Klosterkirke
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