Fuga in G major BuxWV175 [2'59]
Ach Gott und Herr BuxWV177 [2'15]
Christopher Herrick’s acclaimed series of Buxtehude’s Complete Organ Works reaches a fifth and final volume. Here he returns to the composer’s (disputed) home country of Denmark, and the organ of Mariager Klosterkirke.
Highlights include the magnificent Praeludium in C major, BuxWV137 (known to English-speaking organists as the ‘Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne in C’) and the Chorale Fantasia on the Christmas melody ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’, BuxWV188—among the longest and most elaborate of Buxtehude’s chorale settings.
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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 album 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.
The Canzonetta in G major, BuxWV171, is a short fugal work based initially on a lively, all-semiquaver subject. The jig-like second section beginning at bar 21 (at 1'04'') is based on a variant of the subject.
In the Chorale Prelude on ‘Kommt her zu mir, spricht Gottes Sohn’, BuxWV201, the melody is broken up and embellished, and each of its six lines is introduced by a short passage in which the material of that line is given a simple imitative treatment. In typical Buxtehude fashion, the final line of the melody is more florid.
The magnificent Praeludium in C major, BuxWV137 (known to English-speaking organists as the ‘Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne in C’), is among the best known of the praeludia. The first section, improvisatory in character, begins with a pedal solo, embraces a variety of textures, and includes a number of dramatic gestures. The brief subject of the fugal section seems to grow out of the second bar of the pedal solo, and its final entry (at bar 64) leads without a break into a short improvisatory passage. Marked Presto, the Ciacona, with which the work concludes, is founded on eight statements of a jovial three-bar ground derived from the fugue subject.
The Chorale Prelude on ‘Vater unser im Himmelreich’, BuxWV219, gives to the right hand a lightly embellished version of Luther’s melody, and the left hand and pedals provide appropriately sober support. As in ‘Kommt her zu mir’, the second and subsequent lines of the melody are introduced by short episodes imitative in character.
Running to more than 150 bars, the Chorale Fantasia on the Christmas melody ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’, BuxWV188, is among the longest and most elaborate of Buxtehude’s chorale settings. The first section (bars 1–37) makes much of the repeated notes with which the melody begins (‘Ge-lo-bet’) and although the right hand (playing on the Rückpositiv) features these notes, for the most part it contributes a joyful descant above the left hand (Oberwerk) and pedals. The second section (bars 38–67, from 1'47'') is an extemporization on the second line of the melody, and the third section (bars 68–98, from 3'24'') is based upon the third line, which initially appears in the lowest voices in combination with rhythmical material that seems to hark back to the first line. In bars 99–138 (from 5'03''), the fourth line is given a jig-like treatment which makes a feature of the contrasting sonorities of Oberwerk and Rückpositiv; and there is a brilliant coda.
The Chorale Prelude on ‘Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, der den Tod überwand’, BuxWV198, is a simple, three-voice setting, the unembellished chorale melody being uppermost throughout. Similarly, the Chorale Prelude on ‘Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren’, BuxWV215, gives the melody (here slightly embellished) to the highest of the three voices.
Buxtehude begins the Chorale Prelude on ‘Es spricht der Unweisen Mund wohl’, BuxWV187, without any preliminaries. The first of the melody’s seven lines appears at once; the remainder have brief introductions, and all are elaborated in characteristic fashion.
The Praeludium in E minor, BuxWV143, begins with a pedal solo whose material generates most of the introduction’s twenty bars. The first of the fugal sections is based on one of the shortest and most unusual of Buxtehude’s subjects (eight notes, but only three pitches). The last of its pedal entries is followed by a free episode and then by a second fugue whose subject is a triple-time variant of that of the first. A free Adagio coming to rest over a long-held tonic pedal brings the work to a grand conclusion.
In the Chorale Prelude on ‘Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn’, BuxWV192, Buxtehude sets an Advent melody later worked by J S Bach in Das Orgelbüchlein (BWV601). It is a typical example of a Buxtehude working, with an embellished version of the melody given to the uppermost voice and supported by a discreet accompaniment.
Similarly, in the Chorale Prelude on ‘Lobt Gott, ihr Christen allzugleich’, BuxWV202, Buxtehude again sets a Christmas melody later worked by J S Bach (Das Orgelbüchlein, BWV609), and the treatment is appropriately rhythmical and joyful. Each of the four lines of the melody is introduced by a short imitative passage based upon its material. Unusually, there are two-voice chords for the pedals near the end; they immediately precede the typical Buxtehudian flourish given to the right hand in the final bars.
The modality of the Praeludium in the Phrygian mode, BuxWV152, is proclaimed by the pedals’ descent via F natural to low E in bars 8–9 of the free introduction (in which Buxtehude’s ability to create stirring harmony is splendidly displayed). A fugue begins at bar 18 (at 1'10''), the first three notes of its counter-subject underlining the modality. It runs without a break into the new, triple-time fugue beginning at bar 44 (at 2'32''); its subject is a variant of that of the first. The briefest of codas brings the work to a sober close and in recalling the textures of the opening bars gives it a satisfying symmetry.
The Choral Prelude on ‘Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt’, BuxWV183, is based on a melody that J S Bach was to set in Das Orgelbüchlein (BWV637). The falling pedal figures of the opening bars seem to anticipate the pictorialism of Bach, but the gradually increasing animation, the rising figures in the final bars, and the right hand’s final flourish all seem to underline what Bach—in the interests of a single Affekt—chose to ignore: that the hymn is about man’s redemption as well as his fall.
The Praeludium in F major, BuxWV144, abandons the alternation of free and strict passages characteristic of most of the praeludia. Instead, it anticipates the two-movement works of J S Bach by being in two clearly defined sections, the first a free passage of 17 bars, the second a concise fugue based on a shapely subject.
The Chorale Fantasia on ‘Magnificat primi toni’, BuxWV204, the only plainsong-based work in this selection, falls into two sections, the first a lively double fugue, the second an austerely beautiful double fugue in the vocal style (‘stile antico’) associated with such sixteenth-century composers as Palestrina (and in its use of invertible counterpoint illustrating the sophistication Buxtehude’s technique was capable of embracing).
The Fuga in G major, BuxWV175, a three-voice example for the manuals only, is in three sections, the second (bars 19–38, from 0'45'') based on an inverted form of the subject, the third (bar 39 onwards, from 1'36'') on the subject in both its original and inverted forms. As in BuxWV204, Buxtehude demonstrates his grasp of ‘learned’ procedures.
Typically for Buxtehude, the Chorale Prelude on ‘Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist’, BuxWV209, gives to the uppermost voice an embellished version of the chorale melody, and the left hand and pedals supply a dignified accompaniment. The second and subsequent lines of the melody are introduced by short imitative interludes.
Running to over 100 bars, the Praeludium in E major, BuxWV141, shows Buxtehude at his most exuberantly inventive. Twelve bars of free writing introduce a fugue whose sturdy, melodious subject looks forward to the great fugue (the so-called ‘St Anne’) with which J S Bach concluded Part III of his Clavierübung. A free interlude then introduces a manuals-only Presto section (at 4'03''). The time signature then changes from 4/4 to 12/8, and there is a very brief, jig-like fugue. A grand Adagio leads to the short fugue with which the work straightforwardly concludes.
Based on a melody later worked by Bach, in the Leipzig Chorales (the ‘Eighteen’), the Chorale Prelude on ‘Von Gott will ich nicht lassen’, BuxWV220, is typical of Buxtehude’s procedures in having the melody treated line by line, each introduced by a short episode. The first line is presented without embellishment; subsequent ones are increasingly embellished, and the last is extended into a florid coda above a long-held tonic pedal.
By contrast, the Chorale Fantasia on ‘Ich dank dir, lieber Herre’, BuxWV194, shows Buxtehude’s style at its most phantasticus. Unusually, the first line of the melody is heard right at the outset, fully harmonized. The subsequent lines are not stated, but bars 3 to 35, and the ostinato-like passage beginning at bar 54 (at 2'09'', heard most clearly in the pedal part), take the first few notes of the second line as their cue; and at bar 73 (2'46''), where the time signature changes from 4/4 to 6/4, a dance-like, more extensive ostinato begins: its material, like that of the stately coda (bar 96, from 3'47''), appears to be independent of the chorale melody, as if the composer had abandoned the chorale fantasia and embarked on a praeludium.
The Chorale Variations on ‘Ach Gott und Herr’, BuxWV177, comprise two sections, the first of them unusual in giving the melody to an inner voice (the tenor) rather than to the soprano. The second gives it to the right hand in a joyously embellished version.
With the Praeludium in G major, BuxWV147, Christopher Herrick brings both this volume and this project to a close. Its first section is a good example of Buxtehude’s most flamboyant and expansive improvisatory mode; the noble fugue is based on a hymn-like, all-crotchet subject comparable in some ways with that of the E major Praeludium, BuxWV141. After the dominant cadence at bar 49 a second exposition begins (at 2'29''), based on a shorter version of the subject, and a brief coda rounds off the proceedings in typically Buxtehudian high spirits.
Relf Clark © 2012
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