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Dieterich Buxtehude

born: c1637
died: 9 May 1707
country: Denmark

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.

All of Buxtehude's music 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.

from notes by Relf Clark © 2010

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