Dieterich Buxtehude

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Dieterich Buxtehude
The only surviving portrait of Buxtehude, playing a viol, from A musical party by Johannes Voorhout (1674)
DiedMay 9, 1707(1707-05-09) (aged 70)
List of compositions
Buxtehude Signature.jpg

Dieterich Buxtehude (Danish pronunciation:  [ˈtiðˀəʁek bukstəˈhuːðə] ; German: [ˈdiːtəʁɪç bʊkstəˈhuːdə] ; c. 1637/39 – 9 May 1707) [1]   was a Danish organist and composer of the Baroque period, whose works for the organ represent a central part of the standard organ repertoire usually performed at recitals and church services. As a composer who worked in various vocal and instrumental idioms, Buxtehude's style greatly influenced other composers, such as his student Johann Sebastian Bach. Historically, Buxtehude is among the important composers of the mid-Baroque period in Germany. [2]



Early years in Denmark

Memorial plaque at Buxtehude House in Helsingor Helsingor Buxtehudehuset Mem.jpg
Memorial plaque at Buxtehude House in Helsingør
This is Buxtehude House. The spire of St. Olaf's is in the background. Buxtehude-House-Helsingor.jpg
This is Buxtehude House. The spire of St. Olaf's is in the background.

He is thought to have been born with the name Diderich Buxtehude. [3] His parents were Johannes (Hans Jensen) Buxtehude and Helle Jespersdatter. His father originated from Oldesloe in the Duchy of Holstein, which at that time was a part of the Danish realms in Northern Germany. Scholars dispute both the year and country of Dieterich's birth, although most now accept that he was born in 1637 in Helsingborg, Skåne at the time part of Denmark (but now part of Sweden). [1] His obituary stated that "he recognized Denmark as his native country, whence he came to our region; he lived about 70 years". [4] Others, however, claim that he was born at Oldesloe. [5] Later in his life he Germanized his name and began signing documents Dieterich Buxtehude. [3]

His father — Johannes Buxtehude — was the organist at St. Olaf's church in Helsingør. Dieterich was employed as an organist, first in Helsingborg (1657–1658), and then at Helsingør (1660–1668). St. Mary's in Helsingør is the only church where Buxtehude was employed that still has the organ in its original location.

Lübeck: Marienkirche

Another person in the same Voorhout painting, once was thought to be Buxtehude. Research reported by Snyder (2007) has questioned this. Johann Philipp Fortsch.jpg
Another person in the same Voorhout painting, once was thought to be Buxtehude. Research reported by Snyder (2007) has questioned this.

Buxtehude's last post, from 1668, was at the Marienkirche, Lübeck which had two organs, a large one for big services and a small one for devotionals and funerals. There he succeeded Franz Tunder and followed in many of the footsteps of his predecessor. He married Tunder's daughter Anna Margarethe in 1668 – it was not uncommon practice that a man marry the daughter of his predecessor in his occupation. Buxtehude and Anna Margarethe had seven daughters who were baptized at the Marienkirche; however, his first daughter died as an infant. After his retirement as organist at St Olaf's Church, his father joined the family in Lübeck in 1673. Johannes died a year later, and Dieterich composed his funeral music. Dieterich's brother Peter, a barber, joined them in 1677. [3]

His post in the free Imperial city of Lübeck afforded him considerable latitude in his musical career, and his autonomy was a model for the careers of later Baroque masters such as George Frideric Handel, Johann Mattheson, Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1673 he reorganized a series of evening musical performances, initiated by Tunder, known as Abendmusik, which attracted musicians from diverse places and remained a feature of the church until 1810. In 1703, Handel and Mattheson both traveled to meet Buxtehude, who was by then elderly and ready to retire. 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. [3] In 1705, J.S. Bach, then a young man of twenty, walked from Arnstadt to Lübeck, a distance of more than 400 kilometres (250 mi), and stayed nearly three months to hear the Abendmusik, meet the pre-eminent Lübeck organist, hear him play, and, as Bach explained, "to comprehend one thing and another about his art". [7] In addition to his musical duties, Buxtehude, like his predecessor Tunder, served as church treasurer.

Influence and legacy

Although more than 100 vocal compositions by Buxtehude survive, very few of them were included in the important German manuscript collections of the period, and until the early twentieth century, Buxtehude was regarded primarily as a keyboard composer. His surviving church music is praised for its high musical qualities rather than its progressive elements. [8]


General introduction

The bulk of Buxtehude's oeuvre consists of vocal music, which covers a wide variety of styles, [3] and organ works, which concentrate mostly on chorale settings and large-scale sectional forms. Chamber music constitutes a minor part of the surviving output, although the only chamber works Buxtehude published during his lifetime were fourteen chamber sonatas. Unfortunately, many of Buxtehude's compositions have been lost. [3] The librettos for his oratorios, for example, survive; but none of the scores do, which is particularly unfortunate, because his German oratorios seem to be the model for later works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. Further evidence of lost works by Buxtehude and his contemporaries can be found in the recently discovered catalogue of a 1695 music-auction in Lübeck. [9]

Gustaf Düben's collection and the so-called Lübeck tablature A373 are the two most important sources for Buxtehude's vocal music. The former includes several autographs, both in German organ tablature and in score. Both collections were probably created during Buxtehude's lifetime and with his permission. Copies made by various composers are the only extant sources for the organ works: chorale settings are mostly transmitted in copies by Johann Gottfried Walther, while Gottfried Lindemann's and others' copies concentrate on free works. Johann Christoph Bach's manuscript is particularly important, as it includes the three known ostinato works and the famous Prelude and Chaconne in C major, BuxWV 137. Although Buxtehude himself most probably wrote in organ tablature, the majority of the copies are in standard staff notation.

Keyboard works

Preludes and toccatas

The nineteen organ praeludia (or preludes) form the core of Buxtehude's work and are ultimately considered his most important contributions to the music literature of the seventeenth century. They are sectional compositions that alternate between free improvisation and strict counterpoint. They are usually either fugues or pieces written in fugal manner; all make heavy use of pedal and are idiomatic to the organ. These preludes, together with pieces by Nicolaus Bruhns, represent the highest point in the evolution of the north German organ prelude, and the so-called stylus phantasticus . They were undoubtedly among the influences of J.S. Bach, whose organ preludes, toccatas and fugues frequently employ similar techniques. [10]

The preludes are quite varied in style and structure, and are therefore hard to categorize, as no two praeludia are alike. [3] The texture of Buxtehude's praeludia can be described as either free or fugal. [11] They consist of strict diatonic harmony and secondary dominants. [11] Structure-wise, there usually is an introductory section, a fugue and a postlude, but this basic scheme is very frequently expanded: both BuxWV 137 and BuxWV 148 include a full-fledged chaconne along with fugal and toccata-like writing in other sections, BuxWV 141 includes two fugues, sections of imitative counterpoint and parts with chordal writing. Buxtehude's praeludia are not circular, nor is there a recapitulation. A fugal theme, when it recurs, does so in a new, changed way. [11] A few pieces are smaller in scope; for example, BuxWV 144, which consists only of a brief improvisatory prelude followed by a longer fugue. The sections may be explicitly separated in the score or flow one into another, with one ending and the other beginning in the same bar. The texture is almost always at least three-voice, with many instances of four-voice polyphony and occasional sections in five voices (BuxWV 150 being one of the notable examples, with five-voice structure in which two of the voices are taken by the pedal).

The introductory sections are always improvisatory. The preludes begin almost invariably with a single motif in one of the voices which is then treated imitatively for a bar or two. After this the introduction will most commonly elaborate on this motif or a part of it, or on a short melodic germ which is passed from voice to voice in three- or four-voice polyphonic writing, as seen in Example 1:

Example 1: This is the introduction from Prelude in F major, BuxWV 145. The motivic interaction seen here, in which a short motif is passing from one voice to another, sometimes sounding in two voices simultaneously, was frequently employed by Buxtehude in his preludes, frequently expanded to four voices with heavy use of pedal. Buxtehude-145-intro.gif
Example 1: This is the introduction from Prelude in F major, BuxWV 145. The motivic interaction seen here, in which a short motif is passing from one voice to another, sometimes sounding in two voices simultaneously, was frequently employed by Buxtehude in his preludes, frequently expanded to four voices with heavy use of pedal.

Occasionally the introduction will engage in parallel 3rds, 6ths, etc. For example, BuxWV 149 begins with a single voice, proceeds to parallel counterpoint for nine bars and then segues into the kind of texture described above. The improvisatory interludes, free sections and postludes may all employ a vast array of techniques, from miscellaneous kinds of imitative writing (the technique discussed above, or "fugues" that dissolve into homophonic writing, etc.) to various forms of non-motivic interaction between voices (arpeggios, chordal style, figuration over pedal point, etc.). Tempo marks are frequently present: Adagio sections written out in chords of whole- and half-notes, Vivace and Allegro imitative sections, and others.

Example 2: Fugue subjects from BuxWV 137, BuxWV 140, BuxWV 142 (two) and BuxWV 153 Buxtehude-fugue-subjects.gif
Example 2: Fugue subjects from BuxWV 137, BuxWV 140, BuxWV 142 (two) and BuxWV 153

The number of fugues in a prelude varies from one to three, not counting the pseudo-fugal free sections. The fugues normally employ four voices with extensive use of pedal. Most subjects are of medium length (see Example 2), frequently with some degree of repercussion (note repeating, particularly in BuxWV 148 and BuxWV 153), wide leaps or simplistic runs of 16th notes. One of the notable exceptions is a fugue in BuxWV 145, which features a six-bar subject. The answers are usually tonal, on scale degrees 1 and 5, and there is little real modulation. Stretto and parallel entries may be employed, with particular emphasis on the latter. Short and simple countersubjects appear, and may change their form slightly during the course of the fugue. In terms of structure, Buxtehude's fugues are a series of expositions, with non-thematic material appearing quite rarely, if ever. There is some variation, however, in the way they are constructed: in the first and last fugues of BuxWV 136 the second voice does not state the subject as it enters during the initial exposition; in BuxWV 153 the second exposition uses the subject in its inverted form, etc. Fugue subjects of a particular prelude may be related as in Froberger's and Frescobaldi's ricercars and canzonas (BuxWV 150, 152, etc.):


The fugal procedure dissolves at the end of the fugue when it is followed by a free section, as seen in Example 4:

Example 4: The dissolution of the fugue before a free section. The final entry of the subject (in the pedal) is joined by the highest voice engaging in a scale run. Buxtehude-140-bars39-42.gif
Example 4: The dissolution of the fugue before a free section. The final entry of the subject (in the pedal) is joined by the highest voice engaging in a scale run.

Buxtehude's other pieces that employ free writing or sectional structure include works titled toccata, praeambulum, etc. [11] All are similar to the praeludia in terms of construction and techniques used, except that some of these works do not employ pedal passages or do so in a very basic way (pedal point which lasts during much of the piece, etc.). A well-known piece is BuxWV 146, in the rare key of F-sharp minor; it is believed that this prelude was written by Buxtehude especially for himself and his organ, and that he had his own way of tuning the instrument to allow for the tonality rarely used because of meantone temperament.

Chorale settings

There are over 40 surviving chorale settings by Buxtehude, and they constitute the most important contributions to the genre in the 17th century. [3] His settings include chorale variations, chorale ricercares, chorale fantasias and chorale preludes. Buxtehude's principal contributions to the organ chorale are his 30 short chorale preludes. The chorale preludes are usually four-part cantus firmus settings of one stanza of the chorale; the melody is presented in an elaborately ornamented version in the upper voice, the three lower parts engage in some form of counterpoint (not necessarily imitative). Most of Buxtehude's chorale settings are in this form. [8] Here is an example from chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott BuxWV 184:

Opening bars of Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott BuxWV 184. The ornamented chorale in the upper voice is highlighted, original melody for the two lines present here is shown on separate staves. Note the basic imitative lines in bars 6-8 and 13-15. Buxtehude-chorale-ein-feste.png
Opening bars of Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott BuxWV 184. The ornamented chorale in the upper voice is highlighted, original melody for the two lines present here is shown on separate staves. Note the basic imitative lines in bars 6–8 and 13–15.

The ornamented cantus firmus in these pieces represents a significant difference between the north German and the south German schools; Johann Pachelbel and his pupils would almost always leave the chorale melody unornamented.

The chorale fantasias (a modern term) are large-scale virtuosic sectional compositions that cover a whole strophe of the text and are somewhat similar to chorale concertos in their treatment of the text: each verse is developed separately, allowing for technically and emotionally contrasting sections within one composition. [3] The presence of contrasting textures makes these pieces reminiscent of Buxtehude's praeludia. Buxtehude was careful with correct word setting, paying particular attention to emphasis and interpretation. [8] Each section is also closely related to the text of the corresponding lines (chromatic sections to express sadness, gigue fugues to express joy, etc.). Examples include fantasias on the [hymn]s Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ BuxWV 188, Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein BuxWV 210, Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren BuxWV 213 and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern , BuxWV 223.

Buxtehude's chorale variations are usually in two or three voices. They consist of around 3–4 variations of which only one may use the pedal. These pieces are not as important for the development of the form and not as advanced as Pachelbel's or Böhm's contributions to the genre. There are only a few chorale variations, and there are no distinctive qualities that characterize them. [3]

The pieces that do not fall into any of the three types are the keyboard chorale partita Auf meinen lieben Gott, BuxWV 179, which, quite unusually for its time, is simultaneously a secular suite of dances and a sacred set of variations with a funerary theme; [12] and the ones based on the chant (Magnificats BuxWV 203–5 and Te Deum laudamus, BuxWV 218), which are structurally similar to chorale fantasias.

Ostinato works

The three ostinato bass works Buxtehude composed—two chaconnes (BuxWV 159–160) and a passacaglia (BuxWV 161)—not only represent, along with Pachelbel's six organ chaconnes, a shift from the traditional chaconne style, but are also the first truly developed north German contributions to the development of the genre. [3] They are among Buxtehude's best-known works and have influenced numerous composers after him, most notably Bach (whose organ passacaglia is modeled after Buxtehude's) and Johannes Brahms. The pieces feature numerous connected sections, with many suspensions, changing meters, and even real modulation (in which the ostinato pattern is transposed into another key).

Some of the praeludia also make use of ostinato models. The praeludium in C major, BuxWV 137, begins with a lengthy pedal solo and concludes not with a postlude of arpeggios and scale runs, but with a comparatively short chaconne built over a three-bar ostinato pattern in the pedal:


The praeludium in G minor, BuxWV 148, in which the ostinato pattern is derived from the subject of one of the fugal sections, also ends in a chaconne. In addition, another praeludium in G minor, BuxWV 149, employs a repeating bass pattern in the beginning.

Other keyboard works

The rest of Buxtehude's keyboard music does not employ pedals. Of the organ works, a few keyboard canzonas are the only strictly contrapuntal pieces in Buxtehude's oeuvre and were probably composed with teaching purposes in mind. [3] There are also three pieces labelled fugues: only the first, BuxWV 174, is a real fugue. BuxWV 175 is more of a canzona (two sections, both fugal and on the same subject), while BuxWV 176 is more like a typical Buxtehude prelude, only beginning with a fugue rather than an improvisatory section, and for manuals only.

There are also 19 harpsichord suites and several variation sets. The suites follow the standard model (Allemande – Sarabande – Courante – Gigue), sometimes excluding a movement and sometimes adding a second sarabande or a couple of doubles. Like Froberger's, all dances except the gigues employ the French lute style brisé, sarabandes and courantes frequently being variations on the allemande. The gigues employ basic imitative counterpoint but never go as far as the gigue fugues in the chorale fantasias or the fugal writing seen in organ preludes. It may be that the more developed harpsichord writing by Buxtehude simply did not survive: in his writings, Johann Mattheson mentioned a cycle of seven suites by Buxtehude, depicting the nature of planets, but these pieces are lost.

The several sets of arias with variations are, surprisingly, much more developed than the organ chorale variations. BuxWV 250 La Capricciosa may have inspired Bach's Goldberg Variations BWV 988: both have 32 variations (including the two arias of the Goldberg Variations); there are a number of similarities in the structure of individual movements; both include variations in forms of various dances; both are in G major; and Bach was familiar with Buxtehude's work and admired him, as has been related above.


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  1. 1 2 One reason why his birthdate and place of birth are uncertain is that baptismal records in the three places regarded as most likely to have been his birthplace do not go back as far as the 1630s. See Snyder, Kerala. (2007 revised). Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck at Google Books. page 3. Boydell & Brewer. ISBN   1-58046-253-7.
  2. Snyder, Grove.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Snyder, Kerala J. Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck. New York: Schirmer Books, 1987.
  4. Nova literaria Maris Balthici, 1707.
  5. Snyder, Kerala J. (1 February 1987). Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck. University Rochester Press. p. 6. ISBN   9781580462532 . Retrieved 1 February 2018 via Google Books.
  6. Kerala J. Snyder Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck. Revised edition. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2007), pp. 109–110.
  7. Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2000), 96.
  8. 1 2 3 Webber, Geoffrey. North German Church Music in the Age of Buxtehude. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  9. Stephen Rose, 'A Lübeck music auction, 1695', Schütz-Jahrbuch 30 (2008), 171–190.
  10. While John Butt (Cambridge Companion to Bach, Cambridge UP, 1997, 110; believes the centrality of Buxtehude's on Bach's toccatas, David Schulenberg emphasizes the influence of several composers. Schulenberg reserves the word "especially" for Johann Adam Reincken: "Closer to a small group of north-German toccatas, especially one by Reincken [...] that resemble the early-Baroque type in being composed of distinct contrasting sections." Schulenberg, The Keyboard Music of J.S. Bach (NY: Routledge, 1992 [rev. ed., 2013]), 98. ISBN   9781136091544
  11. 1 2 3 4 Archbald, Lawrence. Style and Structure in the Praeludia of Dietrich Buxtehude. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985.
  12. Rathey, Markus (2010). "Buxtehude and the Dance of Death: The Chorale Partita Auf meinem lieben Gott (BuxWV 179) and the Ars Moriendi in the Seventeenth Century". Early Music History . Cambridge University Press. 29: 161–188. doi:10.1017/S0261127910000124. JSTOR   40800911.
  13. Dieterich Buxtehude and the Mean-Tone Organ, Loft Recordings
  14. Dieterich Buxtehude: the Bach perspective, Loft Recordings
  15. Buxtehude and the Schnitger Organ, Loft Recordings
The most comprehensive life-and-works study of Buxtehude; contains an extensive bibliography. Written for both the serious scholar and casual reader. A revised edition of this book was published in May 2007 under the same title by the University of Rochester Press (see for more details). The new edition also includes a CD of Buxtehude's works which makes a splendid introduction to the work of this neglected composer.
A concise summary of Buxtehude's life and works, a bibliography, and a complete list of works and sources.
A detailed study of the presence of rhetorical argument in Buxtehude's music.
An analysis of Buxtehude's organ praeludia.
A collection of Buxtehude-related essays on a wide variety of topics.
A study of the sources of Buxtehude's free organ works, along with a suggested chronology.

Organ music


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