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Musical Musings: Composers

Buxtehude: An Anniversary

by Gary D. Penkala

Dieterich Buxtehude The year 2007 marks the 300th death anniversary of Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707). Likely Danish by birth, Buxtehude is usually associated with the North German School of composers. He took on his first job as organist at his father's former church, Saint Mary's Church in Helsingborg from 1657 to 1658. He left for a better paying position at Saint Mary's Church in Elsinore.

Buxtehude succeeded Franz Tunder as organist of Saint Mary's Church in Lübeck, North Germany in 1667. Saint Mary's was the most famous brickstone gothic church in the Baltic region and one of the most prominent and prestigious musical posts in Germany. He married Tunder's daughter and remained in this church appointment until his death. As a composer of both sacred and secular music he became a master of baroque music in northern Europe.

Apart from his duties as organist and composer, Buxtehude was also responsible for directing the Abendmusik concert series at Saint Mary's Church. These concerts were originally started by Tunder as organ recitals to entertain businessmen awaiting the opening of the Lübeck stock exchange at noon on Thursdays, and were known informally as "stock exchange" concerts.

Buxtehude shifted these concerts to the Sundays of Advent. The Abendmusik concerts featured vocal and instrumental solo and chamber works (in addition to Buxtehude's solo organ recitals), and admission to them was free.

As a result, they rapidly gained fame throughout the country and grew into a reputable cultural institution. They attracted prominent visitors from all over the country, including George Frederic Handel, and the twenty-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach, who both visited in 1705.

The young Bach walked 250 miles from Thuringia to Lübeck, drawn by Buxtehude's status as a virtuoso in the "art of the organ" and specifically his mastery of the free-wheeling fantasia-style toccatas.

Bach was so awed by these performances that his intended four-week sojourn in Lübeck lasted four months! His visit would prove to be highly important for the subsequent development of the German musical style, as his later compositions were very much influenced by Buxtehude.

Though a central figure of German Lutheran church music, his works became more and more attractive outside Germany, and leading efforts of Buxtehude research and interpretation are taking place throughout the world.

Dr. Greene's CD

In honor of this Buxtehude tercentenary, CanticaNOVA Publications has made available a recording of the master's organ compositions, played by one of our own composers, Dr. J. William Greene. As part of the liner notes for the CD, Buxtehude at Lynchburg, Dr. Greene writes:

Just as Johann Sebastian Bach's works are far beyond those of his contemporaries, so Buxtehude's exploitation of the capabilities of the North German baroque organ were beyond that which we have seen in his peers. Buxtehude also left as a testament of his music a body of scores greater than any other musician of his era. In these scores, we can see the various methods and devices by which Buxtehude exploited the attributes and capabilities of the North German organ, with its superior pedal division, containing 32-foot range stops, and its vast range of other tonal resources not available on any other musical instrument of the time. With Buxtehude's scores as evidence of his style, one can imagine what it would have been like to hear the spontaneous musical creations of the master in Lüneburg.
Recorded at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, the CD exploits the wonderfully Baroque sounds of the church's 1990 Taylor & Boody tracker organ. Contents include toccatas, preludes, fugues and canzonas, as well as several of Buxtehude's chorale preludes.

This is a CD you'll enjoy in your computer, your car, or your stereo. Come, celebrate Dieterich Buxtehude with Bill Greene and CNP!

See: Buxtehude at Lynchburg
Dr. J. William Greene

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